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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - ATHENS: Greece is on a diplomatic push to isolate traditional rival Turkey as tension rises between the two NATO allies over energy exploration and support for opposing factions in war-torn Libya, say analysts.
On Sunday, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias embarked on a tour of eastern Libya, Egypt and Cyprus, seeking support against Turkey’s contentious maritime and military deal with the embattled UN-backed government in Tripoli.
Hours later, the Greek prime minister’s office announced that Athens would on January 2 host the signing of EastMed, a huge pipeline project with Cyprus and Israel to ship gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe.
“It’s the first time in 20 years that we’ve seen such (Greek diplomatic) activity,” Sotiris Serbos, an international politics specialist at Democritus University in Thrace, told Athens municipal radio.
Athens was alarmed when in late November Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a security and military cooperation deal with UN-recognized Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj.
Greece took particular exception to the agreement on maritime jurisdiction, which it said ignored the maritime boundaries of Crete. In retaliation, Greece expelled the Libyan ambassador.
Analysts in Greece say Turkey’s recent rapprochement with Libya is aimed at shoring up a rare regional ally in Tripoli’s Government of National Accord (GNA).
But they say Turkey is also trying to avoid being shut out of the gas exploration scramble in the region.
Libya has been mired in chaos since a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
The GNA has suffered military setbacks against eastern-based strongman Khalifa Haftar.
“Alliances create counter-alliances,” Antonis Klapsis, an assistant professor of diplomacy at the University of Peloponnese, told Greek state TV ERT.
While Greece usually defers to the EU on major diplomatic initiatives, this time it is taking the lead, having forged ties with Egypt and Israel, as well as traditional ally Cyprus.
“We can go at it alone — but we won’t be alone,” Foreign Minister Dendias told Open TV Monday.
Greece, after also securing EU backing on the issue, is now speeding up talks with Egypt on an exclusive economic zone to counter the Turkey-Libya deal.
For Alexis Papachelas, executive editor of liberal daily Kathimerini, this is a “moment of truth” in relations with decades-old rival Turkey.
“The early months of 2020 will be tough for Greek-Turkish relations,” Papachelas wrote in an opinion piece Sunday.
“The moment of truth seems to be upon us as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears determined...to push Ankara’s territorial claims in the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean,” he added.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is scheduled to visit the White House on January 7.
While US diplomats have criticized the Turkey-Libya deal, US President Donald Trump has often toed a different line when it comes to Erdogan.
“It is the sort of situation where you find out who your real friends and allies are,” notes Papachelas.
The EastMed project is designed to make Cyprus, Greece and Israel key links in Europe’s energy supply chain — and thwart Turkey’s effort to bolster its presence in the eastern Mediterranean.
Its backers plan to have the 2,000-kilometer (1,200-mile) pipeline transfer between nine and 12 billion cubic meters a year from offshore gas reserves between Israel and Cyprus to Greece — and from there to Italy and other southeastern European countries.
“It is really important that the countries showed they can react quickly against Turkey’s provocative stance,” Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas told Open TV on Sunday.
Turkey already has ships searching for oil and gas off Cyprus, which has fueled tension with the European Union.
Erdogan, who has called into question decades-old sovereignty treaties with Greece, said Sunday that Turkey “no longer had the luxury” to be silent, or coy on the issue.
“Greece and countries supporting it were for a long time making preparations to ensure Turkey could not take any steps in the sea,” Erdogan said.
“Those who have sovereignty in the Aegean, and prepare projects with their eyes on Turkey’s rights with islands, islets and rocks that do not belong to them should know the space is not empty.”
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