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An Introduction to the Eastern Mediterranean

The Historic Crossroads of Four Regions

Street in Bethlehem

This analysis is the first article of a six-part series on the Eastern Mediterranean, which provides an overview of the historical developments to establish a basis to understand the current events unfolding in the region. The other parts of this series deal with the socio-economic challenges, the Arab Uprising, the Syrian Civil War, the Israel-Palestine conflict from 2000-2020, and the “problematic” triangle: Turkey, Cyprus, Greece

The Eastern Mediterranean has been the historic crossroads of four regions: Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Except for being the “home” of their multiple and diverse geographic affiliations and varied political identities, it also constitutes a territory of great strategic importance and has hosted crucial historical developments, such as the 1832 Battle of Navarino, WWII or the Cold-War competition. As the recent occurrences suggest, the perception of the importance of the Eastern Mediterranean has not changed, but sadly, this development can be attributed to the plethora of security problems, which have brought back the region to the forefront of political concerns. To be more specific, the list of the regional matters is endless, including  “civil conflicts, the emergence of fragile, unstable, dysfunctional or even failed states, the possibility of de facto (or even de jure) border change in various parts of the region, the role of political Islam and sectarian tensions, Jihadist terrorism, extreme inequality in the distribution of income, democratic deficit, population flows, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, as well as small arms and light weapons, existing regional conflicts, the ambitious agendas of regional powers (including Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia), competition for energy resources, the lack of a regional security architecture, a relative decline in U.S. interest and presence in the region, and a deep, structural European crisis” (Dokos, 2020:5). If that is not enough, a series of modern developments have further extended some of these issues, hence putting in danger the alleged preexisting status-quo that has characterized the Eastern Mediterranean after the end of the Cold War.

Over the last decades, the concentration of all these issues in one neighbourhood has sparked the interest of political scientists and International Relations scholars. Due to the saturation of conflicts, a lot of academics have attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to formulate solutions (the best examples are the Cyprus dispute or the Israel-Palestinian conflict). But the instability and uncertainty that characterizes the region, has hindered their endeavours. Apart from that, the high-level of interconnection between states due to globalization, migration and economic relations, has caused not only a difficulty in studying the roots of the regional problems but also made it hard for policymakers to provide concrete policies. In an attempt to avoid confusion and prolong these mistakes, this paper aims to provide an analysis of the current geopolitical situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, with the purpose of introducing the region and provide suggestions for further research to the reader. Thus, it does not seek to explain the contemporary developments through the scope of a theory of international relations, but to create a guide, portraying the power dynamics of the region.

To achieve this, the article follows a rather straightforward structure. The first part of the thesis presents the historical background of the region. This decision stems from the author’s perception that a lot of the current geopolitical developments are either the outcomes or have their roots in disputes, settlements, and events of the 20th century. Then, the following five parts illustrate the modern issues and geopolitical changes that are responsible for the political unrest, heightened social tensions and rising violence in the Eastern Mediterranean, however, under the scope of the findings from the first part. This dual approach offers not only numerous benefits, such as historical contextualization, but also a lot of starting points for further research.

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The Historical Background

Before proceeding with the main analysis, it is important to answer two simple questions: What constitutes the Eastern Mediterranean? Which countries belong to the region? If we consider the geographical dimension, the region de facto includes territories east of the Mediterranean Sea in Southeast Europe and Western Asia. However,  the two “popular” interpretations of the region are: a) a more broad definition of the Levant, which includes Albania, the mainland of Greece and historically tied countries with the neighbourhood; b) a more specific definition, that includes the region of Syria, Cyprus, Egypt, Greek Dodecanese and Anatolia Turkey. Due to the technical limitations imposed by the research focus, the paper adopts the latter, hence limiting the scope of the analysis on the states of Cyprus, Greece, Palestine (a partially recognized state), Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Israel (Diez, 2018). With this distinction, the research dismisses countries of the North-eastern Mediterranean such as North Macedonia, Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria. Therefore, after this important specification, the analysis proceeds with short overviews of each of the nine states.

Syria

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I, the Syrian region succumbed to brutal European imperialism in 1920. Thus, the “modern” Syria came to existence as a French mandate, mostly as “a patchwork quilt of semi-autonomous but dependent territories” (McHugo, 2014: 75). Due to the fear of an uprising of internal Arab nationalists, Paris sought to discourage the resistance by promoting the minorities of Alawites and Druze into positions of the military or government. The impact of this policy was quintessential as it eventually resulted in the establishment of an Alawite-dominated Assad regime. However, following the end of WWII, the French tutelage ended abruptly, when Syria gained its independence in 1946. The recovery of Syria’s autonomy boosted not only its regional importance but also its power-ambitions. Whereas Damascus was a weak state in the previous twenty-six years, the emergence of a bipolar world and the revival of Pan-Arabism contributed positively to its rise as a key player in the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus, it is not surprising that Syria was at the forefront of major political and historic events, such as the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. However, Syria’s ambitious plans were brutally dismissed in 1967, when Israel managed to occupy the Golan Heights in a six-day war. Simultaneously, these territorial losses have been repeatedly utilized by the Assad regime to push for the further militarization of Syrian society and politics (Moshe, 1995). In the 1970s, Syria participated in two conflicts: the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1976 Lebanese Civil War. When it comes to the former, Syria proved to be incapable of regaining the Golan Heights, hence prolonging the preexisting rivalry. In the case of the latter, the Syrian army intervened in the Lebanese civil war to preserve both the status quo and the population of Christian Maronite. Even though the civil war ended in 1990, the Syrian forces remained until 2005.

