Opinion: A tangled tale
14 September 2020

Tensions in the Aegean between Turkey and Greece have found an echo in the South Caucasus, with the risk of somewhat unpredictable consequences, writes Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed

Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, between Turkey on the one hand, and Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, UAE and France, on the other, simmered over the summer period. There is a long history of Turkey - Greece disputes and conflicts, since the end of the WWII, such as events in 1974-1976, 1987, and 1995-1996; but the current situation can be described as unprecedented. The region now faces several intertwined conflicts: the proxy war in Libya; divergent views on the issues of demarcation in the eastern Mediterranean; and the fight for the control of large resources of natural gas and their transit routes. In the background is also the intra-Muslim struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood movement supported by Turkey and Qatar, but staunchly opposed by the Gulf monarchies and Egypt. It all added to a hot summer in the Eastern Mediterranean, and not only in the climate, as this combustible situation played out.

During previous crisis in relations between Greece and Turkey Washington played a significant role in diffusing tensions, and bringing the two NATO allies to the negotiating table. This time round, with the relative decline in US global power, and with the US establishment focused on the upcoming Presidential elections, some experts believe a power vacuum now exists in the region, which has made de-escalating the situation difficult. Germany has sought to play a role of mediator, but with apparent lack of success. Recent efforts to use NATO as a platform to launch a dialogue did not bring tangible results too. Of course, few believe that a large scale war between Turkey and Greece, with potential involvement of France and other actors, is a real possibility; yet, there are no apparent ways of defusing the crisis.

related content on commonspace.euAnalysis: Tensions between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean have deep historical roots

Interestingly, this time developments in the Eastern Mediterranean have echoed across in the South Caucasus, in particular in Armenia and Azerbaijan. To better understand these dynamics, we have to look back to the recent escalation along the Armenia - Azerbaijan international border in July 2020. Despite the relative low intensity of clashes, Turkey has offered its full support to Azerbaijan, harshly criticizing Armenia. President Erdogan, as well as the Foreign and Defense ministers of Turkey stated their unequivocal solidarity with Azerbaijan. Almost immediately after the end of the clashes large scale Turkish - Azerbaijani drills were launched in Azerbaijan, including in Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic. The Turkish Minister of Defense visited Azerbaijan to personally monitor the last phase of the drills, and President Aliyev, while receiving the Turkish minister stated that Turkey would be Azerbaijan's No. 1 partner in military and military-technical cooperation in the near future. Even before the recent Armenia - Azerbaijan escalation, Azerbaijani minister of defense Zakir Hasanov visited Turkey in late June 2020 and declared Azerbaijan's intention to buy Turkish made armed drones. Several sources have claimed that Azerbaijan wants to purchase Bayraktar TB2 drones, which Turkey has already supplied to Ukraine. Turkey and Azerbaijan launched another round of military drills in Nakichevan at the beginning of September 2020 with the involvement of land and air forces.

These developments raised concerns in Armenia. Yerevan follows very closely the recent Turkish military activities in neighboring countries such as Syria, Iraq and Libya and the establishment of Turkish military bases and training centers in Qatar and Somalia. Given the erosion of the international security architecture, the rising rivalry for regional dominance and the growing use of economic, political and military coercion in international relations, Armenia believes that Turkey's military activities can also have ambitions in the South Caucasus threatening Armenia's vital national interests. As for now, the only real obstacle for such developments is Russia's position, which views the South Caucasus as a part of its legitimate zone of special interests. However, a future Russia-Turkey deal, one that would enable the two countries to manage their rivalry in the region for their mutual benefit, cannot be excluded, and this will be detrimental to Armenian interests. Besides, if and when Kremlin decides that the current Armenian leadership cannot be fully trusted, Russia may allow Turkish a limited military involvement in the Karabakh conflict to punish Armenia, and to trigger a government change in Yerevan.

Armenia on its part has been looking to foster relations with other anti-Turkish forces, seeking it as a way to get additional leverage against Turkey. In June 2019 the first trilateral summit of foreign Ministers of Armenia, Cyprus, and Greece took place in Nicosia and a decision was made to establish a trilateral format of cooperation, and organize the first summit of the leaders of the three states in Yerevan at the beginning of 2020. The COVID - 19 pandemic has postponed the leaders' summit but it has not undermined the plans of cooperation. It was therefore not a surprise that on 15 August the Armenian Ministry of Foreign affairs issued a special statement criticizing Turkey's destabilizing activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, and expressing its full support to Greece and Cyprus.  This weekend, Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan was on a high profile visit to Egypt to meet that country's leaders.

On the Azerbaijani side there has also been a lot of activity. President Ilham Aliyev while accepting the credentials of Greece's newly appointed ambassador to Azerbaijan stated that Turkey was not only Azerbaijan's friend and partner, but also a brotherly country and without any hesitation Azerbaijan supported Turkey on all issues, including the issues in the Eastern Mediterranean. Some experts believe that the recent dynamic in Azerbaijan - Turkey relations is evidence of Azerbaijan's departure from its balanced foreign policy in its relations with Russia and Turkey, and indicates a movement towards closer relations with Ankara. This can be explained by the frustration of the Azerbaijani leadership with Russia's unwillingness or inability to force Armenia to accept a phased solution of the Karabakh conflict, as enshrined in the "Madrid principles". President Aliyev's August phone call to President Putin expressing concerns about continuing supplies of Russian arms to Armenia is another sign of tensions between Azerbaijan and Russia. The September 7 visit to Istanbul of the Assistant on foreign relations to President Aliyev, Hikmet Hajiev, and the decision to establish a joint Azerbaijan - Turkey media platform to counter anti Turkish and anti Azerbaijani propaganda can be viewed in the context of deepening Azerbaijan - Turkey ties.

The recent escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean has further deepened the Azerbaijan - Turkey strategic alliance while adding tensions to the already difficult Armenia - Turkey relations. Armenia seeks to expand its relations with Greece and Cyprus, and potentially with UAE and Egypt, viewing this as an additional leverage against possible Turkish military involvement in the Karabakh conflict.   Events in the Caucasus and in the Eastern Mediterranean this summer, whilst on the one hand unconnected and driven by completely different factors, at the same time seem to be blending together with the risk of somewhat unpredictable consequences.

source: Benyamin Poghosyan is the Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan

photo: The Turkish Research Ship, Oruc Reis, sails in the Aegean escorted by the Turkish Navy (archive picture)

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