A rich hydrocarbons basin in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea has raised regional tensions significantly, as the surrounding nations scramble to carve out their territorial claims. This situation has created a web of unlikely alliances, and has placed Turkey at odds with its neighbours. In this piece, Edwin Tran examines the risks posed by this Mediterranean tempest.
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Headlines about Turkey seem to come at lightspeed, with political machinations and international developments occurring at an almost incomprehensible degree. From Turkey’s intervention in Libya to historic bilateral agreements with Qatar and Pakistan, it’s clear that the Turkish regime has attempted to place itself more centrally on the international theatre. This is especially apparent when contextualised with Turkey’s ever confusing dynamic between major powers like the European Union, United States, and Russia. In many ways, Turkey’s political movements highlight a conscious decision in striking their own geopolitical path.
At the heart of these developments lies a basin of resources underneath the eastern parts of the Mediterranean Sea. Key oil and natural gas deposits, such as the Aphrodite Gas Field, have sparked tensions between Turkey and its neighbours. The last few months have seen even more escalation, as plans to access these resources become closer to bearing fruit. All across the Mediterranean, countries like Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt have carried on a tense game of alliance making. Ongoing trade negotiations, economic agreements, and resource sharing initiatives have resulted in a bewildering array of international relations. As the region gets closer towards tapping these natural resources, the political geography grows ever more unstable.
The Shifting Seas
When assessing the Eastern Mediterranean basin, clear lines can be drawn in the murky waters. At the heart of this politicking is the debate on a country’s sovereignty in its oceanic exclusive economic zones (EEZ). For decades, Turkey has criticised its Greek neighbour for violating Turkey’s sea borders. Indeed, some have considered Turkey’s involvement in North Cyprus as being a further projection of Turkish hegemony over the Mediterranean waters. Greece has lobbed similar critiques against Turkey, and the country cites its own involvement in the “UN International Law of the Sea, which grants islands a continental shelf and EEZ.”
Just to the south of Turkey’s borders, trilateral agreements and meetings between Lebanon, Cyprus, and Greece have focused heavily on these new resources and have hinted at further security alignment against Turkey. Adding to this dimension is Israel’s own involvement with Greece and Cyprus; a 2017 discussion between these countries (and Italy) resulted in a memorandum of understanding and the budding of a potential pipeline project. Turkish officials responded to these acts stingingly, arguing that such moves violated North Cyprus sovereignty. Turkish fears were further heightened when in January 2019 the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum was launched, which saw the participation of representatives from Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Palestine. This development builds on decades of precedence and previous planning. In fact, the EEZ borders of Greece, Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt were already discussed and agreed upon with one another as early as 2003. Even more striking is the fact that Israel and Lebanon, traditional enemies, seem to be using the U.S. as a medium for cordial negotiations between the two countries over the Mediterranean basin.
The significance of these developments cannot be understated. The fact that tacit cooperation between countries with a history of belligerence highlights just how important this basin is. Turkey, in response, has also cultivated alliances and increased its hard power projection. Turkish foreign policy has focused on the deployment of foreign military bases, with installations found in Iraq, northern Syria, Qatar, Somalia, and most significant to Turkish designs in the Mediterranean, North Cyprus. President Erdogan has fostered positive relations with the House of al-Thani in Qatar following the Saudi-Qatari Crisis of 2017, while its actions in north Syria highlight Turkey’s resolve at securing its borders. Although these actions should be viewed in a broader lens of Turkey seeking a more independent foreign policy, they can and should also be seen as political actions in support of Turkey’s Mediterranean claims.
The most striking of these actions is Turkey’s recent involvement in Libya. Siding against the Haftar-led Libyan National Army (LNA), Erdogan has lent his support to the Government of National Accord (GNA), sent a number of Syrian-Turkmen fighters – mostly former Free Syrian Army forces – as proxy “volunteers”, and concluded an EEZ agreement that cuts diagonally across the Mediterranean and into Greek territorial seas. These actions have sent shock and alarm across the Mediterranean. Egypt and its Arab Gulf allies have supported the LNA for several years and Turkish involvement stands directly antithetical. At the same time, French President Macron has directed criticism against Turkey’s actions, arguing that Turkish involvement was “a serious and explicit infringement of what was agreed upon in [the] Berlin [conference].” The extension of Turkey’s EEZ via Libya was especially criticised. On January 8, 2020, France, Greece, Egypt, and Cyprus argued that the move “infringes upon the sovereign rights of third states [and] does not comply with the law of the sea.”
