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Turkish, Greek Diplomats Meet Amid Rising Tensions

FILE - An Israeli navy boat is seen next to the production platform of Leviathan natural gas field in the Mediterranean Sea near Kibbutz Nahsholim in northern Israel Dec. 18, 2019.

Turkish and Greek diplomats met Friday in a bid to defuse rising bilateral tensions over control of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, which is at the center of a regional scramble for what might be vast gas reserves.

The Turkish-Greek gathering in Ankara follows U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's confirmation Thursday of plans for a "diplomatic initiative" to calm tensions between the two NATO nations.

Athens and Ankara are historical rivals with long-existing territorial disputes over the shared Aegean Sea and divided island of Cyprus.

Those rivalries have been exacerbated by a dispute over control of the Mediterranean Sea, where significant exploration for hydrocarbons has been going on since Israel's discovery of the vast Leviathan gas field.

Greece has exploited Turkey's regional isolation by building an alliance with Israel and Egypt, while seeking to develop and distribute natural gas. All the countries have strained or nonexistent relations with Turkey.

Turkey took the region by surprise in November by turning to Libya. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a security commitment and a deal that gives Turkey control of a crucial strategic swath of the Mediterranean, with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. The GNA is led by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj.

Under that agreement, Ankara now controls the sea. A planned pipeline was announced this month by Greece along with the Greek Cypriot government, and Israel.

"No plan in the region that excludes Turkey has any chance of success," said Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay recently.

Erdogan on Sunday doubled down on his commitment to the GNA, announcing the deploying of Turkish soldiers to support the Tripoli-based government, which faces the possibility of being overrun by forces of General Khalifa Haftar. Haftar’s militia now controls eastern Libya.

"It's a very strategic move by Turkey to stop the emerging blocs against Turkey. The deployment of Turkish troops to Libya is legitimate," said international studies professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University.

But diplomatic pressure is building on Ankara. The foreign ministers of Egypt, France, Greece and Cyprus declared Wednesday at a meeting in Cairo that both agreements signed by Ankara and the GNA are "invalid."

"The ministers asserted that those two memorandums of understanding have further undermined regional stability," they said in a joint statement.

Ankara dismissed the statement, pointing out the GNA is Libya's only internationally recognized government.

But Turkey received a further setback Thursday, with Haftar dismissing a call by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan for a cease-fire.

"We welcome Putin's call for a cease-fire. However, our fight against terrorist organizations that seized Tripoli and received the support of some countries will continue until the end," Haftar's spokesman, Ahmed al-Mismari, said on a video posted to social media.

Erdogan was widely seen as looking to Putin to use his influence on Haftar to rein in his forces, given that Russian mercenaries of the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group backed the Libyan militia leader. The Wagner Group is a private security force run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman reported to have close ties to Moscow.

But Haftar is not solely reliant on Russian support with other powerful backers, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which are seen as determined to reduce Turkey's efforts to expand its influence.

"The aim of the [Libya] deal is to protect Turkish vital national interests and that Turkey is not to remain isolated," said former Turkish Ambassador Mithat Rende. "But Turkey has made it clear it's ready to talk with the view to reaching an equitable solution."

Ankara is ruling out talks with the Greek Cypriot government, the only recognized administration on the divided island. Turkey refuses to acknowledge Nicosia's status, maintaining that there is a Turkish-administered government, which only Ankara recognizes.

Cyprus was divided in 1974 after a Turkish invasion in response to a Greek-inspired coup.

The Mediterranean island lies at the center of the scramble for hydrocarbons and planned pipelines for energy distribution.

"We are at an impasse because Turkey doesn't consider the Republic of Cyprus as a country, and everything comes out of this," said political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Athens University.

"The only response from Ankara is that any deal can't succeed without us," he adds. "But what is Turkey's next move? Once you have said that, the next move is to look for the way and means to achieve this, to invent this table that doesn't exist that is needed to sit around, to find common ground between these countries, but we have not seen this."

Lack of progress is likely because both sides believe they retain winning hands. Greece believes Turkey is increasingly internationally isolated while Ankara says any pipeline to distribute the region's gas reserves will rely on Turkish cooperation. Analysts warn such a scenario carries the risk of further tension and the continuing broadening of such discord across the region.