21.12.2010. From Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Israel with love
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
I confess! I was wrong when I doubted the wisdom of Ahmet “Strategic Depth” Davutoğlu’s ambitious peace plans for the always chaotic Middle East. The Turkish foreign minister’s vision has already created what was unthinkable only a few years ago: Israel, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon are agreeing on borders – well, not their own, but Cyprus’s offshore borders.
About three years ago, Cyprus launched a plan to draw, through bilateral agreements, the borders of its Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, with the aim of controlling all economic resources within this specified zone including fishing, mining and oil and natural gas exploration.
Naturally, the Cypriots needed offshore “partners” in order to map their EEZ, and started talks with their offshore neighbors. That unnerved Ankara since an internationally-ratified Cypriot EEZ could have unwanted economic and political implications for Turkey. Hence, the repeated Turkish objections to Cyprus’s oil and gas exploration in eastern Mediterranean.
Luckily, the first doors the Cypriots knocked on were the Turks’ Muslim friends. All the same, before Ankara could move a finger, Orthodox Cyprus ratified an offshore border deal with Islamic Egypt. Bah… Egypt is Egypt. But Turkey’s neo-Ottoman vision would surely work with Lebanon where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a folk hero.
In 2007, Turkey warned Lebanon about maritime agreements with Cyprus. Ankara said it would not recognize the delimitation of the EEZs and alleged that Lebanon should ask for Turkey’s opinion before signing any agreement with Cyprus. With the failure of that friend-to-friend warning, a year later Cyprus protested to the United Nations and the European Union over what it called Turkish harassment of ships conducting exploration surveys in its EEZ.
In early October 2010, Cyprus and Lebanon agreed to delimit their EEZs, pending parliamentary ratification at the Lebanese parliament. The same month, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri visited Cyprus and said Lebanon would soon define offshore boundaries with Cyprus and Syria. During the same visit, Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias thanked Mr Hariri for reconfirming “the principled position of Lebanon on the Cyprus problem for a solution.”
Apparently, Cypriot policy, through the strategic EEZ campaign, has done more than Turkish mediation efforts in bringing together major Middle Eastern adversaries. Last week, Cyprus announced that an agreement with Israel had been signed on the two countries’ sea border that will allow the offshore neighbors to press ahead in their search for energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean. Experts agree the demarcation is an important step for oil and gas exploration.
The Cypriot campaign looks like the real interfaith dialogue the Turks have been thriving for over the past several years: it unites one Jewish, three Muslim and one Orthodox state around common offshore borders, without a single bullet shot, a suicide bomb exploded or a rocket launched. The dialogue even stretches across the Aegean.
Greece, which in the 1980s was widely considered the European country most hostile to Israel –the two countries, in fact, did not have any formal diplomatic relationship until 1992 – today has soaring bilateral ties with Israel, thanks to Mr Davutoğlu’s “zero-problems with neighbors” policy.
Apart from being on a Turkish list that bans land sales to their citizens, Jewish Israel and Orthodox Greece enjoy spectacularly improving ties. According to Arye Mekel, Israel’s ambassador to Athens, “Greece and Israel have opened a new chapter in their ties [following] a decision to develop multifaceted cooperation in the fields of politics, security, economy and culture.”
Meanwhile, the Turkish diplomats in Ankara are increasingly worried that a critical dispute is spinning out of control, and in a direction they would hate the most: an internationally-recognized EEZ for the internationally-recognized, EU member state of Greek Cyprus. Mssrs Erdoğan and Davutoğlu would certainly propose a faith-based explanation if the Cypriots had signed offshore maritime agreements with Israel only. Ironically, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria are Turkey’s “Muslim friends” in the region.
The world owes a lot to Turkey’s Israel policy since it is making the eastern Mediterranean a genuine sea of peace. Hats off to Mr Strategic Depth! But wait a minute…
Wire services reported Monday that Turkey summoned the Israeli envoy to convey its unease over the deal with Cyprus. The services said Ambassador Gaby Levy was summoned to the Foreign Ministry on Thursday, a day before the agreement was signed. According to Anatolia news agency, Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu warned Levy the agreement would have an adverse impact on efforts between Cyprus’ Greek and Turkish communities to end the 36-year division of the island.
I have no idea if Ambassador Levy asked Undersecretary Sinirlioğlu why the 36-year division remained for 36 years prior to, or without, the Cypriot-Israeli offshore border deal, or whether the Turkish Foreign Ministry was equally upset when Cyprus signed the same deals with Lebanon or Egypt.
But let’s look at the bright side of life: the Lebanese cheers over Mr Erdoğan’s visit last month calls for the revival of the Ottoman Caliph – in the personality of Mr Erdoğan – and the memorable moments during the prime minister’s public rally in the former Ottoman lands are still fresh memories.