Is Turkey in the Middle East tension

"This conflict is much, much bigger"

Greece and Turkey have mobilized their fleets again, and the conflict between the two NATO countries is intensifying again, as it was a few weeks ago. Athens sees it as a provocation that Ankara has once again sent a research ship to explore the sea area south of the Greek island of Kasteloriso.

It's about more than just natural gas

Athens claims this and other areas south of other Greek islands as a so-called "Exclusive Economic Zone" for itself. Only last week, Greece signed an agreement with Egypt in which the two countries define their respective economic zones in the eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish government in turn calls this agreement a "pirate agreement" and took it as an opportunity to resume its seismic investigations, which it had discontinued after being mediated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the EU.

The conflict is about more than natural gas deposits and economic zones, said Middle East expert Stephan Roll from the Science and Politics Foundation in an interview with DW. But also about a more fundamental conflict between Turkey and Egypt - which, among other things, will also be fought in Libya, a country with a civil war.

German wave: For almost 15 years, Greece and Egypt had been negotiating the division of the respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), now things suddenly happened very quickly. The foreign ministers of both countries signed an agreement in Cairo last Thursday. Why the rush?

Stephan Roll: The agreement that has now been signed is directly related to the EEZ agreement that Turkey and Libya signed in November 2019. Greece and Egypt saw this as a massive violation of their interests. I do not know to what extent Athens and Cairo negotiated the agreement perfectly. Ultimately, however, the aim was to put Turkey in its place.

Indeed, the Greek-Egyptian agreement is only a partial agreement. The agreed distribution of the EEZ does not yet take into account the sea areas east of the Greek island of Rhodes to the easternmost Greek island of Kastelorizo. These negotiations are still ongoing. What is that due to?

Dr. Stephan Roll, SWP: "At the moment these are still threatening gestures."

Above all, it was important to send a signal to Ankara very, very quickly that it would not be accepted when Turkey sets the sea borders again. That could also explain why the agreement has now been signed and why details are still to be negotiated.

Cairo feels severely threatened by Turkey

There are tensions not only between Greece and Turkey, but also between Egypt and Turkey. What is it about?

First of all, it is certainly about gas reserves. It is very important for Egypt to develop them. The Egyptian energy strategy aims at gas exports on a larger scale. Ultimately, however, this conflict with Turkey is much, much bigger. It goes back to the 2013 military coup in Egypt, which turned against the then ruling Muslim Brotherhood. Cairo insinuates that Turkey supports the Muslim Brotherhood, which is partly correct. Many Muslim Brotherhood cadres are in exile in Turkey. The Egyptian leadership feels severely threatened by Turkey; they are accused of planning the counter-coup.

The existing conflict has gained new momentum through the Turkish-Libyan EEZ agreement and Turkey's engagement in Libya. It is a completely new situation for Cairo that Turkey is very active in Libya, that it has even brought mercenaries into the country who are fighting on the side of the government of Tripoli against General Haftar, who is supported by Egypt. For Cairo it is very threatening that Ankara suddenly gets involved in its own backyard.

What are the other Arab states' positions on the division of the EEZ in the Eastern Mediterranean?

As long as they are not neighbors, they do not care at first. They are more likely to see the bigger conflict. Qatar, for example, is clearly on the side of Ankara. Turkey has its own military presence in the country and Qatar also supports the Muslim Brotherhood. The supporters of Egypt, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are critical of Turkey. The North African states, on the other hand, are largely neutral, do not take a direct position and ultimately try to maintain good relations with both sides.

"At the moment these are still threatening gestures"

The EEZs agreed by Egypt and Greece partially overlap with the economic zones claimed by Turkey and the Libyan government. Does that inevitably lead to an armed conflict?

I cannot imagine that there will be an armed conflict over it. Neither Turkey nor Greece, and certainly not Egypt, are looking for a direct confrontation, especially since the outcome would be open. Also, the European Union and NATO are not at all interested in Greece and Turkey clashing. There have always been moments of escalation in the past, but these have been captured. At the moment these are threatening gestures. But you never know in the region. Something can take on a life of its own by chance. Gunshots are fired somewhere and such an incident develops its own momentum.

The claimed economic zones partially overlap

In response to Turkish interference in Libya, the Egyptian parliament gave President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi the green light for troops to enter Libya. Shouldn't that be taken seriously?

Yes, that is to be taken seriously. I can well imagine Egypt intervening in the Libyan conflict and stationing troops across the border. But it will be more about keeping the existing front lines. But it is not an expansive strategy. One does not want to march to Tripoli and risk a direct confrontation with Turkey. Egypt wants to support its own allies, the troops around General Haftar.

No strong mediator in sight

Who could mediate in the dispute over maritime law areas and the Libya conflict? The USA?

With regard to the conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean, the USA has not yet decided which side to take: in the Libya conflict on the side of Turkey and against Egypt and Russia, or vice versa? In addition, there is a new development. The relationship between the USA and Egypt is no longer as unencumbered as it used to be. There are now breaks. Egypt behaves similarly to Turkey in many ways. Like Ankara, Cairo bought Russian weapons systems against the will of the US. Everyone plays their own game and does not stick to traditional alliance structures.

The EU seems to fail as a mediator because it does not have a unified position on Turkey. France, for example, has clearly positioned itself against Ankara. Could Germany take on this mediator role? Would it be acceptable to everyone involved?

Acceptable because the Germans clearly have no self-interest. The question, however, is whether Germany would have enough weight to bring about results in this region. I definitely have doubts about that. Take the Berlin Process, which Germany initiated to resolve the Libya conflict. There was no follow-up. Germany could not influence the conflicting parties to keep the agreement. Germany is not potent enough. At the moment, it can only help in the short term in an acute situation, such as the phone call between Chancellor Merkel and Turkish President Erdogan a few weeks ago. It helped stave off an armed conflict between Turkish and Greek warships in the Aegean Sea.

Israel is holding back

Israel is astonishingly silent in the conflict over the affiliation of economic zones in the eastern Mediterranean. After all, it has concluded an EEZ agreement with Cyprus and it has apparently come to an agreement with Lebanon and Egypt as to who is entitled to which sea areas. In addition, Ankara never misses an opportunity to polemicize against Israel. Why is it staying out of the current dispute?

Israel is in a difficult situation. In fact, Egypt has become an increasingly better partner. However, this does not affect the Egyptian population, but the Egyptian government, the secret service and the military apparatus. In the long run it is completely unclear where Egypt will develop. The Israelis are also uneasy about Cairo's purchase of Russian fighter jets a few weeks ago. The more interesting country for Israel in the region is certainly Turkey. It has more to offer economically and is therefore much more important to the Israeli economy. Actually, Israel has no interest in seeing this relationship go further and further down the drain. Above all, Israel is currently facing significant domestic political problems. This simmering conflict in the Mediterranean is likely to have moved into the background for the government.

Stephan Roll is head of the Near / Middle East and Africa research group at the Science and Politics Foundation, Germany's most important think tank for international politics and security. Roll's focus areas include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, elites and social mobilization in the Arab world.