On the domestic front, the coup d’état of 1963 has been crucial for the Assad family’s ascent to power. The sectarian difference and the French patronage relation resulted in the overthrow of the preexisting Sunni royal families by the Baathist dominated military, which remained in power for the rest of the 1960s. During the same period, an Alawite air-force officer, Hafez al-Assad, ruthlessly eliminated his rivals until he formally took control in 1970. As McHugo (2015) argues, the Assad regime is not exactly Alawite as also other minorities are strongly represented, but since its rise, minorities play a disproportionately bigger role in the governance of Syria than Sunnis. In this context, the uprising of 2011 becomes a manifestation of an ongoing internal dispute that goes back decades. The tensions between the Baath party and the Sunni population that started back in the 1960s are the predecessors of the modern civil war. As a matter of fact, it is not the first time that the Sunni community tries to make a stand against the Baath party. In 1982, the forces of Hafez al-Assad raided the historic city centre to eradicate members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (which consisted of mostly Sunni population), thus killing thousands of people. Therefore, it becomes apparent that the stigma of this occurrence combined with the deteriorating economy, the effect of the Arab Uprising and the inequalities were largely responsible for the violence since 2011.

Egypt

With a history of five thousand years, Egypt has been both, one of the oldest presences and the first modern Arab state in the region of the Eastern Mediterranean. Due to the limitations imposed by the scope of this analysis, this chapter focuses mostly on the development of the modern republic of Egypt that started in 1956. Obviously, phenomena such as the British colonialism or the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and their implication are significant for the comprehension of the evolution of Egypt, but it is not possible to track and analyze them all in this paper.

The development of modern Egypt officially starts in 1952, when the “Free Officers” led by Jamal Abdul Nasser came to the power through a coup that ended the British imposed monarchy rule. Similar to Syria, Nasser utilized Egypt’s position and new autonomy to seek a more active foreign policy in the Cold War international system (Crabbs, 1975). His first crucial move was the dismissal of the Baghdad Pact in 1955, an organization founded in 1955 by Turkey, Iraq, Great Britain, Pakistan and Iran to promote shared political, military, and economic goals. While this decision caused dissatisfaction of the US and Britain, it brought him closer to the other Arab states and the Soviet Union. However, it was the nationalization of the Suez Canal the following year that brought a definitive rupture in the relations of the two sides. The unhappiness of Britain stemming from Nasser’s nationalization of an important commercial and strategic point led them to conspire with the French and Israelis to take the Canal back. The undertaking proved to be inefficient as Americans and Soviets came to the aid of the Egyptians. The battle ended quickly thereafter, with the Canal safely in Egyptian hands and the British having left Egypt once and for all (Danielson, 2007).

In the following years, Nasser became even more ambitious. However, soon, his endeavours to balance between the two superpowers, the US, and the Soviet Union, came to an end. In fact, in 1958, the Russian-Egyptian relations collapsed as Syria and Egypt formed the United Arab State, an independent coalition based on the appeal of his idea of Pan-Arabism. Except for the Soviet Union, the American government was also not keen on Nasser’s ambitious plan, as it would translate into a decline of American influence in the region. For this reason, the US administration decided to invest in a more reliable partner, the Iraqis. Nasser seemed to retain his influence over the Arab population, but a series of occurrences led to the decline of his popularity. The fall of the United Arab State in 1961 was succeeded by the humbling war of 1967. The Egyptian and Syrian initiative to attack Israel took a dramatic turn, when the Israelis, who had gotten word of the planned attack, launched their own attack before either of the two countries could mobilize its forces. In just six days, Israel managed to destroy the entire Egyptian air force and occupy the Sinai Peninsula all the way up to the Suez Canal. The shame of the defeat was so great that it led to the demise of Nasser’s reputation and the demystification of his Pan-Arabism (Fawcett, 2005).

Nasser’s successor was Anwar al-Sadat, who can be described as the opposite of his predecessor. When Jamal Abdul Nasser died on 28th September 1970, he left behind: a system in crisis, an internally divided Egypt and morally degraded people. The solution to these issues came from outside, namely the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a surprise attack on the Israeli forces occupying the Sinai. Although history has recorded the 1973 war as a victory for the Israelis, the Egyptian spirits were dramatically lifted by the fact that their troops successfully crossed the Suez Canal. On top of that, in the aftermath of the conflict, a peace settlement was negotiated in which the Israelis agreed to give the Sinai back to Egypt (Hinnebusch, 1981). Egypt’s success and Sadat’s more tolerant and open foreign policy resulted in a peace treaty with Israel in 1978. While this decision was supported by the United States, it caused the anger of many Egyptians, who felt that the Israelis were not trustworthy and that Sadat had betrayed the Arab cause. Sadat had already polarized internal elements when he had taken steps to neutralize the power of the Muslim Brotherhood. Due to his friendship with the Shah of Iran, he was afraid to share his fate and lose his country to a rebellion driven by Islamic elements (such was also the Muslim Brotherhood). Thus, Sadat ordered the arrest of hundreds of people who were suspected of anti-government activities in the late 1970s, many of whom were never shown the evidence against them. This proved costly as it resulted in his assassination in 1981 (Wickham, 2013).

