The "Western-Arab" camp includes most European countries to varying degrees as well as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. On September 17, 2020, a European Parliament resolution condemning Turkey’s behavior in the East Mediterranean got 601 votes for and 57 against, with 36 abstentions. In addition, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority are members of the EastMed Gas Forum (along with Cyprus, Greece and Israel), which transformed itself into an intergovernmental organization in 2020. While unwilling to break with Ankara – especially given President Trump’s apparent fascination with his Turkish counterpart – the United States is now clearly taking sides with Europe in the dispute. Washington revised its defense agreement with Greece in 2019 and partially lifted its arms embargo against Cyprus in 2020.
The geopolitical temperature clearly rose in the spring and summer of 2020 as Ankara licensed several ships to explore in disputed waters – protected by the Turkish Navy – around Cyprus and Greece. Meanwhile, on June 10, Turkish forces targeted a French warship monitoring the arms embargo against Libya (a NATO operation), claiming it had a provocative attitude. This drove President Macron – the target of repeated personal attacks by his Turkish counterpart – to reinforce defense links with Greece and Cyprus, and to attempt to mobilize European solidarity with them. The unilateral delimitation of Greek-Egyptian waters in August 2020 echoed that of the Turkish-Libyan delimitation agreement of November 2019, drawing economic battle lines which, in a pessimistic scenario, could become military ones.
Scenarios and Possible Outcomes
The crisis in the East Mediterranean is multifaceted and cannot be expected to be resolved one way or the other any time soon: tensions may rise on one front and be lowered on another. Still, the radicalization of political positions and the coalescence of two broad fronts allow for the possibility of three general scenarios.
Scenario 1: A Lowering of Tensions
An immediate lowering of tensions could perhaps be achieved through mediation, but few actors would be credible to play such a role. The Atlantic Alliance cannot police itself and NATO can only provide an umbrella for confidence-building military talks. (Recall also that Cyprus is not a member of NATO.) Germany is a member of the EU and cannot be seen as a disinterested party even though it played a useful role in defusing the tensions during the summer. Russia hinted that it could play such a role – but Turkey does not seem keen on this option. A possible way would be for the United States to play an honest broker role between Greece and Turkey, as it did in 1974 and 1996.
For a longer-term settlement, many avenues could coexist. Turkey would like all major disputes to be put on the table, due to their interconnections. A multilateral conference as suggested by the EU could be an option, but it is unlikely that all actors would agree on its agenda. Separately, an arbitration of international legal issues between Athens and Ankara by a court would certainly be desirable, but the two countries disagree on the possible agenda (only the EEZs for Athens, all territorial and status issues for Ankara). Direct negotiations between Greece and Turkey have been attempted before – and took place between 2002 and 2016 -, but remain equally difficult to imagine given that only one of the two countries appears interested in changing the status quo. More generally, it is hard to disagree with the Greek (and, increasingly, European) stance that aggressive and/or provocative behavior in the region does not create the proper atmosphere for a rational arbitration or negotiation.
Scenario 2: Showdown and Continuation of the Crisis
At this point, the most likely scenario is that several of the parties involved will embark, separately or collectively, in shows of economic and military strength. Even though Turkey is an important market, it is particularly vulnerable to European sanctions (the EU represents one third of its exports and half of its imports), especially in its current economic and monetary predicament. Moreover, the EU holds the cards of the accession process, which is still technically opened (as well as of incentives such as a renewed customs union or freedom of circulation for Turks). It is dubious that consensus could be reached in Brussels for harsh sanctions against Ankara, especially as long as Turkey appears to hold the keys to the emigration gates. Still, proponents point out that Mr. Erdogan has proven to be receptive to pressure and shows of force, which could be implemented by individual countries or coalitions of the willing, especially if the United States was to harden its attitude.
No one should expect the tensions to ease any time soon, unless Mr. Erdogan leaves/loses power. Other provocations and aggressive gestures are possible and even likely. And even though most of its allies would disagree that it would be in his interest to do so, he could decide to leave the NATO integrated military structure, or even leave the Alliance altogether.
Scenario 3: Open Military Conflict
An even more pessimistic view is that the current tensions in an area ranging from the Balkans to Azerbaijan is not without parallels with the early 1910s – a series of regional conflicts paving the way for a broader war. The parallel has obvious limitations. Open, large-scale military aggression is unlikely and Mr. Erdogan is almost certainly not interested in a major war (especially since the Turkish armed forces have yet to recover from the fallout of the 2016 coup and the ensuing purges). But a fait accompli or a serious incident between navies (or air forces) should now be considered a high-probability scenario. Whether or not this would lead to escalation would, as always, depend on the willingness and ability of the main strategic actors to defuse the tension.
A final word
A final word: one of the possible keys to the future current geopolitical dynamics in the Mediterranean is the future evolution of Russian-Turkish relations. Today, the two countries are partners, but the strength of history, geography and ambition leave the future open. Their empires have fought each other for nearly three hundred years. They have indirectly clashed while attempting to carve zones of influence in Syria and Libya. Each of them has a protégé in the Caucasus (Armenia and Azerbaijan). They compete on the oil and gas market (for access and transit), and could increasingly do so as Turkey reinforces its presence in the Black Sea. Whether it is an entente or a rivalry, a search for condominiums or a quest for cooperation, the relationship between Ankara and Moscow could become a strong factor in directly and indirectly re-shaping the Eastern Mediterranean Great Game.
Copyright: Louisa GOULIAMAKI / AFP