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Whose Sea? Untangling the Eastern Mediterranean Great Game

Whose Sea? Untangling the Eastern Mediterranean Great Game
 Bruno Tertrais
Senior Fellow - Geopolitics, International Relations and Demography

While the tensions between Greece and Turkey over their territorial waters are not new, the discovery of large natural gas deposits in recent decades in the Eastern Mediterranean has rekindled the latter's ambitions. On August 10, Ankara sent a seismic research vessel accompanied by a military flotilla into the seas claimed by Athens, leading to a military escalation in which several European powers, including France, took part. Following a videoconference between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Charles Michel on September 22, Turkey and Greece however declared that they were both ready to start exploratory talks. The de-escalation was celebrated by the members of the European Council during their October 1 and 2 meeting, who expressed their full solidarity with Greece and Cyprus.

Disputed territory, law of the sea, competition for resources, but also power, migration and political Islam: the stakes in the Eastern Mediterranean crisis are numerous and complex. This series aims at providing insights to better understand the situation in a region that is crucial to the stability of Europe and its neighbourhood. To do so, Soli Özel, Senior Fellow for International Relations, and Mahaut de Fougières, Policy Officer for International Affairs, at Institut Montaigne, asked Greek and Turkish experts to share their analysis on the strategic and legal aspects of the crisis. But to open this series, we called upon Bruno Tertrais, our Senior Fellow on Strategic Affairs, to untangle the "great game" currently at play in the Eastern Mediterranean, which, according to him, revolves around power and identity politics more than other stakes.

The current situation in the Eastern Mediterranean is an exceptionally volatile mix of high-end geostrategic stakes. Old disputes such as the ones between Greece, Cyprus and Turkey have been reshaped by newer rivalries about access to gas resources and access to their transit; the remaking of the Middle East and US abstention have opened new opportunities for the ambitions of neo-imperialist powers, such as Russia or Turkey; European fears of unchecked migrations and political Islam are being weaponized. 

While often described as centered on the competition for resources, the new Great Game in the Mediterranean is more fundamentally about power and identity politics. Four different but interrelated stakes appear: territorial sovereignty and the law of the sea; the control of resources and transit; the future of alliances; and broader, political and even civilizational agendas. Military escalation risks remain significant and defusing these tensions will require shrewd diplomacy. 

Territorial Sovereignty and the Law of the Sea

The entry into force of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) in 1994 has codified the definition of maritime borders and opened the possibility for States to claim the privilege of exploiting resources far away from their land territories. The "creeping jurisdiction" of the seas has helped settle old disputes, but also rekindled others and created new ones. 

A key question is the status and applicability of UNCLOS in the region.

UNCLOS defines territorial waters as up to 12 nautical miles (NM) and proclaims that States have "sovereign rights and jurisdiction" in an Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) of 200 NM, as well as on an extended continental shelf of up to 350 NM under certain conditions. But the cramped geography of the Eastern Mediterranean makes it difficult to implement such principles. When States are close to each other, UNCLOS calls for "equitable" solutions to be found. 

It treats islands as any other part of national territories as long as they can "sustain human habitation or economic life of their own". Further complicating the situation is the fact that several countries of the region have failed to sign (Israel, Syria, Turkey) or ratify (Lebanon) UNCLOS. 

The main disputes involve two interconnected areas. 

The Aegean Sea, Greece vs. Turkey: 

  • While both countries currently exercise sovereignty only as far as 6 NM, Greece reserves its right to apply UNCLOS provisions (12 miles), which would deprive Turkey of free access to the high seas – and be considered a casus belli by Ankara. In addition, sovereignty over a few small islands (Imia/Kardak) remains a bone of contention.
  • Under the terms of several early 20th century conventions, Greek islands in the Eastern Aegean are submitted to a complex regime of demilitarization (with distinct provision for three different areas). Athens and Ankara both dispute the applicability and the implementation of some of these provisions.
  • Greece claims a strict implementation of the letter of UNCLOS, implying that not only do isolated islands such as Crete and Rhodes generate their own continental shelf and EEZ, but even the smallest ones such as Kastellorizo do. Turkey has an equally maximalist claim of denying any continental shelf to Aegean islands. In the 2000s, EEZ agreements between Cyprus and its neighbors, as well as the supposed EU position, led to a hardening of the Turkish stance. The "Seville Map" – in reality a mere scholarly attempt to help the EU define its borders in the context of enlargement – became a fixture of the debate in Turkey, where it is claimed that the map is a firm representation of the EU position. This culminated in a November 2019 agreement with Libya to delineate adjacent waters. 

