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El polvorín del Mediterráneo Oriental // The Eastern Mediterranean tinderbox

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The Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz is seen being escorted by a Turkish Navy frigate in the eastern Mediterranean

Reuters v BBC

BBC Dip correspondent

Over recent weeks, tensions have been rising in the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, prompted by what seems like a simple rivalry over energy resources.

Turkey has pursued an aggressive gas exploration effort, its research vessel heavily protected by warships of the Turkish Navy. There have been encounters with rival Greek vessels and a third Nato country, France, has become involved, siding with the Greeks.

Most recently it’s been announced that a small number of F-16 warplanes from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are deploying to an air base on Crete for exercises with their Greek counterparts. Ostensibly this is a routine deployment.

So what is going on here? Are the tensions just about gas resources? Why are seemingly far-flung countries being drawn in? And just what risk is there of the Eastern Mediterranean turning into a worsening geo-political tinderbox?

What’s happening is dangerous, complicated and threatens to exacerbate existing fault lines in the region.

A more-assertive Turkey

While gas exploration is the immediate cause, the roots of the problem lie much deeper. What you have is a long-standing conflict between Greece and Turkey being revived in a new context.

Grafted on to this you have a regional or geo-strategic rivalry that pits a much more assertive Turkey against several other players. The battleground for this struggle extends from Libya across the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean to Syria and beyond.

The tensions are real and growing. One concern is that as countries coalesce in their opposition to Ankara’s regional ambitions, Turkey itself feels more isolated. This risks it becoming ever more assertive.

The Eastern Mediterranean tensions also highlight another shift in the region – the decline of US power or, perhaps more accurately, the decline of the Trump administration’s strategic interest in what goes on there.


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