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Turkey’s confrontational foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean

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Since August 2020, Turkey has been sending several drill ships to the Eastern Mediterranean, which raised diplomatic tensions in the area. The dispute started in July when Turkey put a naval alert informing that it was sending Oruc Reis research ship to carry out drilling operations close to the Greek island of Kastellorizo. Turkish and Greek officials have been holding technical meetings in Brussels since September 2020 to find a common ground on the issue. On the other hand, it has been said that in order to expand its drilling fleet, Turkey plans to acquire a fourth vessel from Norway soon. Therefore, the maritime border dispute does not seem to be resolved anytime soon.

The conflict between Greece, Cyprus and Turkey over the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) began in early 2000s and intensified with the discovery of natural resources in 2010. The Turkish expansionist Blue Homeland (“Mavi Vatan”) doctrine, which defines the country’s territorial waters, the EEZ and the continental shelf, is playing a part on the confrontation. It also emphasizes a naval superiority over the Republic of Cyprus and Greece. Turkey also justifies its actions on the Eastern Mediterranean as a way to reduce its energy dependency from other countries.

There are many Greek islands within the sight of the Turkish coast in Mediterranean and Aegean, which lead to a complex issue of territorial waters. Greek and Turkish interests on the Mediterranean have always confronted with each other, with Athens accusing Ankara to violate its continental shelf, while Ankara responds that islands far from the Greek coastline and closer to the Turkish one cannot have a continental shelf of their own. The exploration of the natural resources might seem like the main point of tensions in the Mediterranean, but the roots of the problem are deeper than it seems.

Turkey’s Cyprus question

After a Greek backed coup in Cyprus in 1974, Turkish military intervened and annexed a part of the island under the name of protection of interests of the Turkish Cypriots. Now there are two States in the island, the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Over the years, Southern Cyprus, backed by Greece, got closer with  the EU and finally became a member state in 2004. Meanwhile, TRNC is only recognized by Turkey itself while the United Nations recognize it as territories belonging to the Republic of Cyprus that are occupied by the Turkish military.

Since 1974, there were several attempts at peacebuilding and reunification, the most famous of them known as the Annan Plan, but both sides never found a common ground, which led to the failure of the negotiations. Recently, the Turkish President Erdogan crossed out the possibility of a united federal Cyprus by accusing his Greek counterpart of being confrontational. He opted for a two-state solution as the only way to solve the conflict. Cyprus was also one of the main issues on the table for Turkish accession to the EU. Unless the problem is solved, Turkish membership does not seem likely, considering the Cypriot and Greek opposition inside the EU itself. Meanwhile, it seems like disagreements will continue and that the Cyprus question will isolate Turkey from the EU more and more.

Turkey’s isolation in the region

The prolonged talks, which resulted in the failure of the admission of Turkey to the EU, led Turkey to turn its back to the EU and to focus on being a strong, regional power. Now feeling isolated, Turkey is trying to assert its power throughout the neighboring territories. The recent involvements in the Caucasus and the MENA region support this argument.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s maritime accord with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) also created tensions with other regional powers, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, since they are the supporters of the Tobruk Government. The role of Egypt is actually an important point here, as it is also one of the interested parties on the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkish claims on the Mediterranean also threatens Egyptian efforts to become a regional hub for natural resources. The maritime boundary agreement between Greece and Egypt, signed in early August 2020, also agitated Turkey even more and caused the renewal of the exploration efforts.

Exclusion from the EU membership was followed by exclusion from the EastMed Gas Forum (EMGF) as well, thus leaving Turkey no choice but to act alone. Established as an international body on 16 January 2020, the EMGF brings together Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Palestine, with a possible future membership of France. The main reason for the exclusion of Turkey seems to be the US opposition to Ankara’s purchase of $400 missiles from Russia. Turkish politicians did not welcome this act well and interpreted it as a containment policy towards Turkey. The possibility of an Eastern Mediterranean pipeline through the EMFG member countries towards the European market, without including Turkey, is another concern of the government officials. They insist on the fact that they should be included to the Forum for the promotion of regional cooperation.

EU’s stance on the issue

The European Union should be careful to react since Turkey does not welcome very warmly the EU’s intervention on the issue of Eastern Mediterranean. Several arguments from Turkish officials were put forward: the EU cannot play a part on this issue since it involves one member state against a non-member one; it is not the EU’s competence to solve the maritime issues, but it is the one of the international courts; it is up to national governments to decide on border disputes.

