Egypt, Greece scatter Turkish cards in Mediterranean

Ankara’s most recent gas exploration steps might have accelerated the signing of the maritime agreement between Cairo and Athens.
Friday 07/08/2020
A merchant ship, top right, sails past the research vessel Oruc Reis, near the city of Antalya, Turkey. (AP)
A merchant ship, top right, sails past the research vessel Oruc Reis, near the city of Antalya, Turkey. (AP)

CAIRO – Egypt and Greece have closed all open doors available to Turkey after they signed a historic agreement to demarcate the maritime borders in Cairo on Thursday in the presence of the two countries’ foreign ministers.

The agreement effectively plugs a number of gaps that Ankara sought to invest in to strengthen its relations with Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya.

The agreement basically scatters away many of the cards that Turkey sought to forcibly seize in the Eastern Mediterranean, believing that reaching an understanding between Cairo and Athens would be difficult and will take a long time, during which it could entrench its ships in some gray areas of the economic zones of both countries. Ankara has indeed jumped on these areas and tried to exploit them for political and economic gains.

A file picture shows Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry addressing journalists during a joint press conference with his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias in Athens, July 30, 2019. (Reuters)
A file picture shows Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry addressing journalists during a joint press conference with his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias in Athens, July 30, 2019. (Reuters)

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias stressed that the agreement signed between Sarraj and Turkey “is illegal and violates international law,” and that his country will stand up to all challenges in the region in cooperation with Egypt, pointing out that his country’s agreements “respect the principles and foundations of international law.”

Dendias’s statements clearly outlined the illegality of Turkey’s moves in the Eastern Mediterranean, and highlighted the threats to the region of agreements that do not respect international law.

In a joint press conference with the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, the Greek foreign minister said that there is continuous cooperation between the two countries at the highest levels, and that the coming period will witness a translation of this communication on various issues.

The Turkish foreign ministry quickly responded by rejecting the “demarcation of the maritime borders” agreement between Cairo and Athens, considering it null and void.

Egypt and Greece intend to develop cooperation between them within the context of the East Mediterranean Forum, which is based in Cairo and will hold a meeting of its member countries in two weeks to discuss the recent violations committed by Turkey and develop a plan to stop it from blackmailing them.

Dendias travelled to Cairo on July 8, a few days after his country signed a maritime agreement with Italy that had been stalled for decades. It was said at the time that the two countries would sign a similar agreement in Cairo, but Dendias left without signing an agreement. So Turkey concluded that there were some difficulties facing the Egyptian-Greek understanding.

The Arab Weekly learned from political sources that the Greek foreign minister’s previous visit to Cairo paved the way for the agreement signed on Thursday. In the time between the visits, experts from both countries met six times to examine the agreement’s political, legal, economic and strategic aspects, in anticipation of Turkey’s negative reaction, for whom a high level of understanding between Egypt and Greece would be very irksome.

A few years ago, Egypt signed an agreement to demarcate maritime borders with Cyprus, making the economic zone between the three countries— Egypt, Greece and Cypress — exclusive to them and depriving Ankara of the benefits it had planned on obtaining by signing a maritime understanding with Sarraj last November.

Shoukry said in the press conference with Dundias that the agreement between Egypt and Greece allows both countries to move forward in maximising the benefits of the available resources in the economic zone for each of them, in light of the promising oil and gas reserves in the area. The agreement also opens new horizons for more regional cooperation in the field of energy given both countries’ membership in the East Mediterranean Gas Forum.

Cairo believes that its relationship with Athens is “a major factor in maintaining security and stability of the Eastern Mediterranean, and in facing irresponsible policies to support terrorism and deviating from the foundations of international law.”

Cairo experts says the agreements signed by Cairo are in line with the goal of working towards international peace and security, while those initiated by Ankara go in a negative and worrisome direction. The evidence for this is Ankara’s signed agreement with Libya’s GNA, which has sparked a regional and international storm that has not yet died out.

The new agreement between Egypt and Greece will contribute to launching global bids for exploration in the areas whose borders have been demarcated, and increasing research and exploration work in the Mediterranean waters of the areas designated for each party with peace of mind and without interference.

Ayman Salama, a professor of public international law in Egypt, said that the agreement was based on the rules of international law of the sea, foremost of which is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the two countries are party to. Both countries have worked together for five whole years, resorting to political consultations and negotiations and specialised committee work to iron out and settle all outstanding points of dispute between them.

Salama added in a statement to The Arab Weekly that the two countries can start enacting the provisions of the agreement in the economic fields right from the moment it is signed. Each country can now start licensing foreign companies to search, explore and prospect for natural resources in their respective economic regions, having specified the common borders between them.

It is likely that the Cairo-Athens naval agreement will cast a shadow over Turkey’s moves in the Mediterranean and place a heavy burden on its rogue policies, as it limits its claims about its right to extend its maritime influence to areas far from its known regional waters.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) meets with President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades (L) and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (R) in Cairo on October 8, 2019. (AFP)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) meets with President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades (L) and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (R) in Cairo on October 8, 2019. (AFP)

Tensions between Turkey and Greece recently escalated after Ankara tried to prospect for energy sources off the coast of Cyprus, as both countries competed for regional rights in the Aegean Sea. Ankara’s moves almost led to a military clash, but Germany intervened to defuse the crisis.

Refusing to stop its belligerent behaviour, Ankara announced its intention to conduct seismic explorations in Egypt’s exclusive economic zone, triggering a strongly-worded response by the latter.

Last week, Turkey announced it will search for gas in the Eastern Mediterranean in areas it claims are within its continental shelf, which bothered Egypt and Greece. Turkey’s most recent steps may have accelerated the signing of the maritime agreement between the two countries.