Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean: Maritime Disputes and Geopolitical Competition
Recent tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean have multiple drivers including the race for exploitation of energy resources, long-standing maritime disputes, and the broader geopolitical competition between regional powers. While Turkey’s recent assertiveness of her rights in the Eastern Mediterranean drew renewed attention to the region, this round of confrontation has been long in the making. Greece’s ambition to claim exclusive economic zones (EEZ) for its islands up to 12 nautical miles based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, which would essentially turn the Aegean Sea into a Greek lake, is a major driver of current tensions. Turkey is not a signatory to this convention and has long declared such a scenario a cause for war. Furthermore, the irresolution of the Cyprus problem exacerbated by the European Union’s admission of the island as a member (EU members cannot have unresolved border issues) complicates maritime disputes between the two neighbors, who are also NATO allies. These unresolved issues between Greece and Turkey are becoming increasingly more complicated by the gas exploration activities and the broader geopolitical competition in the region. The threat of a conflict will hopefully subside as the two sides are working to lower tensions. But it is far from certain whether a lasting resolution can be possible without addressing the Cyprus issue in the face of the EU’s unqualified support for the Greek side along with its sanctions threats against Turkey.
The Greek Islands and Cyprus Issues
Greece claims that its islands along the Turkish coast should be entitled to their own exclusive economic zones based on their continental shelves. If this claim were to be recognized, it would essentially mean that Turkey’s economic activities would have to be limited to 2 kilometers away from its southern shore, as in the case of the Meis island. The Greek side’s claim would not only restrict Turkey to an extremely thin line of a coast but turn the Aegean Sea into a Greek sea. Turkey has already announced and underlined that the Greek claim to increase these islands’ EEZs to 12 nautical miles would be “casus belli.” This proposition by Greece, which is based on a maximalist interpretation of the UN’s Law of the Sea, is simply a non-starter for Turkey. Turkey has not signed and ratified the Law of the Sea for this reason while maintaining that its deal with Libya is in line with international maritime law.
The Greek islands and rock formations in the Aegean and the Mediterranean Seas are so close to the Turkish shoreline that it is unreasonable to claim that they could have exclusive economic zones. Many of them are either uninhabited or cannot sustain human habitation or economic activity without outside help. This is why Greece continues to populate some of these islands in order to claim economic activity, and EEZs by extension. The most recent and provocative visit by the Greek President to the almost 12 square kilometer island of Meis (1.2 miles off the Turkish coastal town of Kaş) is meant to show that these islands are viable economic entities and part of the Greek mainland. If Athens is allowed to claim this island should have its own EEZ and connect with the EEZs of the Greek islands and rock formations, Greece would gain thousands of square kilometers of waters and Turkey would be confined to a tiny strip of shoreline despite having the longest shore in the Mediterranean. The status quo already greatly benefits Greece with so many islands so close to the Turkish shore but increasing their EEZs would effectively mean appropriation of thousands of square miles of waters from Turkey’s shores.
The Cyprus issue remains a major problem between the two countries as Greece denies the rights of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). After decades of failed negotiations to reunify the island, where Turkish forces have been stationed since 1974 to protect the Turkish population, the European Union admitted the island of Cyprus as if there were no border issues. This decision has strengthened the hand of Greece and Greek Cypriots but it also made it more difficult to arrive at a final resolution. Turkey argues that the benefits of the natural resources around the island should be shared by both populations. As the EU accepts and recognizes Cyprus as a full member, disregarding the island’s territorial disunity and disputed maritime borders, Turkey is exploring and drilling around the island based on the certificates issued by the TRNC. Turkey further claims any exploitation of resources by the Greek Cypriots would have to be shared with the Turkish population of the TRNC. Turkey is, thus, refusing to play the game that the EU and Greece would prefer.
The discovery of the natural gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean in recent years drove the countries in the region to strike bilateral maritime agreements to ensure economic opportunities through exploration and drilling activities. However, these agreements have been made without the involvement or acquiescence of the country with the longest shoreline to the Mediterranean Sea, which is Turkey. Combined with the long-standing Greek islands and the Cyprus issues, exploration and drilling activities are driving the region to new levels of heightened tensions. Regional powers like Israel and Egypt reached agreements with Greece and Southern Cyprus while excluding Turkey from a broader understanding. Turkish policymakers have felt that they were being boxed into a tiny strip of a shoreline as a result of Greece’s maximalist claims. The Greek strategy has been to use European support and bilateral agreements with Israel and Egypt to assert its claims in spite of Turkish opposition. The EU’s admission of Cyprus as a member, ignoring the fact that it is a divided island, already encouraged Greece to proceed without compromise with Turkey.