On the spotlight of the recent events, the EU considers the application of further sanctions towards Turkey for unauthorized and illegal drilling efforts in the Mediterranean. An extensive report is expected to be delivered by EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell at the March summit. During his recent visit to Brussels, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu highlighted the fact that if the EU would resume the accession talks and avoid sanctions, Turkey would be interested to meet all the criteria. This and above-mentioned reactions by Turkish officials show an interest towards a closer cooperation with the EU, which could lead to the de-escalation of the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, if the EU members also show interest on the cooperation.

Unsurprisingly, EU member states had different reactions to Turkey’s recent efforts. During the peak of the confrontation, Berlin initiated mediation efforts between Ankara and Athens in August. On a video conference with her Turkish counter-part, German Chancellor Angela Merkel mentioned the importance of making progress in dialogue. She also talked about how she welcomed the recent developments and positive news in the Eastern Mediterranean.

On the other hand, Macron’s call for a Pax Mediterranea was successful, with a clear Egyptian opposition towards Ankara’s foreign policy and Italy’s endangered energy interests in Libya and Cyprus. Macron’s clear opposition towards Erdogan’s foreign policy is making the matters worse than it is. France already dispatched several warships to the Eastern Mediterranean to show its solidarity with Greece Opposite positions in the Libyan Civil War also play their part in the relations of the two countries. It seems like the confrontational national interests of France and Turkey in the region will prolong the Eastern Mediterranean crisis for now.

Conclusion

The resolution of the conflict heavily depends on the vis-a-vis relations of Greece and Turkey. The complexity of the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean demands some compromises. Both parties should be ready for some concessions if they want to find a peaceful solution and coexist in the Mediterranean. Otherwise, they will have to get ready for future confrontations, that will eventually emerge because of the proximity of Greek islands to the Turkish coast.

Turkish exclusion from the regional cooperation is also a problematic issue. The EMGF should include Turkey as a member state, since it is one of the stronger powers of the Mediterranean. Discussing energy related issues together with other countries such as Egypt, Greece and Cyprus on a common platform might also help to find a common ground on maritime borders.

EU’s mild approach towards the parties could be useful, but too much involvement is also risky since Turkey does not see EU’s involvement in the region as appropriate. What the EU can do is keep close cooperation with Turkey on a European scale. Introducing more sanctions would agitate Turkey even more, and rather than looking for a common ground, Turkey might become more violent and expansionist. Instead, by cooperating further, the EU could strengthen the mutual relations with Turkey and achieve some positive results.

Abbas Zeynalli is the MA Student of University of Bologna and the Research Fellow from Topchubashov Center, Azerbaijan. His areas of interest cover Middle East, Chinese foreign policy, South Caucasus and European integration.

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Middle East

Justice delayed is justice denied. I lost my family to Iran Regime’s barbarity

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Mohammad Shafaei’s family- The toddler in his mother’s arm is Mohammad Shafaei

On May 4, over 1,100 families of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Iran wrote a letter to the international community. We called on the United Nations and European and American governments to take immediate action in preventing the regime from further destruction of their loved ones’ graves.

I was one of the signatories. I have lost six of my relatives to the regime’s cruelty. I was seven years old when my parents were arrested for their democratic ideals and activism.

My father, Dr. Morteza Shafaei, was a well-respected and popular physician in Isfahan. He was admired by people because he was extremely compassionate and giving to others. He was brutally executed by the regime in 1981 simply because he sought a democratic future for his family and his compatriots. The mullahs also killed my mother, two brothers, Majid (only 16) and Javad, and one of my sisters, Maryam, along with her husband.

By the age of 8, I had lost my entire family, save for one sister, as a result of the regime’s executions and crimes against humanity.

Mohammad Shafaei

The 1988 massacre stands as one of the most horrendous crimes against humanity after World War II. In the summer of that year, based on a religious decree issued by Khomeini, then-Supreme Leader of the theocratic regime in Iran, tens of thousands of political prisoners were liquidated. Most of the victims belonged to the principal democratic opposition movement Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).

It is believed that the regime massacred at least 30,000 political dissidents that year in the span of a few months. This much was confirmed by the designated heir to the regime’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri both in his published memoires and leaked audiotape in 2016, in which he condemned the ongoing crime against humanity in August 1988 during a meeting with high-ranking regime officials.

