The heat continues to rise in the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Greek Cyprus. There is a long list of problems between Ankara and Nicosia, starting with the status of Cyprus and exploration of hydrocarbon reserves around the island.
Turkey's basic approach to managing the crisis is to resort to disruptive gunboat diplomacy. But Nicosia, which has no navy or air force, has a different approach, relying on diplomatic moves for its anti-Turkey bloc-building efforts. A review of diplomatic efforts by Greek Cypriots in the past three months shows how they are trying to confront Turkey’s aggressive tendencies.
For example, on Sept. 11, Greek Cypriots hosted a surprising guest: Saudi Arabian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ibrahim bin Abdulaziz Al-Assaf paid his first high-level visit to Nicosia.
“One of the main focuses of Cyprus’ foreign policy is the enhancement and expansion of relations with its neighboring Middle East and Gulf countries,” Greek Cypriot Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Christodoulides said in a statement issued after the visit. "I had the opportunity to brief the minister on the latest developments in the trilateral cooperation mechanisms Cyprus and Greece have established with countries in the region, including Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine," he said.
This was an invitation to Saudi Arabia to join the energy bloc that includes Greece and the mainly Greek-populated part of Cyprus (southern Cyprus), Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Lebanon.
The Greek and Turkish communities of Cyprus have been divided since 1974. Turkey considers the northern third of the island the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The Greek Cypriot administration in the south is internationally recognized and is a European Union member. Their dispute was on display briefly this week at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
In addition to Assaf's trip to Nicosia Sept. 11, Egyptian Defense Minister Mohamed Zaki also visited. According to Greek Cyprus media, the basic aim of Zaki’s visit was “to discuss Ankara’s aggressive strategy against its neighboring countries.”
Those are just the most recent events in a flurry of Greek Cypriot diplomatic actions. On Aug. 22, the chief of the Greek Cypriot National Guard, Lt. Gen. Ilias Leontaris, was in Lebanon as a special guest of the Lebanese military.
On different occasions in July, Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry and head of Switzerland's Federal Department of Foreign Affairs Ignazio Cassis visited Nicosia. Also, a trilateral meeting among Greece, Greek Cyprus and the United States was held in New York.
In June, Nicosia received separate visits from United Arab Emirates (UAE) Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Miroslav Lajcak, minister of foreign and European affairs of the Slovak Republic, and the first trilateral meeting among the foreign affairs ministers of Cyprus, Armenia and Greece was held there.
These intense and high-level diplomatic interactions indicate that Greek Cypriots are planning to enlarge the eastern Mediterranean bloc through the participation of the United States, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Armenia, EU members and perhaps Italy.
How is Ankara responding to these moves by Nicosia? In short, it has been providing military escorts for three of its ships: Fatih, which is east of the island carrying out military exercises and drills; Yavuz, which was east of Cyprus until last week doing deep-sea drilling; and Barbaros, which is south of the island conducting seismic research.
Ankara is thus sending messages to Nicosia and countries cooperating with it that if they continue these interactions while excluding Turkey, Ankara will intervene. So, while Nicosia aims to set up an anti-Turkey bloc in the eastern Mediterranean, Ankara thinks it could militarily disrupt Nicosia’s goal.
This is why combat exercises and military training by Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean appear to be endless. The latest was a massive military exercise Sept. 16-22 designed to improve interoperability between Turkish military air and naval elements in the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean area. Turkey mobilized frigates, corvettes, gunboats, amphibious vessels, submarines, naval patrol planes and helicopters, drones, underwater assault and defense teams, and amphibian naval marine battalions.
Ankara’s full reliance on military capacity and warnings forces Turkey to be reactive in the eastern Mediterranean and puts Ankara in what may well be a trap of risky isolation. But Turkey’s muscular foreign policy choices are extremely valuable for domestic consumption, as there is full public support for Turkey’s sovereign rights in the region and the status of Northern Cyprus. That is why the main political opposition and its nationalist ally, the Good Party, fully support President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aggressive tactics — although they may not support Erdogan himself. In the coming months, expect Nicosia to become even more visible with diplomatic actions to build that anti-Turkey bloc.
We'll have to wait to see who comes out on top in this interesting power struggle: Turkey, with its potentially isolating gunboat diplomacy, or Nicosia’s bloc-building efforts.
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