A summit meeting between Greece, Cyprus and Israel took place in Cairo yesterday.
It came amid mounting tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, which may intensify sharply when the expected Turkish invasion of northern Syria takes place – and with it an intensification of the Syrian regime’s offensive in Idlib.
The tripartite pact of Greece and Cyprus acting alongside Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s dictatorship in Egypt and Israel is a continuation of a deep policy pursued under the former Syriza government and is at the centre of the Greek state’s strategic ambition in the region.
There is already an escalating standoff with Turkey. Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades has recklessly broken off the semblance of a peace process with Turkish northern Cyprus and has unilaterally moved to begin exploiting the gas fields off the island.
Despite control over the maritime zone being disputed, Anastasiades’s right-wing government has been parcelling up the area and selling off drilling licences to France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and other fossil fuel giants.
Observers in Nicosia say the Cypriot government and its big business backers are behaving as if they have discovered Eldorado.
They have been intimating that the involvement of French, Italian and US multinationals means they can rely on those states to back Cyprus in the face of strident objections from the Turkish state.
But the months of provocation have produced a reaction from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A couple of days ago, he sent two Turkish ships into the middle of the zone to begin his own drilling.
There’s now a very dangerous crisis. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias flew to Nicosia to make theatrical noises that gunboat diplomacy “belongs in another century.”
But Erdogan’s move has exposed something of the bluff in the Cypriot position. Neither France nor Italy show any inclination to deploy naval force to confront the Turkish presence or pose as deterrent.
The Greek military and diplomatic strategy in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean has been to try to exploit tensions and divergences between the US and its other major Nato ally in the region, Turkey.
That is a continuation of a settled Greek state policy going back decades. This, incidentally, gives the lie to “left-patriotic” claims that Greece’s outsized military machine is somehow progressive because in confronting Turkey it is “challenging US imperialism.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed a new defence deal with Greece in Athens on Saturday, extending the licence of the Souda naval base on Crete and expanding the number of bases for US forces.
Greece is the only country other than the US to have the highest level of military co-operation with Israel — a policy secured by Alexis Tsipras.
Since Saturday, it is not only the Turkish naval deployment that has brought this Greece-Cyprus expansionism up against reality.
Even more so is Donald Trump’s decision to pull back US forces from northern Syria, facilitating Erdogan’s plan for a huge military operation to destroy the quasi-independent Kurdish entity there.
Trump is running into opposition from hawkish Republicans, progressive Democrats and the Pentagon. The last time he tried to do this, it brought the resignation of his defence secretary.
The US opposition is nothing to do with loyalty to the Kurds. It is everything to do with fear that a drawdown and pullout from Syria would signal the collapse of any pretence of US hegemony in the region, already seriously wounded from Iraq onwards.
It’s also a major blow to Greece and Cyprus — hence the emergency summit with Sisi and Benjamin Netanyahu, the latter facing possibly a third general election in a year.
The Greek gambit has depended on Washington constraining Turkish ambition and Greece benefiting from the unstable balance. If Trump gets away with shifting that balance, it will strengthen Erdogan, but in a more chaotic situation.
There are the flashpoints off Cyprus and also in the Aegean.
Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria are meeting with the EU to come up with more emergency and brutal methods to prevent a major refugee flow anticipated from the Turkish offensive in Syria and Damascus’s advance into Idlib.
Erdogan is also using the Syrian refugees as an instrument. He wants to remove large numbers from Turkey.
He’s used the “threat” of them crossing the Aegean to extract billions from the European Union through the infamous deal with Angela Merkel.
Now he wants to repopulate the zone in northern Syria, ethnically cleansed of Kurds, with Sunni Arab Syrians dependent on Turkish military overlordship.
The impacts cascade from the north Aegean to Cyprus — home, of course, to Britain’s sovereign military bases that give it some prestige in the region.
Trump is running up against the same problem Barack Obama did and, despite the erratic current administration, there is continuity with what went before.
Obama wanted a lighter touch in the Middle East, a “pivot to Asia” and to leave the regional powers to stabilise things in concert.
But the regional powers have their own interests, overlapping sometimes but also in conflict. That is seen from Yemen and the Gulf, through the disaster of Syria, to Cyprus and the Greek-Turkish conflict in the Aegean.
It has been suppressed over the decades only by the cold war and then by continuing US power holding the ring between its two allies.
This is all breaking down. And the EU is not going to fill the gap, except on the anti-refugee front.
The need for vigorous anti-war movements guided by the internationalist principle of confronting your own imperialist war machine is growing.
This applies to Britain, where — thanks to the hangover presence in Cyprus from the days of empire — British governments still feel their interference in the region is required.
As climate change protests continue, it is also a point not lost on many that a critical centre of this morphing crisis is the exploitation by fossil fuel companies and rival states of massive gas deposits. One estimate is that gas fields under the sea between Cyprus, Lebanon and Israel (Palestine) rival those of Algeria’s, a major gas producer.
The case for leaving it in the ground is not only about future impact on the climate. It is about stopping the spread of war right now.
Kevin Ovenden is a journalist, political activist and signatory to the founding statement of LeFT. This article was originally published in the Morning Star.