Turkey, Greece set off for historic Eastern Mediterranean talks

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ANKARA: A first round of new exploratory talks between Turkey and Greece will take place this month following Ankara’s offer to discuss conflicting land claims in the eastern Mediterranean.

The talks are scheduled to take place in Istanbul on January 25.

This will be the 61st round of exploratory talks to be held over the past 14 years, but previous meetings have mainly focused on issues related to the Aegean Sea.

Athens is expected to focus discussions on the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean sea areas in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), while Ankara has not set any preconditions for the talks .

Turkey is not a signatory of UNCLOS and does not recognize the government of Cyprus, a member of the EU.

Rauf Mammadov, resident researcher at the Middle East Institute, told Arab News that any direct dialogue was a positive step towards reconciliation between the conflicting parties.

“Dialogue is also the only non-confrontational method of resolving disagreement in this particular case.

“Much of the dispute between the two NATO members rests on a competing interpretation of international law. The alternative to talks is regular diplomatic wrangling, sometimes accompanied by threats of military escalation, ”he said.

However, Oxford University Middle East analyst Samuel Ramani said a short-term diplomatic breakthrough in the Mediterranean standoff between Greece and Turkey was “unlikely”.

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“Confidence levels on both sides are extremely low and both sides view any diplomatic opening as an exercise in branding with the international community, rather than a sincere attempt to defuse the crisis,” he said. added.

Ramani said it was “not surprising” that Turkey offered to hold talks with Greece, as Ankara had previously suggested.

“The only path to convergence in the Eastern Mediterranean is to ease some of the tensions around the Greece-Turkey dispute. Turkey’s recent overtures to France are a positive step, as are recent UAE statements on de-escalation with Turkey, ”he added.

Turkey rejects Greece and Cyprus maritime border claims, saying they violate the sovereign rights of Turkey and northern Cyprus.

Experts also stressed the importance of the timing of the announcement.

“Ankara and Athens are taking steps towards a potential compromise as the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) becomes operational. The project is a rare example of continued economic cooperation between two neighboring countries, ”Mammadov said.

He added that an eventual resolution of the Eastern Mediterranean energy dispute would be successful if motivated by mutually beneficial economic interests, similar to the SGC.

Charles Ellinas, senior researcher at the Atlantic Council, told Arab News that the new administration of US President-elect Joe Biden must be of concern to Turkey, especially since in a short time it had been the subject sanctions from both the EU and America.

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“It is very important to avoid aggressive comments and threats. (Turkish President Recep Yayyip) Erdogan’s recent warning to the EU that if it supports Greece, Turkey will revert to offshore investigations and further escalate the conflict, is not constructive, ”he said.

Ellinas added that without a change of leadership Turkey could face a difficult time with Biden, while a constructive start to talks with Greece would be viewed very positively by the EU and the US.

On the other hand, both countries hope for stronger support from Washington to consolidate their regional gains and push for their “red lines” ahead of Biden’s next inauguration on January 20.

However, Ramani said if a reduction in aggression on both sides was possible, the fundamental issues would be more difficult to resolve.

“Turkey will maintain its gas extraction agreement with Libya, which is unacceptable to Greece. The Cypriot dispute is still a sticking point, ”he added.

Decadal efforts to bring peace to the divided island are on the verge of crumbling, especially after Ankara began advocating for Cyprus to be split into two states in October last year.

Controversies unfolding around maritime rights and oil exploration off the island are also fueling growing tensions in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean.

Ramani said the key issue that the Turkey-Greece dialogue would resolve, in theory, was the end of the Turkish tightrope, such as harassment of fishing boats and provocative military exercises. “It probably won’t solve the fundamental problems,” he added.

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In December, Turkey withdrew its seismic research vessel Oruc Reis which operated in the disputed waters of the eastern Mediterranean, sparking a row with Athens over the prospects for energy drilling.

The ship will remain on the Turkish continental shelf until June 15 – a move that was seen by some as a gesture of goodwill.

The 60th round of talks, the most recent between the two countries, began in Athens in March 2016. The talks continued for years through political consultations, despite the lack of a formal framework.

“The only prerequisite for Athens is that the exploratory talks only focus on the delimitation of maritime areas, on the basis of international law, from where they left off in March 2016. Turkey seems to prefer open discussions. Hopefully they will converge on an agreed agenda, ”Ellinas said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Erdogan met with ambassadors of EU member states in Ankara on Tuesday, in a measure seen by many experts as yet another attempt to reconcile with the EU and restore ties with Greece. Cavusoglu is also due to travel to Brussels on January 21.

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