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France Deploys Warships as Tensions with Turkey Rise

Turkey claims waters in which Greek Cyprus is drilling for natural gas.

NATO warships Aegean Sea
NATO warships conduct maneuvers in the Aegean Sea (Bundeswehr)

France is boosting its military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean to reinforce Cypriot and Greek claims in the area and protect the activities of its energy giant Total.

The helicopter carrier Tonnerre, which is taking aid to Lebanon following the fertilizer explosion in Beirut, and the frigate La Fayette, which is training with the Greek navy, will remain in the area.

Two French Rafale warplanes will be based in Crete.

The deployments come after the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier patrolled the region earlier this year, and in response to the appearance of Turkish drill ships and frigates in disputed waters.

Turkish warships have in the past blocked Western drilling rigs in waters around Cyprus.

Divided island

Turkey both claims rights in waters internationally recognized as belonging to Cyprus and supports the claims of Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which no other country in the world recognizes.

Cyprus has been divided between the majority ethnic-Greek Republic of Cyprus, which is in the EU, and almost entirely ethnic-Turkish Northern Cyprus since 1974, when Turkey invaded the island to prevent its unification with Greece. A United Nations peacekeeping force has kept the two sides apart since.

Gas alliance

The discovery of natural gas in the region has led to an informal alliance between Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Israel, which all stand to benefit from its exploitation.

There are plans to build a pipeline connecting the gasfields to Cyprus to Crete to mainland Greece. The project is supported by the European Union.

Total of France and Eni of Italy are among the international companies exploiting the gasfields, including in a block off the southwestern coast of Cyprus, where Turkish ships are now present. Drilling is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

France in 2015 sold Egypt two state-of-the-art helicopter carriers it had built for Russia. The original sale was canceled in the wake of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.

Egypt has also bought Rafale fighter jets from Dassault.

Fraught relations

Turkey, which has fraught relations with all the countries in the basin, has moved closer to Russia when its nominal allies in Europe are trying to become less dependent on Russian gas.

Turkey is allowing Russia to build a natural gas pipeline across its territory that circumvents Ukraine, called TurkStream, and it has bought missile defenses from Russia despite NATO objections. The decision cost Turkey its place in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

But Turkey is also hosting a competing pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Europe, called the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline, which the EU backs.

It supported the opposition in Syria to the pro-Russian president, Bashar Assad, and it supports the UN-recognized government in Libya, where Russia prefers the warlord Khalifa Haftar.

Libyan proxies

Haftar is also supported by the Arab states and France, who see him as a bulwark against Islamists, including the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s generals overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood in their country, which Turkey had supported.

In January, Turkey’s Tripoli-based allies agreed to a maritime border treaty that splits the waters between Libya and Turkey, ignoring Cypriot and Greek claims.

In return, Turkey sent weapons and pro-Turkish militias to North Africa, which helped turn the tide in the civil war. Haftar has retreated to the east, where most of Libya’s oil- and gasfields are located.

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