East Med tensions: War the aim, gas the excuse

By coming out to defend its interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey may instead be getting deliberately drawn into a war it is not ready to fight.

Greek naval vessel (US Navy).

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The Israeli government in July ratified an agreement to build a 1,900-kilometre undersea pipeline that will pump natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe. The pipeline, which will cost an estimated $6 billion to build, will be a joint project with Cyprus, Greece and Italy. The countries have until 2022 to agree on an investment plan for the pipeline, which they aim to complete by 2025. The cooperation between these countries has escalated tensions in the region with Turkey, which under the plan sees itself cut out of the gas bonanza taking place off its southern coast.

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Turkey has a number of issues with the emerging energy alliance between these four countries, as well as their dealings with Egypt. First of all, the plan has been drawn up around a maritime demarcation agreement between Greece and Cyprus that Turkey doesn’t recognise. Turkey doesn’t even recognise the existence of the Republic of Cyprus, which it simply refers to as the Greek Cypriot administration. The only sovereign entity Turkey recognises on the island is the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which itself is not recognised by any country except Turkey. Turkey has its own maritime demarcation deal with the TRNC that divides between the two nations the maritime territory that is claimed by the internationally-recognised Republic of Cyprus. Turkey therefore argues that the deal between Greece and Cyprus infringes on its own maritime boundaries and that of the TRNC.

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While Turkey does recognise its neighbour Greece and its right to claim a maritime territory for hydrocarbon exploration, Turkey argues that Greece has laid claim to too much territory. Greece bases its claims on an updated version of the international Law of the Sea. That law allows countries to establish their maritime claims around their islands, which therefore gives Greece the right to include the majority of the Aegean within its claim. Turkey, which is not a signatory to the updated version of the law, is not pleased with this situation, as it limits Turkish drilling rights to a small area off its coastline. Greece’s tiny island of Kastellorizo, located just two miles south of the Turkish coastal province of Antalya, also gives Greece the right to claim a huge chunk of the Eastern Mediterranean and connect its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) with that of Cyprus. This further limits Turkish exploration rights to the Bay of Iskenderun.

To counter Greek attempts to exclude it from the Mediterranean, Turkey struck a maritime demarcation deal with the internationally-recognised government of Libya late last year. The deal is ultimately an endorsement on the part of a legitimate sovereign nation of Turkey’s right to drill in the Mediterranean in a territory claimed by Greece. Greece, Cyprus, France and Egypt have refused to recognise the Turkish-Libyan agreement, and have urged the UN to do the same. In response, Greece is now in talks with Egypt to strike a similar demarcation deal that would add further weight to Athens’ claim and in effect override the one between Tripoli and Ankara.

Nevertheless, Turkey has wasted no time in using its mandate to search for gas in the area. Its seismic vessels and drillships have already been active in waters off Cyprus, and now they have moved into waters between Libya and Greece. There have already been a number of close encounters between Greek and Turkish warships in the southern Aegean, but the reality is that neither the Greek nor the Cypriot navies have the capability to take on the Turkish navy in a sea battle. They would need the help of a more powerful country, and perhaps they hoped the arrival of a French warship in the region earlier this year would be a deterrent for Turkey. Again, Turkey showed no signs of backing down, even in confrontation with the French warship in June. To France’s dismay, NATO actually took Turkey’s side of the story after French president Emmanual Macron launched a complaint to the transatlantic military bloc.

Having failed to get the support from NATO they were looking for, France and Greece have turned their attention to the European Union. They are now calling for EU sanctions against Turkey and a halt to Turkey’s EU accession process. President Macron has made no secret of his desire to establish a European army that would most likely rival NATO’s role in the continent, which probably explains why he didn’t get much success in gaining the bloc’s favour in his nation’s dispute with Turkey. But at present, the EU has no such army, although there is an article in the Lisbon Treaty that calls on individual EU countries to show solidarity when one of its members come under attack. Article 42 does not explicitly state solidarity needs to be shown in the form of military action, it does not require countries to give up their neutrality, and it does not necessarily undermine NATO’s Article 5, which states that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on them all. Article 42 of the Lisbon Treaty was included mainly on Greece’s request to give it added leverage against Turkey, which is a member of NATO but not the EU. Now France and Greece are considering activating Article 42 against Turkey.

Battle of the NAVTEX

With so many warships in the region, there is a real danger that tensions could boil over into a direct conflict at any time. Eastern Mediterranean nations are readying their navies for all possibilities with military drills. In July, Turkey carried out naval drills off the coast of Libya, while France held naval drills with Egypt. Turkey has often disrupted hydrocarbon exploration efforts in the region by issuing NAVTEX alerts, reserving vast areas of international waters for naval exercises. Neighbouring countries usually instruct their ships to divert course to avoid coming under fire accidentally, as is the sensible thing to do, but in July, Greece took a stand and instead issued a NAVTEX in the same area Turkey had declared its own over the same period of time. This time, Turkey did not consider the move a bluff. Almost out of the blue, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered for all Turkish drillships to halt their operations near the islands of Crete and Kastellorizo to allow Ankara and Athens to engage in negotiations amid reports of German mediation efforts. To save face, however, Turkey instead moved its ships to waters off Cyprus, indicating that its talks with Athens will in no way affect its attitude towards Nicosia.