After the death of Sadat, Hosni Mubarak took office. Contrary to previous presidents, he followed more moderate policies. However, this did not translate into a period of stability, but instead, lead to numerous problems. Similar to Sadat, Mubarak also pursued the adoption of liberal policies, which ended in huge debts from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, hence establishing Egypt as a dependent country. Although there was an increase in per capita income, the rich had become richer, and the poor had become poorer. To be more specific, more than half of Egypt’s population lived below the poverty line. On top of that, he undertook some controversial policies, such as the ban of the establishment of political parties with a religious character, which stirred the internal tensions and had the 2011 uprising as a consequence (Shehata, 2011).

Lebanon

Lebanon probably has the most troubling history from all the countries of the region. The modern courses of the state started in 1944, when France agreed to transfer power to the contemporary Lebanese government. As Marius Deeb argues, Lebanon in its heyday (1943-75) “was the envy of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa because of its standard of living, its high literacy rate, and its political environment characterized by freedom, tolerance, and pluralism” (Freedman, 2002:207). However, as the impact of colonialism and French favouritism of the Maronite population became apparent, things started to take an uglier turn. For instance, in 1958, Lebanon was threatened by a civil war, due to the conflict of interests between its two prominent populations, the Maronite Christians, and the Muslims. The latter, which was reinforced by the 1948 Arab-Israel War, Palestinian refugees, pushed the Christian President Camille Chamoun to join the aforesaid United Arab Republic and dismiss the proposal of the pro-Western Baghdad Pact. Following this dispute, internal tensions continued to escalate, and when combined with the toppling of a pro-Western government in Iraq, resulting in Chamoun asking the US to send troops to preserve Lebanon’s independence. The US did not lose an opportunity to extend its influence in the region and sent over 5,000 marines (Hitti, 1965).

The next culminating point was the Lebanese Civil War, which was, in fact, a series of related conflicts between shifting alliances of Lebanese groups and external actors, who from 1975 to 1990 destabilized the Lebanese state. The scholar Haugbolle Sune (2011) divides the civil war into five distinctive periods: “the two-years war from April 1975 to November 1976; the long interlude of failed peace attempts, Israeli and Syrian intervention and a host of internal conflicts between November 1976 and June 1982; the Israeli invasion and its immediate aftermath from June 1982 to February 1984; the internal wars of the late 1980s; and finally the intra-Christian wars of 1988-90, which led to the end of the war”. The Lebanese Civil War can be attributed to a series of internal and regional affairs. In a more general perspective, the aggregation of issues that dominated the regional geopolitics, including the Palestine-Israel conflict, Cold War competition, Arab nationalism and political, when intersected with longstanding esoteric conflicts like the above-mentioned sectarian division of power, national identity, social justice and Lebanon’s strategic alliances, created all the elements for the eruption of mass violence. However, there is an agreement among historians that the main “bone of contention” was the growing division between those Lebanese who supported the right of the Palestinian resistance to stage operations against Israel from Lebanese soil, and those who opposed it (Haugbolle, 2011). Obviously, as is the case in each conflict, there are numerous disputes and debates over the “real” roots of the conflict. For instance, the works of Marxist sociologists like Salim Nasr (1983), Fawwaz Traboulsi (1993) and Fuad Shahin (1980) present a corrective to the popular sectarian interpretation of the civil war. Nonetheless, it is unquestionable that the Lebanese Civil War was one of the most devastating conflicts of the late 20th century.

The formal end to the civil war (or more like the fourth phase of it) was given by the Syrian forces. Following the 1988 failure to form a government and clashes in East Beirut, the prime minister Selim el-Hoss sought help from al-Assad’s regime, which launched a giant operation against the Maronite Commander-in-Chief, Michel Aoun, in 1990. The next year, the parliament passed an amnesty law that pardoned all political crimes before its enactment and order the dissolution of all militias, except for the powerful Shia group, Hezbollah. Other groups such as the South Lebanon Army (SLA) and the PLO were forcefully disbanded. Despite collective internal efforts, Lebanon never recovered from the civil war. During 15 years of fighting, around 90,000 people lost their lives, nearly 100,000 were badly injured, and close to a million people, or two-thirds of the Lebanese population, were displaced (Labaki and Rjeily 1994: 20). On top of that, much of Lebanon’s infrastructure was shattered, as was Lebanon’s reputation as an example of cross-sectarian coexistence in the Arab Middle East. It left several political and social legacies that have direct consequences on the people and the current events. Nonetheless, it soon became apparent that the Ta’if Accord failed to put an end to the factors sustaining the preexisting tensions. The sectarian division of power, the Palestinian refugee issue, the Syrian presence and “administration” and Hezbollah’s status as the only armed militia sustained the esoteric view of Lebanese people that the war has continued through other means. The killing of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005, the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, and the constant political instability in the country have proved that there has been no reconciliation. This has led to the sense among many Lebanese that political violence is endemic to their body politic (Haugbolle, 2011).

