Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey are facing off again, but this time online as well as at sea. By focusing on diplomatic pressure, energy issues, and internet security simultaneously, Turkey hopes to build a wider sphere of impact while marginalizing the influence of those it believes threaten Ankara’s interests.
On the diplomacy front, Greece is pushing back against its neighbor’s demands to de-militarize 16 Aegean islands. Turkey is insistent that it violates the 1936 Treaty of Lausanne, which governs the Aegean Sea between the two countries, and says that the demilitarization is necessary for its own sovereignty. “Greece does not provoke, does not violate the sovereign rights of others, but it doesn’t like to see its own rights violated“, responded Greek Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos last Saturday.
While a military escalation is unlikely, the situation has potential to create explosive results, as Turkey is also deploying ships to Cypriot waters to explore for hydrocarbons for the fourth time, leading Cyprus to blast Turkey as a “pirate state”.
“Turkey is asking today for the islands’ demilitarization, when there [is] an incredible historical increase of Turkish jets violating Greek airspace”, said political scientist Cengiz Aktar of the University of Athens. “It’s a message Turkey is an aggressive force in the eastern Mediterranean, and Turkey gives the impression it wants a hot conflict with its neighbour, Greece”.
“Turkey’s strategy is to create grey zones and disputed territories within the economic exclusive zones claimed by Cyprus and also Greece”, said Hubert Faustmann, a University of Nicosia professor and Cyprus director of the Bonn-based Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation. Turkey’s recent signing of a memorandum of understanding with Libya to carve up the eastern Mediterranean is an example of this tactic.
Turkey is not limited to fighting on the diplomatic stage. Recently revealed cyberattacks dating from last week to as far back as 2019 and 2018 against government institutions in Europe and the Middle East – including embassies, ministries, and security services – are thought to be the work of Turkish hackers acting on behalf of Ankara’s interests. Victims include both Cypriot and Greek government email services, as well as the Iraqi government’s national security advisor, and Albania’s state intelligence service. The attacks included DDOS (denial of service) and DNS hijacking; intercepting internet traffic to targeted websites; and potentially allowing illicit access to government bodies and related organizations.
Last week, Greek media reported that Turkish group “Anka Neferler Tim” hacked the websites of the Greek parliament, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Intelligence Service. Problems have also been reported on other websites, such as the Treasury and the Athens Stock Exchange. The group claimed responsibility for the attack in a Facebook post.
In retaliation, Anonymous Greece, a cyber hacking organisation which defines itself as an NGO, targeted specific Turkish state-owned communications servers. Anonymous Greece is a highly controversial group, though they claim to have helped Greek authorities identify criminals operating online, including pedophiles.
On January 23, Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas confirmed additional attacks on the websites belonging to the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs, Shipping, Finance, and the Prime Minister. “This evening there was a cyberattack on government sites by using the DDoS method. These attacks have led to the malfunctioning of specific websites”, Petsas said.
“We consider [the hackers] government officials of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, with ample funding and no special skills. It is a common secret that this group operates under the orders of Turkish MIT”, two Anonymous Greece members said. “Following the developments in Libya, we expected that they would do something. They tried to show some degree of strength but they failed”.
Cyprus has also reported that they suspect, but cannot prove, that Turkish hacking may have enabled it to filch technical data that made it possible for Turkey to send drill-ships to a specific location to the south of the island – where energy companies, Eni and Total, have licenses to carry out their own exploratory drilling. Cyprus released a statement saying that “relevant agencies were immediately aware of the attacks and moved to contain” them.
Government spokesman Kyriakos Koushos said, “There’s information, which is probably correct, that they had stolen plans and studies from a specific company, that’s why they went to the specific spot”. He added, “Unfortunately, Turkey has become the pirate state of the east Mediterranean.”
Pushing Too Far?
It appears that Turkey may have pushed its luck too far, as Europe has united with their Mediterranean neighbors against Turkish incursions into Greek and Cypriot waters, and threatened sanctions. Moreover, the EastMed – a gas forum uniting Greece, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Palestinian territories – is developing into a formal relationship and uniting former combatants into allies against Turkey, a country they view as a dangerous challenge to stability in the region.
Germany has also taken a stand against Turkey’s maritime deal with Libya, saying that it violates customary law by denying Greece’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) southeast of the island of Crete, and by claiming a Turkish EEZ that stretches over an area until the coasts of Crete and Rhodes.
“Turkey has been difficult to deal with. There’s a constant state of provocation, which leads Turkey nowhere”, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said during a media interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week.
Turkey, however, may soon find they are in too deep to back out. The rhetoric that they are under siege on the international stage is valuable, and allows the regime to protect itself and project stability back home. “Yes, all the regional countries are against Turkey, but it proves government rhetoric that Turkey is threatened, it’s under siege”, said Turkish political analyst Aydin Sezer. “This consolidates Turkey and within the [ruling] AKP party itself. It delays divisions within the party. There are two new parties developing from the party. But such outside threats consolidate the party”.
Meanwhile, the country has one last card to play against Europe in the form of stopping migration, or as seen recently, choosing not to. The number of migrants who reach Europe via Turkey has significantly increased over the last year, in part because there has been deliberate negligence in enforcing a deal made with the EU to prevent onward migration.
To address the matter, German Chancellor Angela Merkel held talks in Istanbul with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in an attempt to get the country to hold up their commitment to the migrant deal. But the EU has limited means to force cooperation, and Turkey has the largest navy and air force in the region, allowing them more leeway to push back against European interests.
“That [migrants entering Greece] has unmistakably to do with the fact that Turkey is no longer consistently preventing landings“, Thorsten Frei, deputy parliamentary group leader of Germany’s ruling CDU/CSU, told German newspaper Welt am Sonntag.
However, in a bid to protect their own rights, Cyprus too may have overreached: the island nation was recently the sole hold-out preventing EU sanctions against several officials from Russia-annexed Crimea – all in what some believe was a bid to secure EU backing for tougher action against Turkey.
“The way Cyprus is hijacking the Russia listings has deeply irritated its friends and partners around the table. It is all the more surprising since Cyprus has enjoyed unparalleled solidarity from its EU partners over the last few months (in the dispute with Turkey)”, said one EU diplomat. “The Cypriots want to have sanctions on Turkey for drilling and have been frustrated that it is taking time,” said a second diplomant. “This is why they are meddling with the Crimea listings.”
Nicosia has denied linking the two issues, saying they only needed more time for review. “There is no connection made between the two sanctions regimes. We are in the process of reviewing the information provided with regard to the Ukraine sanctions”, said Cypriot foreign ministry spokesman Demetris Samuel. “Our aim is to see the [EU sanctions] implemented. We feel that it is important… to expedite and finalise this work with regards to the listings”.