Turkey Starts Diplomatic Contacts With Egypt Amid Tensions in Eastern Mediterranean

Rahim Huseynli Feature 13 March 2021
Turkey Starts Diplomatic Contacts With Egypt Amid Tensions in Eastern Mediterranean

Ankara has started diplomatic contacts with Egypt after eight years, as relations between the two countries have been at odds since the ouster of late Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi in 2013.

Our contacts with Egypt have begun at the diplomatic level," state-funded Anadolu Agency quoted Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu as saying. He also said there was "no reason" for Ankara to not mend relations with Saudi Arabia, and if Riyadh takes a "positive step" Ankara would also do so. The same also applies to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the minister added.

However, Turkish officials have recently signaled rapprochement with Cairo over energy exploration efforts in the East Mediterranean. Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean have skyrocketed in recent weeks amid fears that NATO members Greece and Turkey are inching toward a full-fledged face-off over contested claims in the area and, by extension, the right to drill for energy resources.

Late August, Turkish media reported that Greece sent military reinforcements to the critically strategic island of Meis (Kastellorizo), prompting Ankara to decry the change of its “status” as a demilitarized zone as per international agreements. 

The island lies about two km off Turkey's coast and is a significant point of contention in much of the recent hostilities because of its position as one of the closest to Turkish shores. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which Turkey is not party, grants sovereign states the right to establish Exclusive Economic Zones extending 200 nautical miles from their coasts.

However, Greece officially denounced reports that it has deployed troops to reinforce the defense of the island of Kastellorizo by claiming that it was a routine shift change of the National Guard between Rhodes and the tiny archipelago.

Ankara finds a pretext for new provocations, accusing Greece of violating the Paris Treaty", Star TV channel of Greece said, adding that there were just members of the National Guard from Rhodes replacing their colleagues deployed in Kastellorizo so that they can go on holidays.

Turkey launched a drilling survey vessel, Oruc Reis, into the contested waters, after Greece and Egypt signed a maritime border agreement in early August 2020. The vessel has continued operating in the Eastern Mediterranean near the divided island of Cyprus in recent weeks, together with military drills in the region. 

The Israeli military said on March 12 that it has conducted a joint naval exercise with Greece and Cyprus, in the latest sign of increased cooperation among three countries that increasingly view Turkey as a rival in the Mediterranean Sea.

It said the “Noble Dina” exercise, which was led by Israel and also included France, covered “anti-submarine procedures, search and rescue scenarios, and a scenario simulating battle between ships.”

“Over the past week, the Navy led a large-scale exercise in which it implemented capabilities in underwater warfare, search and rescue, convoy escort and surface combat,” Rear Admiral Eyal Harel, the head of Israeli naval operations, said.

Israel, Greece and Cyprus have taken a number of steps in recent months to cement ties, including advancing plans to build a 2,000 megawatt undersea electricity cable and a 1,900-kilometer (1,300-mile) undersea gas pipeline. The three countries’ defense ministers met in November 2020, and agreed to increase military cooperation.

Greece and Cyprus are embroiled in a dispute with Turkey, which has sent gas prospecting vessels into waters claimed by Greece and drilling ships into an area where Cyprus claims exclusive rights. The tension brought NATO allies Greece and Turkey close to open conflict last year, but tensions have eased since then.

Israel and Turkey were once close allies but had a major falling-out in 2010, when 10 Turkish citizens were killed by Israeli forces as a Turkish-led flotilla tried to break Israel’s blockade on the Gaza Strip. The two countries agreed to a US-brokered reconciliation agreement in 2016, but ties broke down two years later over a US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.