Jordan

In a turbulent region, Jordan has been repeatedly referred to as an “oasis of stability” as it has been mostly unscathed by the violence that has characterized its neighbours. Two years later, its formation in 1946, Transjordan faced the violence and humanitarian crisis that erupted between the Arab and Jewish population across the Jordan River. After Israel declared its territory, the Arab Legion, including Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, Transjordan, attempted to save the Palestinian population by entering the territory of former Palestine. At the end of the conflict, the previous protectorate of Great Britain not only found itself in control of West Bank and Jordan but also “inherited” 500,000 Palestinian Arabs refugees.

With Abdullah now in control of both sides of the Jordan River, the official name of the country was changed to Jordan. However, two years later, his kingship ended abruptly, when a Palestinian radical assassinated him as he entered the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. His successor was his son Hussein, who would rule Jordan for the next forty decades. During his reign, the state had to navigate between two contradictory tendencies: the Hashemites’ historical inclination toward conservatism, pragmatism, and close relations with the West on the one hand, and the Middle East’s frequent crises and the rise of pan-Arab nationalism on the other (Moaddel, 2002).  At the same time, Jordan also had to develop its economy, an undertaking highly dependent on the US and other Western powers. The remaining British forces on the state’s territory left in 1957, but King Hussein was still faced with the hostility of his socialist-leaning neighbours, such as Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. However, his effort to improve the relations proved to be harmful to Jordan’s interests. Apart from that, he was drawn into the war due to the big number of internal Palestinian refugees. The support of Arab countries in the Six-Day War of 1967 resulted in the loss of territories west of the Jordan River, including East Jerusalem (Raz, 2012).

In the years following the Six Days war, Jordan experienced an internal turmoil that led to the formulation of tensions between native East Bankers and the government of King Hussein on one side and the domestic Palestinian population led by various guerrilla organizations (of which the PLO was the most prominent) on the other (Awwad, 205). It did not take long for the situation to escalate into full-scale fighting in 1970, in what came to be known to Palestinians as “Black September”. The Jordan Army and the Palestinian Liberation Army faced each other in a conflict that resulted in severe material harm and 3,500 deaths. The civil war ended in 1971, but the regional stability was soon disrupted by the 1973 Israel-Syria fighting. This time, Jordan did not repeat its past mistake of direct participation in fighting, although it supported Syria militarily.

Until his death in 1999, King Hussein followed a moderate stance towards regional issues, a strategy that did not make him points with its neighbours. As Jehuda Lukacs perfectly summarizes, “(..) juggling multiple interests simultaneously without seriously undermining the legitimacy of the regime or alienating Jordan’s Palestinian majority as well as the Islamist opposition, and preserving a modus vivendi with Jordan’s powerful neighbours—Israel, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia—have been the hallmark of Jordanian domestic and foreign policy in the last several decades under the leadership of the late King Hussein“ (Freedman, 2002:155). For instance, his efforts to resolve the Palestinian question with the establishment of a confederation between Jordans and Palestinians in the West Bank were put to a halt by the intifada against Israeli rule in Occupied Territories in 1987. Then, during the Gulf War, Jordan maintained an officially neutral stand and failed to condemn Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait, due to the high economic relation with Iraq. This move damaged Jordan diplomatically as it became isolated by the Western states and its supporters. However, the situation changed in the 1990s. In October 1994, Jordan signed a formal peace treaty with Israel, hence ending 50 years of hostilities and disputes between the two countries. This development was unprecedented for the standards of the region (except the aforesaid case of Sadat) and shortly after, proved to be beneficial as it brought a rapprochement with the United States in economic and military matters (Kingston, 2000).

Israel and Palestine

The region of Palestine has been the source of major historical events and ideologies, but currently, it has been stigmatized and is one of the world’s longest-running and most controversial conflicts, the Israel-Palestinian dispute. In its most simplistic nature, it is a term that refers to the ongoing struggle between the two communities of Israelis and Palestinians over a territory. However, at the same time, other factors have likewise negatively contributed to the prolongation of this issue, such as the Israel-Arab and the Jewish-Islamic rivalries. Thus, controversial as it may seem, the decision to analyze the two nations together stems from the realization that it is simply impossible to comprehend the geopolitical moves without considering the symbiotic (in the best scenario case) relationship of their historical development in the 20th century.

There are different interpretations of the roots of the conflict. For most scholars, the starting point seems to be quite clearly established in 1917, when the nation of Great Britain adopted a plan for the colonization of Palestine based upon the wishes of a group of political Jews. However, according to other academics such as Lorena Neal (1995), the origins can be traced even further back in time, namely to the First “Aliya” (wave of migration) of Zionist Jews into Palestine in 1882. Regardless of the correct answer, this analysis sets off in 1946, when the British Administration announced their will to terminate its mandate over the region of Palestine and asked the UN General Assembly to handle the future of the country (UN, 1947). Next, the UN passed a resolution calling for the creation of an “independent Arab state alongside a Jewish state”, but this decision resulted in sectarian violence and the escalation of a full-scale civil war.