Turkey-Libya Maritime Delimitation Agreement
Turkey, however, took a major step by asserting its own claims in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s maritime delimitation agreement with Libya, signed in November 2019, was the most serious effort in recent years to affirm the country’s rights. This agreement came into effect in the context of the UN-recognized Libyan government’s call for help against Khalifa Hafter’s forces. It ensures Turkish rights based on the two countries’ continental shelves in the Eastern Mediterranean and determines the maritime borders between the two countries. At the same time, the agreement is a direct challenge against Greece’s expansive and maximalist claims of its EEZ. The agreement was rejected by Greece based on its claims about the EEZs of its islands. The EU leaders also claimed the deal was not valid, as it infringed upon the “sovereign rights of third countries” and did not comply with the Law of the Sea. Turkey maintained the deal was in line with international law.
The agreement creates a barrier to the declared plans, whose economic viability is questionable, to transmit Eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe through a pipeline bypassing Turkey. In many ways, the agreement puts on notice the parties to the EastMed that such a project cannot be realized without an agreement with Turkey. To counter Turkey’s agreement with Libya, Greece and Egypt signed a deal, the full details and extent of which have not been revealed. Turkey declared it “null and void” underscoring its intent to stand by its deal with Libya. Greece appears to continue its strategy to push Turkey into accepting an extremely narrow shoreline through agreements with other states and by leveraging the French-led, albeit limited, European support at the same time. Turkey is unfazed in the face of such a coalition and has every intention to assert and protect its rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The EU promises a “carrot and stick” approach in a leaders’ summit at the end of September, threatening sanctions if there is no agreement between Turkey and Greece over the maritime issues. Such a policy hides the fact that the EU’s admission of Cyprus into the union as a full member (against the EU acquis that states no member can have disputed borders), playing a major role in today’s disputes. While Turkey has repeatedly stated its openness to find a diplomatic solution, it has continued to flex its military muscle in case negotiations fail. In many ways, Turkey is adopting its own carrot and stick approach to the problem by showing its readiness to use both soft and hard power to defend its rights and interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. The diplomatic efforts might achieve a lowering of tensions but they might flare up in the future without a broader agreement on outstanding issues between Greece and Turkey.
The US Policy
The US has remained largely absent from many of the policy discussions in the Eastern Mediterranean in the context of the broader global retrenchment. Ever since its Libya intervention, where the Obama administration preferred to “lead from behind,” the US administration has not shown a strong interest in the region until recently. The most recent legislative action in the U.S. Congress has the potential to complicate matters for Turkey, as it lifts the arms embargo on Cyprus. The US’s direct support to Greek Cypriots would increase tensions in the region where several red lines have already been drawn by Turkey. The US policy is still not well articulated and it seems driven by deeply negative congressional views on Turkey as well as by Russia’s increasing role in the region.
The Trump administration adopted a rather sharp position very recently with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Southern Cyprus. Pompeo criticized Turkey stating, “we remain deeply concerned by Turkey’s ongoing operations surveying for natural resources in areas over which Greece and Cyprus assert jurisdiction over the eastern Mediterranean.” While this does not bode well for the US-Turkey relationship and the Turkish government called on the US to return to a “neutral” position, Pompeo’s visit may be intended to counter increasing Russian influence in the Eastern Mediterranean as well. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited the island days before Pompeo and offered to mediate between Greece and Turkey to resolve tensions. While the US might attempt to steer the Greek Cypriots and Greece away from Russia, it may end up further militarizing the region while inadvertently strengthening Greece’s bargaining power in its negotiations with Russia. The US-Turkey relations have experienced serious tensions in recent years, and open support for the Greek and Southern Cypriots positions would only help to alienate Turkey, reducing the chances of a resolution of outstanding issues.
Turkey’s Eastern Mediterranean policy has assumed a much more dynamic outlook after the EU’s admission of Greek Cyprus into the Union and the discoveries of natural gas resources in the region. As Greece and Greek Cyprus set out to exploit such resources by excluding and in spite of Turkey, Turkish policymakers refuse to accept the maximalist Greek conception of maritime borders and EEZs in the Eastern Mediterranean. At odds with Israel and Egypt over regional matters, Turkey is asserting its rights and maritime borders to warn these countries that they cannot push Turkey into a corner in the region. Turkey’s agreement with Libya effectively blocks the EastMed project and requires Greece, Greek Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt to engage with Turkey if they are serious about exporting natural gas to Europe. Although the financial viability of the project is highly suspect due to very low natural gas prices, Turkey wants to prevent yet another fait accompli that would essentially redraw Turkey’s maritime borders. Given the multiple sets of overlapping and often conflicting issues such as the maritime borders and EEZs of Greek islands, the divided island of Cyprus, exploration and drilling of natural gas, geopolitical competition between regional players, and the global competition between the US and Russia, only cooperative behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean would benefit the region. Turkey has already shown it would not sit idly by if the regional powers encroach upon its national rights.