The Levant: 

  • Israel and Lebanon, which are still technically at war, have neither settled their land borders nor agreed on the demarcation of their EEZ. 
  • Nicosia considers that half of the island of Cyprus is occupied. Turkey is the only country to recognize the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus"
  • This has not prevented Cyprus from delimiting its EEZ with Egypt in 2003, Lebanon in 2007, and Israel in 2010, in order to facilitate gas exploration. 

Turkey believes that the TRNC should have its own EEZ, thus rejecting the aforementioned agreements between Nicosia and its neighbors. A key question here is the status and applicability of UNCLOS in the region. Greece and many other nations – including non-signatories – view the Convention as part of customary international law. Turkey’s legal counter-argument is that UNCLOS is a res inter alios acta – it commits only its parties –, even though the country applies these principles in the Black Sea. Ankara is on surer grounds when it claims that an international arbitration would satisfy some of its claims by applying the "equity" principle enshrined in UNCLOS. 

The Control of Resources and Transit

Territorial disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean are old and have a life of their own, but the gas discoveries of the 2000s have clearly given them a heightened relevance. This is especially the case in the Levant and North Africa – notably for Egypt, which may have up to 2,100 km3 of gas in its seabed, as well as Lebanon and Israel. By contrast, proven reserves around Cyprus are notably smaller (some 100-170 km3). In parallel, Libya continues to be a modest gas producer but a significant oil exporter – resources which are a stake in the civil war. 

Turkey is heavily dependent on the import of foreign fossil fuels and is seeking increased energy security, including by reducing the share of Russian gas in its imports. Recently, Ankara declared that it has discovered significant reserves in the Black Sea. In the Eastern Mediterranean, it focuses its exploration efforts on waters around Cyprus, having failed to make any significant discovery in its own waters. 

In parallel, Ankara has long sought to market itself as an energy hub, and this remains an important component of its strategy in the region. The TurkStream gas pipeline, connecting Russia to Turkey, was inaugurated with great fanfare in 2020. A second leg of the pipeline is planned to transport gas to the Balkans. Ankara thus sees the EastMed project – an early 2010s plan to connect Israel, Cyprus, Crete and the Greek mainland, which has been formally launched in 2020 – as a threat to its interests, especially since it judges that the pipeline would cross "Turkish waters". 

The desire to have control over the resource and its transit has as much to do with politics as with economics.

The mastery of gas in the Eastern Mediterranean should not be seen as a new gold rush. The region contains only about 1% of proven global reserves. Most importantly, the world is now awash with gas and its price, even before the drop in demand due to Covid-2019, appears structurally low. Many of the current projects – gas fields, gas pipelines – are not viable economically and some of them may not be for a very long time. Gas in the Eastern Mediterranean is a potential source of revenue and can alleviate import dependencies, but the desire to have control over the resource and its transit has as much to do with politics as with economics. 

The Future of Alliances 

The recent flexing of Turkish military muscle in adjacent waters to protect exploration and drilling ships, on top of several years of renewed activism in Syria and Libya, brought this reality into light. The crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean has become both a severe crisis for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a litmus test for the European Union (EU). 

NATO: a severe crisis

During the Cold War, Turkey was a "solution" for NATO, as it controlled the South-Eastern flank of the Soviet Union. Now, however, it is increasingly seen by many members as a "problem" for the Alliance. Having become a frontline State with the South since the 1990s, after having been one with the East, instabilities and interventions in the region have given it a particular voice in the North Atlantic Council (NAC), but internal tensions in Brussels have now risen to unprecedented levels. Blocking consensus on many key issues that range from defense plans to relations with non-members, Turkey has been described by European diplomats as "the elephant in the room".

Some European [NATO] members are mindful of Turkey’s leverage on domestically sensitive issues such as immigration or political Islam.

Compounding the problem has been its post-2015 rapprochement with Russia after the botched coup attempt of July 2016 and its acquisition of Russian S-400 air defense systems in defiance of objections from Washington and NATO. This purchase led to the termination by the Pentagon of Turkish participation in the production of the F-35 fighter-bomber program and the cancellation of the aircraft deliveries that Turkey had already paid for and sent its pilots to the US for training. These unprecedented developments have been supplemented by the face-off between Ankara and its allies in Northern Syria, which was the main cause behind French President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial 2019 diagnosis of NATO as a "brain dead" organization.