The situation got worse, when in 1948, David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish People’s Council declared the establishment of the Jewish state. As expected, the Arab states, which were already supporting militias in the region, utilized this chance to intervene in the region with the pretext of protecting the Palestinian population. On top of that, the Arab League announced that it would set up a single Arab civil administration with a mostly symbolical role thought Palestine, the All-Palestine government (Snetsinger, 1974). The series of battles that followed proved to be damaging for both sides with great casualties. As a result, they agreed to finish the war with the Armistice Agreement in 1949, which separated the Holy Land into three parts: the State of Israel, the West Bank (of the Jordan River), and the Gaza Strip, and crystallized the split between the two communities.

After 1948, Israel and Palestine adopted entirely different policies. On the one side, the former faced innumerable challenges. Apart from forming a government, dealing with mass migration, and building an economy, Israel had to carefully manoeuvre its politics in an extremely hostile neighbourhood. Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was the main architect of its foreign and defence policy. He believed that the state did not belong to the Middle East but was a part of Europe, hence they should seek partners not in the region, but rather in the West, and mostly, the US. Following the declaration of the “Eisenhower doctrine” (it promised military aid and co-operation to Middle Eastern countries, Israel included, against overt aggression from any nation controlled by international Communism), Ben-Gurion believed that this could be an opening for his government to persuade the improvement of relations with the US. His plan was soon hindered by the 1955 election of Sharett as it was dismissed after the Lavon Affair (Shlaim, 1980).

The situation further deteriorated after the 1956 Suez War. Despite the success of the Israeli military, the whole operation was perceived as a flop, because it not only made Nasser appear victorious but also caused the disappointment of the Eisenhower administration (Motti, 1995). In the following years, the American rejections (e.g. dismissal to join the NATO) plus the increasing hostility of its Arab neighbours (the aforesaid union of Syria and Egypt into the United Arab Republic) pushed him to the formulation of a more defensive strategy, which focused on the retainment of the existing status quo. Except that, Ben-Gurion started reaching out to the outer ring of the Middle East — Iran, Turkey, Sudan, and Ethiopia to establish a strong dam against the Nasserist Soviet torrent (Shlaim, 1999).

At the same time, the lack of a state had an entirely different effect on the Palestinian community. As Barry Rubin perfectly summarizes, “during the 1948–67 period, the Arab side never considered implementing a two-state solution by turning the Jordanian-ruled West Bank and the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip into a Palestinian state” (Freedman, 2002:137). Under Egyptian tutelage, the aforesaid All-Palestine government became heavily influenced and reliant on the military support and political or economic power of Nasser, but parallel, this dependence undermined its credentials as a sovereign state. Furthermore, the annexation of the West Bank by King Abdullah I of Jordan made him the “King of Arab Palestine” (Shlaim, 1999) due to his control of the Eastern and Western Bank, thus constituting Palestinians as the majority of Jordan’s population (Carol, 1999). In 1964, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was created.

The next two decades proved to be crucial for the region. In 1967, Israel captured the rest of the area that had been part of the British Mandate of Palestine, taking the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, in the course of the Six-Day War. Following repetitive military threats of Egypt and Syria (for instance, the closing of the Straits of Tiran in the same year), Israeli forces proceeded to a preemptive strike against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. The Israeli success presented a huge blow not only to the Palestinian’s dream of liberation, which was recently reinvigorated by the creation of PLO, but also to the Arab countries that suffered a dramatic loss with numerous consequences (Gera, 1995). During the following negotiations, the PLO rejected Israel’s 1967 offer to trade captured territories for peace, hence resulting in the remanence of the occupied areas that remained under Israeli rule. As Rubin highlights, PLO’s strategy was “in line with the 1971 statement of Abulyad, the PLO’s most powerful leader next to Arafat, that it had “no right “to negotiate a settlement but must keep struggling, “even if they cannot liberate a single inch,” in order to preserve the option to regain all of Palestine someday” (Rubin, 2002:138). However, despite the adoption of Resolution 242 by the United Nations Security Council calling for Israeli withdrawal, PLO’s goals were not feasible. The resolution was accepted by both sides, though with different interpretations and set the basis of all the future negotiations.

Following the defeat of 1967, the situation for the Palestinians became progressively worse. Firstly, the US changed its position towards Israel and started supplying it with aircraft as a form of response to the growing relationship between Egypt and the Soviet Union. Secondly, Israel continued to use military means to weaken the PLO. For instance, in 1968, Israeli forces attacked the Palestinian militia, Fatah, at their base in Jordan. Thirdly, its Arab allies began to change their position as the expectation of total victory diminished. Following “Black September”, Jordan expelled the PLO to end that group’s threat to its stability and to avoid conflict with Israel. The consequences of this decision were destructive as the previously refugees living in Jordan relocated to Lebanon, where they later contributed to the eruption of the civil war. Fourthly, the Munich attack of 1972 and the series of Palestinian plane hijacking negatively affected their image, who were now perceived as insurgent elements and terrorism instigators. Fifthly, although the Yom Kippur War of 1973 of Syria and Egypt against Israel proved to be successful for the former, its results were unfavourable for Palestine. In the aftermath of the conflict, US President Jimmy Carter invited President Sara and Israeli President Begin to Camp David, which led to the signing of a peace accord between the two sides. In the aftermath of the agreement, Israel and Egypt became the two largest recipients of US military and financial aid (Curt, 2009). This development was unprecedented for the standards of the region and caused both a global uproar and approval.