Even more alarming is the discourse between Turkey and Greece. Reports on December 3, 2019 indicated that bilateral discussions between Turkey and Greece would soon be underway. Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis revealed that he would “put to President Erdogan all the issues relating to Turkish provocation,” further adding that they would “talk openly,” and noted that “it is in Turkey’s interest to retrench from provocative moves.” Erdogan, however, responded to these claims sternly, noting that its adversaries “should be aware that the efforts of Greece, Israel, Egypt and the Greek Cypriots will not stand in the way of the steps we have taken with Libya. We signed the agreement. We will bring it to Parliament, where it will be ratified by a majority and from that point on it will be in force.”
This rhetoric has manifested into actual political action. In December 2019, Greek warships were moved to the island of Crete following Turkey’s deals with the GNA. On December 15, Turkish warships escorted an Israeli research vessel out of North Cyprus waters. Just weeks later, a landmark deal between Greece, Cyprus, and Israel resulted in the unveiling of a gas pipeline agreement between these countries. In response, the Turkish Foreign Ministry argued that the agreement was “the latest instance of futile steps, aiming to exclude Turkey and Turkish Cyprus in the region,” and noted that “any project disregarding Turkey, which has the longest coastline in eastern Mediterranean and the Turkish Cypriots, who have equal rights over the natural resources of the island of Cyprus, cannot succeed.” Shortly after these developments, Erdogan pushed tensions further and declared that Turkey would “start search and drilling activities as soon as possible in 2020 after issuing licenses for the areas.” Around the same time, Cyprus accused Turkish ships of entering legally leased Cypriot waters. In a span of two months, political tensions in the Mediterranean surged, and many analysts have prophesied concern and instability.
Forecast: Rain and Political Drama
The outlook of the Mediterranean Sea is murky and tumultuous. An atmosphere of belligerence has begun to push pressure to potentially unprecedented heights, signalling the coming of a new storm. The developments in this sea have coincided with further straining of ties across the globe; Turkish-U.S. relations have significantly declined, while conflicts in Syria and Libya have strained Turkish-Russian ties.
Domestically, the situation is also fraught. Driving much of Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy is an economic situation that has deteriorated significantly in the last few years. Currency crises, blunders with interest rates, and high unemployment have characterised the Turkish economy in the recent years (though some recovery was noted in December). These issues are not unique to the Turkish regime. Across the Mediterranean, macroeconomic factors reveal a landscape of rapidly declining economies that require new ventures. Jordan and Lebanon have seen intensified debt crises, employment declines, and political instability. The Egyptian situation is incredibly negative, with an extremely high population that coincides with significantly high unemployment. Israel, meanwhile, faces political gridlock that has manifested itself into three elections. Greece’s own situation has remained dour, with rampant unemployment and declining social services. For all of these countries, access to the Mediterranean basin would be a significant boon that no one could pass on.
It’s important to consider Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and her words: “Let me tell you something that we Israelis have against Moses. He took us 40 years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil!” While Meir was fixated on Moses’s wanderings, she never once considered how he parted the sea. If she had, then she might have seen the riches lying underneath the sea floor.
Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:
- Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds (Stephen Kinzer)
- Conflict & Prosperity: Geopolitics and Energy in the Eastern Mediterranean (Blondheim et al)
- The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey (Soner Cagaptay)
- The Eastern Mediterranean in Transition (Spyridon N. Litsas & Aristotle Tziampiris)
Additional geopolitical reading suggestions can be found on our 2019 reading list
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Edwin Tran is an independent analyst focusing on geopolitics and the Levantine region. He is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno with degrees in History and International Affairs, and has published work in various sites from newspapers to academic journals. Edwin has spent time living and researching in the Levant region, and specialises in hybrid organisations and their historical contexts in order to understand their popularity and political successes within civil society.
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