Those officials continue to serve the regime today in high-ranking positions. Ebrahim Raisi, for example, who was a member of the “death committees” in charge of rounding up and killing the political prisoners, is currently occupying the highly sensitive post of the Judiciary Chief. He is expected to announce his candidacy to run for President during the June election. After the June 2009 uprising, he said, “Moharebeh (waging war on God) is sometimes an organization, like the hypocrites (MEK). Anyone who helps the MEK in any way and under any circumstances, because it is an organized movement, the title of Moharebeh applies.” According the Islamic Punishment Act, the punishment for Moharebeh is death.

For years, the clerical regime has been systematically and gradually destroying the graves of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Tehran and other cities. As the world learns more about the killings and the international outrage grows, Tehran’s mullahs are scrambling to clear all traces of their crimes against humanity.

Most of us have forgotten where exactly our loved ones are buried, many of them in mass graves. The campaign for justice for victims of 1988 has gained greater prominence and broader scope. International human rights organizations and experts have described the massacre as a crime against humanity and called for holding the perpetrators of this heinous crime to account.

Paranoid of the repercussions of international scrutiny into this horrific atrocity, the Iranian regime has embarked on erasing the traces of the evidence on the massacre by destroying the mass graves where they are buried. The regime has tried to destroy the mass graves of massacred political prisoners in Tehran’s Khavaran Cemetery in the latest attempt. Previously, it destroyed or damaged the mass graves of the 1988 victims in Ahvaz, Tabriz, Mashhad, and elsewhere.

These actions constitute the collective torture of thousands of survivors and families of martyrs. It is another manifest case of crime against humanity.  

The UN and international human rights organizations must prevent the regime from destroying the mass graves, eliminating the evidence of their crime, and inflicting psychological torture upon thousands of families of the victims throughout Iran. 

Moreover, the Iranian public and all human rights defenders expect the United Nations, particularly the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet, to launch an international commission of inquiry to investigate the massacre of political prisoners and summon the perpetrators of this heinous crime before the International Court of Justice.

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Middle East

Can Biden Bring Peace to the Middle East?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

As the fierce fighting between Israel and the Palestinians rages on, the Biden administration’s Middle East policy has been criticized for its relatively aloof, “stand back” approach that has resulted in the absence of any pressure on Israel to re-think its harsh mistreatment of the Palestinians, vividly demonstrated in the recent police attack at al-Aqsa mosque and the attempted eviction of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, viewed by the Palestinians as part of Israel’s “ethnic cleansing.”

Consequently, a UN Security Council draft resolution on the crisis has been reportedly held up by US, which has prioritized the familiar narrative of “Israel’s right to self-defense” ad nauseam, without the benefit any nuances that would reveal any fresh thinking on the problem on the part of the Biden administration.  As in the past, the new crisis in Israel-Palestinian relations has sharpened the loyalties and alliances, in effect binding the US government closer to its Middle East ally under the rainstorm of Palestinian rocket attacks, highlighting Israel’s security vulnerabilities in today’s missile age.  Determined to crush the Palestinian resistance, the mighty Israeli army has been pulverizing Gaza while, simultaneously, declaring state of emergency in the Arab sections of Israel, as if there is a military solution to an inherently political problem.  What Israel may gain from its current military campaign is, by all indications, bound to be elusive of a perpetual peace and will likely sow the seed of the next chapter in the ‘intractable’ conflict in the future.  

Both sides are in violation of the international humanitarian laws that forbid the indiscriminate targeting of civilian population and, no matter how justified the Palestinian grievances, they too need to abide by international law and consider the alternative Gandhian path of non-violent resistance, notwithstanding the colossal power of Israeli army.

As the editors of Israel’s liberal paper, Haaretz, have rightly pointed out, the problem is the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is highly unpopular, unable to form a government, afflicted with a corruption case, and who has been appeasing the extremist elements in Israeli politics who have no qualm about the illegal expropriation of Palestinian lands.  Israeli politics for its own sake needs to move to the center, otherwise the Israeli society as a whole will suffer, as more and more educated Israelis will leave the country, Israel’s recent gains through the Abrahams accord with the conservative Arab states will be essentially wiped out, as these states will need to cater to the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiments at home or face serious legitimation problems, and Israel’s regional rivals led by Iran will continue to harvest from the present crisis.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any political will in Washington to spur a political shift in Israel that would secure better results in terms of the elusive Middle East peace and both President Biden and the Democratic Party establishment are concerned that their Republican opponents will seize on any tangible US pressure applied on Israel.  In other words, domestic US priorities will continue for the foreseeable future to hamper a much-needed corrective Washington influence on an ally that receives 4 billion dollar military aid annually and, yet, is unwilling to allow the White House to have any input on its handling of the Palestinians at home and the West Bank and Gaza.  