Regardless, Turkey’s acceptance of talks with Greece was the first sign of a de-escalation following the peak of tensions. Turkey’s backtrack could be considered an acknowledgement of the limits of its own power and the reality of the possibility of a war it would prefer to avoid. Until now, Turkey’s confidence has largely come from its perceived support from the US. Although the US has its own issues with Turkey, Washington has given Turkey’s policy on Libya a silent nod, as Turkey is currently the only force preventing Russian-backed forces advancing west of Sirte. In that aspect, Turkey was able to expect the US to support its policy over the policies of Greece and France, who, like Russia, have backed renegade commander Khalifa Hafter in the Libyan conflict. But that’s not to say that Turkey has been given the green light to behave how it wants in every situation. The commencing of US military drills with Cyprus a year after Washington overturned an arms embargo on Nicosia was a signal to Turkey that it was beginning to overstep its mark.

Furthermore, despite being on opposing sides in Libya, Turkey and Russia have largely been cooperating to limit fighting and push for a political solution, just as they have done in Syria. In a way, Turkey needs Russian involvement in Libya to justify its own involvement to the US and even European countries, like Italy and Malta, who fear the entire Libyan coastline falling to the Russians more than they fear it falling to the Turks. At least the Turks can somewhat be controlled through the threat of sanctions. The Russians, however, are a little harder to control and a much more powerful adversary that is neither part of NATO nor the EU.

But recent incidents involving a clash of Turkish and Russian interests are also sending the message to Turkey that the Russians are growing impatient with Ankara’s behaviour. This has been seen in Syria, where Russia carried out an air strike on Turkish allies in Al Bab, perhaps as a warning to Turkey to speed up its clearing of rebel groups along the M4 Highway in southern Idlib. Unconfirmed reports have also suggested that a recent air strike on the Turkish-controlled Al Watiya air base south of the Libyan capital Tripoli was also carried out by the Russians to warn Turkish-backed forces against making moves towards capturing the oil-rich city of Sirte. Also, an Armenian attack on Azerbaijan’s Tovuz region could be seen as another message. Russia is a strong backer of Armenia, while Azerbaijan is a Turkish ally. Tovuz is an important intersection for a number of energy and transport projects between Europe and Azerbaijan, running through Turkey, that run counter to Russian interests.

Turkey might be able to take cheap shots at Greece when no one is looking, but it is in no position to anger the US, the EU and Russia all at the same time, despite managing to achieve that with its decision to reconvert the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul back into a mosque. Perhaps Turkey was able to get away with that because the Hagia Sophia only carries a spiritual significance rather than a geopolitical one, but the reality is that despite its admirable efforts to wriggle itself to geopolitical freedom, Turkey is still very much in an internationally-enforced stranglehold. Turkey is already in the midst of a currency and inflation crisis that is turning much of its population against the governing AK Party. It cannot risk coming under sanctions or diplomatic isolation. Should the AK Party get voted out, Turkey may come under a more internationally compliant government that will roll back on all its overseas and cross-border endeavours. So, just as Turkey is de-escalating tensions with Greece, it is also showing more of a desire to seek out a peaceful solution in Libya.

Turkey could face naval blockade

Now that everyone has their cards on the table, they can finally start talking. The only alternative to talks now is war. But while the threat of war in the Eastern Mediterranean takes precedence, it seems that many of the states involved in the dispute are forgetting about the thing that is potentially bringing them to blows — natural gas. Many experts have long been saying that exporting gas from the Eastern Mediterranean is nothing more than a pipe dream.

Firstly, building a pipeline that would transport gas to Europe will be incredibly expensive and risky. Low gas prices also mean that drilling costs currently do not economically justify such projects. Many energy firms are struggling to survive under these circumstances, including Israeli firm Delek, which has a licence in the Aphrodite gas field off Cyprus. The involvement of multiple countries also presents another problem, as each state has its own jurisdiction on the export of natural gas, which will further complicate matters. To add, US energy firm Chevron recently acquired Texas-based company Noble and in doing so became the number one stakeholder in the Aphrodite field. The acquisition has many speculating whether Chevron will pull out of the offshore venture if they find a lack of economic incentive to continue. Regardless of how tensions in the region develop, it is more than likely that international gas exports from the Eastern Mediterranean will never come into fruition.

So why all this bother? Well, when one nation shows interest in exploring for hydrocarbons in the region, all nations are obliged to get involved. They cannot simply sit back and allow a competitor to take all the spoils. Natural gas exports may not be viable today, but may be in the future. Then again, there is no guarantee this will ever be the case, and there are certainly a lot more areas each country could be investing in that would bring about more regional cooperation without the risk of war.

This may lead one to wonder what is actually the point of this gas bonanza, if not war itself. The situation has already brought a French warship to the fray, which would have no need to be in the region otherwise. It has created an unnecessary crisis between Turkey and the EU, one which could lead to Turkey being slapped with sanctions and having its economic growth being put back 50 years. It is creating a situation that could eventually see Turkish ships unable to access the open seas without passing by European gunboats — in other words, a naval blockade. By coming out to defend its interests in the Mediterranean, Turkey may instead be getting deliberately drawn into a war it is not ready to fight. Opinions will vary, but it may be the right time to ask whether war is the consequence of the Eastern Mediterranean gas bonanza, or the aim.

Ertan Karpazli is the Editor-in-Chief of Radio EastMed.
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All views expressed by the writer are solely his own.

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