In 1982, Israel used the attempted assassination of the British ambassador to invade Lebanon to drive PLO out of its southern half. While the campaign was successful, it caused domestic protests against the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who was held responsible for the massacres in Lebanon. The continuous Israeli protest achieved a halt to the war and force Sharon to resign. However, three years later, Israel responded to a Palestinian terrorist attack in Cyprus by bombing the PLO headquarters in Tunis. Growing Israeli settlement and continuing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip led to the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising) in 1987, which lasted until the Oslo accords of 1993, despite Israeli attempts to suppress it. The Israeli human rights violations, PLO’s lack of results, the pressure of the Clinton administration and a series of regional issues, such as the Gulf War, contributed positively to the acceptance of the agreement, which gave the Palestinians limited self-rule in some parts of the occupied territories through the Palestinian (Freedman, 2002: 137-154).

However, the cease of fire did not last long as Hamas and other Palestinian factions did not accept the outcomes of the summit, hence launching suicide bomber attacks at Israel.  These moves were met with the disapproval of the regional players, which were tired of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and its implication. For instance, Egypt’s President Mubarak told an interviewer in 1989, in the most cogent critique of the traditional Arab view ever given, “God has granted us a mind with which to think. We fought for many years, but where did we get?” (Middle East News, 1989). On top of that, the absolutist and irrevocable aims of the PLO and Arafat’s support of Iraq in the Gulf war troubled its Arab allies as they found it difficult to adapt to his demands. This was especially visible in the 1996 Arab summit, where numerous Arab states complained about Arafat’s policies. The resolution of the conflict became a priority for Arab interests. Nonetheless, after a few years of on-and-off negotiations, the Palestinians began an uprising against Israel, the Second Intifada, thus eliminating all the preexisting efforts.

Greece and Cyprus

Greece and Cyprus have been exceptionally close since antiquity due to common ethnicity, heritage, language, and religion. This relation has not changed in the 20th century. The two countries share similar political concerns and regional issues, despite different historical developments. Greece has been traditionally the “satellite” of Western powers in the region due to its critical geopolitical position. Following the end of WWII, Greece suffered from an internal civil war between nationalist/non-Marxist forces and ELAS that fought against each other for the leadership of the country. Due to the support of Britain and the US, the conflict resulted in the win of the nationalist/non-Marxist forces. In the aftermath of the civil war, the US granted American funds to the new Greek government through the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. This move indicated Greece’s geopolitical importance in the Aegean and the significance of the region in the ideological balance for the entire Cold War (Theodorakopoulos, 2020). This perception was validated further in 1952, when Greece was guaranteed membership in NATO. On top of that, the following decade proved to be fruitful for Greece due to its unprecedented growth. Despite the persistence of internal division (residues of the civil war), the state had a period of sustained economic growth of 7,7%, second in the world only to Japan (OECD, 1995).

During the same period, Cyprus was experiencing an entirely different development arch. The population of Cyprus was not satisfied with the British tutelage and instead, it demanded a union with Greece. For instance, in 1950, the Orthodox Church of Cyprus presented a referendum according to which around 97% of the Greek Cypriot population wanted the union (Miller, 2000). The decision of the UN to accept the 1948 Greek petition for “enosis” (unification) made it an international issue. Eventually, the Greek and Cypriot pressures proved to be insufficient to accomplish British “retreat”. As an alternative, the British administration attempted to address the problem by proposing a more liberal constitution and a 10-year program of social and economic development. The British failure in Egypt (Suez Crisis in 1956) led to the decision to make Cyprus the new location for their Middle East Headquarters. Despite the British retreats, the efforts of Greek Cypriot did not end there. Led by Archbishop Makarios, the demand remerged with new force in the 1950s, when Greece began to follow a more dynamic foreign policy and vocal rhetoric. This attempt to win world support alerted Turkey and alarmed the Turkish Cypriots (Tsirigotis, 2013).

The unsuccessful British efforts to address The Greek Cypriot demands led to the re-emergence of violence against the colonial power, but this time in a form of a militia organization, EOKA (Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston). EOKA’s campaign began in 1955 and continued for the next four years. In that period, the guerilla nationalists managed to spread terror among the British forces and officials. This resulted in the proclamation of a State of Emergency in 1955 by the British governor. Except that, Makarios and other Cypriot clergy and political leaders were forced to exile due to suspicion of involvement (Papafillipou, 2010).  At the same time, the Turkish Cypriots were not happy with the prospect of decolonization and the possible exit of Britain from the island. To challenge the demand of “Enosis”, they developed their own call for partition, “Taksim”, which became the slogan used by the militant Turkish Cypriots, such as TMT. Their fears were reinforced in 1957, when Britain showed openness to the scenario of “bases in Cyprus” as an alternative to “Cyprus as a base” in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis. The more relaxed stance of the British government alerted the Turkish Cypriots that responded with riots, thus leading to hostilities between the two communities and their militias (Bishku, 1993).

