Tensions are reaching a new high in the eastern Mediterranean region after the Turkey’s parliament approved a measure to deploy Turkish troops to Libya to support the U.N.-backed government there. The move by Turkey comes on the same day that Israel, Cyprus and Greece inked a massive new pipeline deal to transport natural gas from to the eastern Mediterranean to markets in Europe.

Turkey, with decades of tensions with Greece and Cyprus, and more recently with Israel, has strongly opposed the pipeline. It also recently signed an agreement with Libya’s Tripoli-based government setting maritime boundaries that conflict with those envisioned by Israel, Cyprus, Greece and Egypt.

Led by the aggressive Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey is seeking to get a piece of the action.

Soner Cagaptay, the Beyer family fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told JNS that “Turkey sees that its old adversaries, Greece and Cyprus, and its new adversaries, Israel and Egypt, are forming a maritime axis that is blocking [it].”

“Especially with the issue of exclusive economic zones and gas finds in the eastern Mediterranean, Ankara feels this axis is blocking it not only militarily, but also in regards to the natural-gas deposits and their exploration,” said Cagaptay, author of Erdoğan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East.

However, leaders of Greece and Israel argue that the new pipeline is not directed at causing regional divisions and tensions.

“Today, we did not just sign an advantageous agreement, but also cemented our decision for strategic engagement in a region that’s in need of cooperation,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said at the ceremony announcing the pipeline deal. “EastMed is not a threat to anyone.”

Israel’s cooperation with Cyprus and Greece “adds to security and prosperity in the region,” and “we are not turning against any other country,” stated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO.

Nevertheless, Greece and Cyprus view Turkey as violating the international law of the sea in an effort to grab resources in the development of eastern Mediterranean gas.

Mitsotakis said recently that if Athens and Ankara cannot solve the maritime border dispute, it could turn to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Reuters reported.

 ‘Use naval forces to make a point’

Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, says that Turkey has been bullying Cyprus for some time trying to get a hand on the gas potential in the Cyprus economic zone.

“Turkey did not hesitate to harass an Italian and Israeli ship. Turkey sees itself as an energy hub and prefers the eastern Mediterranean gas to go via Turkey, which will enhance its geopolitical position,” he explained.

Earlier in December, Turkish navy ships intercepted an Israeli research vessel in Cypriot waters and forced it away, Israel’s Channel 13 reported at the time, quoting senior officials.

The Israeli ship, named Bat Galim, belongs to the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Center and was carrying out research in partnership with the Cypriot government, according to the report.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz visit a gas processing rig at Israel’s Leviathan gas field, on Jan. 31, 2019. Photo by Marc Israel Sellem/POOL.

“Erdoğan is ready to use its naval forces to make a point. In recent years, the country strengthened its naval forces as part of the MILGEM project,” said Inbar.

The MILGEM project is a warship program by the Turkish navy meant to upgrade the countries naval forces. According to a report in Turkey’s Anadolu Agency on Monday, in 2019 Turkey set afloat its largest warship, the TCG Anadolu, which is expected to start service in 2020.

Turkey has begun work on its fifth vessel as part of MILGEM after the completion of its fourth ship, the TCG Kinaliada warship.

‘Sabotage the pipeline’

Turkey has allied itself with the Islamist U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli, yet there is a strong anti-Islamist counter-force led by Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar in the eastern stronghold of Benghazi.

Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and other states are supporting Haftar.

Asked about the recent Turkish moves with Libya’s Tripoli-based government and the signed maritime agreement, the Turkish expert replied that Turkey’s wish is to pierce the Greece/Cyprus/Israel/Egypt axis by having a maritime border with Libya.

But he noted that the Turkish strategy to rely on the Tripoli-based government has risks, and it depends on it winning control of the country in a civil war it faces against military commander Khalifa Haftar’s forces in the east.

On Twitter on Monday, Cagaptay noted that Turkey’s “two remaining friends in the Middle East today—Qatar and Libya—were its last outre-mer possessions in the Middle East at the onset of World War I, nearly 100 years ago.”

This is not just about Libya, he continued. “It is the bigger picture of Turkey’s sense of how it is facing its adversaries in the eastern Mediterranean.”

He said it is now more likely that the UAE and Egypt will increase their support for Haftar, and that Greece and Egypt could do the same.

“Libya is fast emerging as a new arena for a Turkish proxy competition with its adversaries from the Gulf to the Mediterranean,” said Cagaptay.

Inbar observed that the Libyan-Turkish deal was meant “to force Israel and Cyprus to negotiate with Ankara.”

“They are obviously trying to sabotage the pipeline as its economic feasibility is still being studied,” he said. “The possible fall of the Tripoli regime will put an end to this bilateral agreement, but not to the Turkish appetite for eastern Mediterranean gas and regional prominence.”

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