Of Turkish hustle and bustle and of exploratory talks

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

The official position in Greece (and in Cyprus, for that matter) is still one of expectation that EU pressure will bring Turkey around to a more compromising behaviour – one that will make it possible for Athens and Ankara to engage in exploratory talks within January 2021 in view of East Mediterranean disputes, but also closer home over the Aegean. (Not to miss the point that some 60 rounds of such talks over more than a decade broke off in 2016).

Official positions are exactly that: official, meaning that any real perspectives should be sought beneath the surface. What lies there?

The Turkish side has been expressing – also at a level of official positions – recent willingness to engage in bilateral talks, while also vowing to work towards a European future; such has been the stance adopted by no lesser personality than President Erdogan, who also extended a hand for cooperation to Israel as well as to Christian minorities within Turkey in Christmas messages. So, Turkey observers in Brussels or Berlin were talking of “thawing temperatures”.

But things are not that simple: For one, naval exercise “Tiger Claw 2020” was announced by the Turkish Defense Ministry just before Christmas; 3D seismic explorations of Oruc Reis seismic vessel, along with Ataman and Cengiz Han will resume now that an original round of almost 6 months’ 2D explorations is considered complete, with an end-point in June 2021. If one looks for some sort of silver lining to this cloud, one would have to resort to the fact that while seismic searches continue, no actual drilling will take place with ever-available Turkish drill-ships like Yavuz and Fatih (which have been active in the EEZ of Cyprus).

Meanwhile, Turkish military presence in Libya looks set to get a more permanent character, since the Libyan Government of National Accord has requested a 18-month continuation of such presence – not just through proxy mercenary troops from Syria. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has been holding talks with Libyan officialdom in the Aksaz naval base; he then visited Libya and held discussions with GNA leaders on how to counter a possible new offensive on part of the forces of Halifa Haftar all the while Turkish air force, drone and naval units have been active in the region north of Libya based in Al-Watiya.

The fact that all such regional hustle and bustle takes place just two weeks after the December 10/11 EU Summit has supposedly called on Turkey to de-escalate its hyperactivity (to put it mildly…) in the region does not really augur well for the outcome of exploratory talks with Greece, no matter how enthusiastically they will be hailed once announced – even at an early-preparation stage. Nor for the imminent next round of UN-sponsored multilateral talks over the festering Cyprus issue.