But, assuming for a moment that the Biden administration would somehow muster the will to stand up to Netanyahu and pressure him to cease its massive attacks on Gaza, then such a bold move would need to be coordinated with a deep Arab outreach that would, simultaneously, persuade the Palestinian groups led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to go along with a US-initiated cease-fire, followed by related efforts at UN and regional level to bring about the groundwork for a more enduring peace, such as by holding a new international peace conference, similar to the Oslo process.  

At the moment, of course, this is wishful thinking and the protagonists of both sides in this terrible conflict are more focused on scoring against each other than to partake in a meaningful peace process.  In other words, an important prerequisite for peace, that is the inclination for peaceful resolution of the conflict instead of resorting to arms, is clearly missing and can and should be brought about by, first and foremost, a capable US leadership, sadly hitherto missing.

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Middle East

Israel-Palestine Conflict Enters into Dangerous Zone

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Palestinians react as Israeli police fire a stun grenade during clashes at Damascus Gate on Laylat al-Qadr during the holy month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem's Old City, May 9, 2021. /Reuters

Since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in mid-April 2021, tension has escalated, with frequent clashes between police and Palestinians. The threatened eviction of some Palestinian families in East Jerusalem has also caused rising anger. But when Israeli security forces entered and attacked the unarmed Muslim worshipers, damaged the property, and humiliated the families, the situation turned into conflict.

Since the irrational and illogical creation of the Jewish State in the middle of the Muslim World, the tension started and emerged into few full-fledged armed conflicts and wars like; 1948–49, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and 2006 wars/ conflicts. Tensions are often high between Israel and Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. Gaza is ruled by a Palestinian group called Hamas, which has fought Israel many times. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank complain that they’re suffering because of Zionists’ expansionist actions. Israel’s severe violations of human rights and extreme atrocities against Palestinians left Palestinians with no option other than protest and agitate. But Israel suppresses them and uses all dirty tricks to keep them silent.

It is worth mentioning that the United Nations Security Council has passed several resolutions to settle the Israel-Palestine issue peacefully. But Israel has not implemented either of them and kept using force to push them out and settle Jews in their land.

The State of Israel has been enjoying undue supported by the US, irrespective of who is president, but all of them support Israel unconditionally. Israel is the most favored nation of the US and the largest beneficiary of American aid, assistance, and support.

Ex-President Donald Trump helped Israel establish diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Donald Trump favored Netanyahu, dramatically moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. His daughter and son-in-law were the facilitators for his support to Israel.

Till last news, at least 56 Palestinians have died under an array of aerial bombardments of the Gaza Strip. Five Israelis were killed too. Rockets, bullets, and rocks are flying around Israel and the Palestinian territories with catastrophic intensity in the latest wave of violence that periodically marks the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Palestinian protesters run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli security forces amid clashes at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound on May 10, 2021, ahead of a planned march to commemorate Israel’s takeover of Jerusalem in 1967 Six-Day War.  Security forces have set on fire the centuries-old holy Mosque. Serious communal violence has broken out within Israel between Arab citizens and Jews. Fires were lit, a synagogue burned, a Muslim cemetery trashed, police cars set aflame, and an Arab-Israeli man killed. The mayor of Lod termed it a “civil war.”

The ferocity of the fast-escalating conflict might be extremely dangerous as Israel uses hi-tech, advanced, lethal weapons. A week ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed close to losing power after the climax of four inconclusive elections. The outbreak of hostilities has allowed him the opportunity to make his latest appearance as a tough guy and ended coalition talks by rival politicians. He might politicize the conflict in his favor.

There is a severe danger of spreading this conflict to a large-scale war, which might engulf the regional countries. There already exists tension among Israel and few regional powers. The recent Israeli attacks on Russian bases in Syrian may also widen the conflict.

Any war in the middle-East will have dire consequences globally. It is appealed to the UN and all peace-loving nations and individuals to speed up all-out efforts to stop the conflict at this initial stage and avert further bloodshed. It is demanded that the Israel-Palestine issue must be settled according to the resolutions passed by UNSC. Wish immediate peace, sustainable peace, and permanent peace in the Middle East and globally.

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