The whole situation caused concern for the international community. In 1957, the U.N. decided to resolve the issue through negotiations. However, the return of exiles did not alleviate the tension but instead resulted in a new series of violent acts against each other as EOKA attacked the Turkish Cypriots to spark intercommunal tension. The rationale behind EOKA’s “modus operandi” is better understood if examined through the lens of nationalist-separatist movements, such as FLN in Algeria or the Israeli attacks against Britain preceding 1948. The motive of EOKA was the escalation of the existing issue to the point that the international actors had to intervene to settle the internal tensions. As the British authorities were not able to stop the terrorist group, they attempted to prepare new plans for Cyprus, but without any success. Simultaneously, Greece attempted to promote the demand for “Enosis”, but it soon became apparent that there was not a possibility of resolution of the issue without the participation of Turkey. Despite its success, EOKA had also to accept this “political reality”.

Eventually, the Archbishop Makarios declared that he would only accept a proposal that guaranteed independence, excluding both “Enosis” and “Taksim”. The answer to his call was the 1959 Zurich Agreement, which gave Cyprus its independence and some demands, such as the prohibition of the two radical movements or the establishment of the United Kingdom as a guarantor. Unfortunately, the acceptance of the agreement did not manage to achieve a main goal that was the formulation of cooperation between the two communities. For instance, in 1963, President Makarios advanced a series of constitutional amendments designed to eliminate some of these special provisions (Crawshaw, 1964). The opposition of Turkish Cypriots caused new series of intercommunal fighting. In fear of a serious conflict, UN peacekeepers were deployed on the island in 1964, effectively recognizing the Greek Cypriots as the government. Until 1974, the situation remained stable, apart from an outbreak of violence in 1967-68.

During the same period, the situation in Greece took a dark turn. In 1967, the Greek military seized power in a coup d’état, overthrowing the centre-right government of Panagiotis Kanellopoulos (Clogg, 2002), and then established a Greek military junta of 1967-1974. The junta government’s ascension resulted in the political and economic isolation of Greece from European states and blocked its accession to the European Union. The new development also negatively affected the Greco-American relations that deteriorated, following the denial of dictator Papadopoulos to assist the US in 1974. After a second coup that year, Colonel Ioannides was appointed as the new head-of-state. (Tsirigotis, 2013). However, there is no denying that the worst legacy of the junta government is the invasion of Cyprus.

In July 1974, Makarios was overthrown by a Cypriot coup d’état supported by the Greek junta regime (Bahcheli, Bartmann & Srebrnik, 2004:167). The coup gave the pretext for the first wave of the Turkish invasion in the island on 20 July 1974. The Turkish side cleverly utilized the article 4 of the Guarantee Treaty of 1960, signed also by Greece and Britain, that allowed all the participating actors, to unilaterally intervene to restore democracy in Cyprus in the event of a coup if attempts to get multilateral support were not fruitful (Guarantee Treaty, 1960). In a two stage-offensive, also known as the “Attila” plan, Turkish troops took control of 36% of the island with tremendous consequences. The 200,000 Greek Cypriots that resided in these areas were forced to flee, while the 60,000 Turkish Cypriots were transferred to these northern areas. Since then, nothing has changed. In 1983, the Turkish Cypriot-controlled area, which is recognized only by Turkey, changed its name to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. As a matter of fact, some decades later, the UN made some efforts to achieve some settlement to a conflict that has troubled the whole region. In 1999, the Annan Plan (named after UN Secretary-General Kofi Anna) was put forward as a proposal to restructure the Republic of Cyprus as a “United Republic of Cyprus”; in other words, as a federation of two states (UN, 2003). After five revision, the outcome was put to put a referendum in 2004, but it did not achieve the expected results, thus failing (Guney, 2004).

When it comes to Greece, the event of 1974 resulted in the collapse of the junta regime. The new prime minister, Konstantinos Karamanlis, returned from its exile, and later gained re-election for two further terms at the head of the conservative New Democracy Party. In 1974, the Greek forces withdrew from NATO in protest of the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus. In the following decades, Greece returned to its pre-junta economic stability. In 1980, Greece rejoined NATO and the next year, it officially became a member of the European Union. The inclusion of the state in the structure of the EU aimed to create a European corridor of influence and communication in the region of the Western Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean. Furthermore, the development that Greece experienced because of EU funds showed the benefits of alignment with the West, while the other regional actors under Soviet Union influence were experiencing low levels of economic progress. In parallel, the tensions between Turkey and Greece did not cease. Disputes over Cyprus and delimitation of borders in the Aegean Sea continue to figure in the discourse of the two rivals and soon became a stable trait of the regional power-politics.

Turkey

Turkey is one of the most geographically privileged states of the region as it sits on a natural hub of the Mediterranean, where thousand-year-old land and maritime trade routes meet and cross (GIS, 2018). Turkey is also the land bridge from Europe to the Middle East, South Asia and even Africa. It is a regional power – in many cases, the most important one – in the Black Sea area, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. While this location exposes it to numerous geopolitical challenges, it has also been utilized numerous times by the Turkish side to apply pressure to regional powers or promote its national interests. The dogma of geopolitical “opportunism” has been a decisive trait of Turkish goals in the Eastern Mediterranean. While it has led to many small victories in the past, it has now become the cause of its regional ostracism.

The history of the Republic of Turkey begins shortly after the end of WWI and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. After its abolition by the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, the remaining Turkish territories fell under the occupation of Britain, France, Italy and Greece, but soon, under the command of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, it managed to regain not only its territories but also its sovereignty as a Turkish national state in 1923. Simultaneously, the period preceding the establishment of the Republic has been the root of many modern controversies. For instance, following the Greek Occupation of Western Anatolia in 1919, Kemal and the Young Turks initiated justifiably the Turkish War of Independence. However, the race for independence was accompanied by mass massacres of the Greek Pontian and Armenian population. The stigma of the genocide of that period has been one of the factors contributing to the current hostility between the countries of Greece and Turkey (Shirinian, 2017). In the next decades, Turkey reformed itself successfully to a modern nation-state and transferred its capital from Istanbul to a less vulnerable location, the centrally located Ankara. Its national doctrine relied on avoiding intranational tensions, while simultaneously focusing on Turkey’s integrity and international position. By taking lessons from its past, Turkey remained neutral in WWII, though it traded and purchased arms from both sides (Deringil, 1982).

In the bipolar world of the Cold War (1947-1989), Turkey was a formidable and loyal partner of the West in its dangerous confrontation with the Soviet. Despite its brief “flirt” with the Soviet Union the year before, Turkey decided to align with the West, thus becoming the receiver of the vast US military and economic support in the context of the Truman doctrine (Huston, 1988). This choice can be attributed to the fear of the Soviet Union’s invasion with which it shared direct borders or the will to join the Western side of the international order. Some years later, in 1952, it joined NATO and became one of the main pro-Western states in the Middle East. On top of that, the favouritism of Turkey to the West was further manifested by the two pacts: the first being the Baghdad Pact in 1955 and the second being the Phantom. As aforesaid, the latter was an organization founded in 1955 by Turkey, Iraq, Great Britain, Pakistan and Iran, to promote shared political, military and economic goals, while the latter was a secret alignment signed by Iran, Israel and Turkey in 1958. In both cases, the countries participating in these agreements were pro-Western. The culminating point of the state’s efforts to join the West was its talks about becoming a member of the European Economic Community (Volk, 2013).

Following the Six Days War, Turkey took its more pro-Arab course. First, Turkey asked the UN General Assembly to force Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories in the aftermath of 1967. Secondly, it decided to join the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in 1969 (Bolubkasi, 1999). Thirdly, another move indicating the Turkish “change of heart” regarding the Arab-Palestinian conflict was the establishment of better relations with the PLO. In 1979, Turkey recognized the office of the Palestinian mission in Istanbul, hence giving it a semi-diplomatic status (Aykan, 1993). Fourthly, following the Yom Kippur War, Turkey accepted the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. At the same time, it became apparent that “whenever Israel was in direct confrontation with Arab states and whenever Israel was directly humiliating Palestinians, Turkey was on the side of the Palestinians” (Volk, 2013: 27). Likewise, whenever Arab countries confronted Turkish policies, it turned again to Israel’s side. This behaviour could be described as rather opportunistic and a manifesto of its practice of cherry-picking in its foreign policy. Despite the passage of decades, this sort of “modus operandi” has persisted until now.

When it comes to the East Mediterranean, a major event occurred in 1974. After a decade of intercommunal violence on the island of Cyprus and the Greek military coup of July 1974 that overthrew President Makarios and then installed Nikos Sampson as a dictator, Turkey invaded the Republic of Cyprus in 1974. As a result of this move, Turkey captured 36% of the island. The following negotiations at the international level and the creation of the “Green Line” (it divides the island into two zones) further “crystallized” the disintegration of Cyprus.  In 1983, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) declared independence, although Turkey is the only country that recognizes it. Since then, the occupation of Cyprus has become a thorn in the Greco-Turkish and Cyprus-Turkish relations, and the failure of a dissolution of the Cyprus dispute has made exaggerated the tensions in the region. Despite the attempts of the international community to provide closure to this topic, it has not been achieved with serious implication for contemporary affairs.

On the domestic front, Turkey was tormented by several internal coups d’état in 1961, 1971 and 1980 (Matthew, 1994). Whereas this might seem irrelevant, it sheds some light on Erdogan’s recent overreaction to the 2016 Gulen coup. Instead of viewing the event as a single phenomenon, it is making more sense to examine it as a continuity of an ongoing internal pattern. Except for that, since 1984, Turkey is confronted with the Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK) attacks, which have claimed over 40,000 lives, until 2009 (BBC, 2009). The Kurdish insurgency against the Turkish government has been an apple of discord with its neighbours (for example, Iraq has a big Kurdish population) while remaining a strong motive for the adoption of more security measures by the Turkish government.

 

Based on this overview of the historical developments in the Eastern Mediterranean, the forthcoming second part of this series provides an analysis of the socio-economic challenges of the region.

Dawid A. Fusiek

Author: Dawid A. Fusiek

Dawid Aristotelis Fusiek is a postgraduate alumnus of the University of Utrecht, where he studied International Relations and History. In the last years, he has collaborated with various think tanks all over Europe, such as the Institute of European Democrats in Brussels, or the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) in Athens. He has published articles and research papers regarding political philosophy and European Affairs for the Hellenic Association of Political Scientists and the University of Utrecht. Currently, he is writing two policy recommendations regarding the geopolitical role of Europe and the image of Turkey in Greece. He takes great interest in European Affairs, International Relations Theory and Security Studies. When not writing, he likes to listen to 70s music, investigate the history of art, watch Italian neorealism movies and read philosophy books of the 20th century.

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