Turkish nationalists, for their part, believe the country is unjustifiably stigmatized, having "held the fort", so to say, for nearly 40 years but having thus been "imprisoned in the Black Sea". Moreover, the 2016 military coup attempt has heightened their suspicions of Western opposition to Turkey recovering its natural place as a dominant power in its neighborhood. Knowing that it is legally impossible to expel a NATO member country some of the most vocal figures are confident in their position. "If Greece [...] attacks Turkey, it would be the end of the Atlantic Alliance" says admiral Cem Gürdeniz, the father of the Mavi Vatan doctrine. 

Still, most NATO members are reluctant to confront Ankara. They fear Turkish obstructionism in NATO decision-making, recognize its military importance to the Alliance, and – for some European members – are mindful of Turkey’s leverage on domestically sensitive issues such as immigration or political Islam. 

The European Union: a litmus test 

While there is no strong consensus in the EU on how to tackle Turkey, most members recognize that the country’s attitude crystallizes three of the major current challenges the Union faces:

  • Sovereignty. The sovereignty of the EU involves controlling and defending its borders. Turkey’s ability to control two potential emigration gates (refugees from Syria and emigrants from Libya) challenges this. Regarding defense, Article 5 of the Washington Treaty only applies to external threats. (Cyprus and Malta are not members of NATO). And such borders are unclear in the Aegean Sea. Sovereignty also includes enhancing energy security by the diversification of the sources of supply – including regarding gas to avoid excessive dependency on Russia. Finally, the current dispute challenges the ability of the EU to forge consensus in its foreign policy: in September 2020, Cyprus wanted to condition the adoption of sanctions on Belarus on the EU taking a strong stance on the Mediterranean issue. 
  • Identity. Immigration from the Middle East and Africa, as well as Turkey’s promotion of a particular brand of political Islam, are often seen as potential challenges to Europe’s identity. Turkey’s very candidacy to the EU has long been seen as a problem by some in this regard. 
  • Rule of law. Some EU members (France in particular) look at the current crisis through the lenses of European attachment to, and promotion of, international law and institutions. The defense of UNCLOS in the Aegean Sea is seen as exemplary given the temptation of other powers (China, Russia) to encroach upon the sovereignty of their neighbors. Additionally, they blame Turkey for direct violations of the UN arms embargo against Libya. While France has attempted to mediate the Libyan conflict, it has also supported the Haftar faction which dominates the eastern part of the country, and is assisted by Russia and the United Arab Emirates.

A Geopolitical Challenge to the West 

The Eastern Mediterranean and its neighborhood - the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East and Africa – have become the theater of direct or indirect interventions by Turkey and Russia. Their ambitions are driven by a sense of victimization, ideological ambitions, political opportunism and economic needs. The "civilizational" dimension of such competition should not be underestimated: while Ankara and Moscow each promote nationalistic policies, both of them rejoin China and Iran in an anti-Western, Eurasia-oriented agenda. Turkey’s silence on the treatment of the Uyghur, which contrasts with its proclaimed defense of Muslims, is attributable to its rapprochement with Beijing, partly for economic reasons. 

Turkey’s own revanchist and expansionist agenda seeks to overturn the legacy of the Ouchy (1912), Sèvres (1920) and Lausanne (1923) treaties, seen as unjustly depriving the Turks of their lands (and waters). Consequently, "anything that was Ottoman [...] is naturally bound to become Ottoman again", from the Balkans to Kazakhstan

Turkey’s nationalists are obsessed with the fear of dismemberment.

The now-famous Mavi Vatan (Blue Homeland) doctrine, forged by Admiral Cem Gürdeniz in 2006, should be seen in this light. In the Mediterranean and Black Seas, Turkey claims to act for the whole Turkish world. "Turkey [...] represents the peoples from Kazakhstan to the Balkans who have no coasts. The Turkish Republic is the only country that can enable this world to be a maritime power", says Gürdeniz.

Another driver of Ankara’s imperialism is fear of aggression. While geopolitical paranoia is often constructed or exaggerated to support domestic agendas, it can become internalized and thus should be seen as at least partly genuine. Turkey’s nationalists are obsessed with the fear of dismemberment. The West is once again the enemy, having allied with the Kurds, attempted to overthrow the government in 2016, and seeking to deprive the country of its natural rights by forging groupings such as the EastMed Gas Forum. Mavi Vatan is thus presented as "a defensive doctrine against the demands and the impositions of the EU and the United States based on the Seville Map".

The picture would of course be incomplete without the promotion of political Islam, where the Turkish President’s personal role – supported by an increasingly religious-minded elite – has been key. Mr. Erdogan champions the Muslim Brotherhood and seeks to make his country the new leader of Sunni Islam, perhaps with Ayasofya-i Kebir Cami-i Şerifi (The Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque) symbolically supplanting Masjid al-Haram (the Great Mosque of Mecca).

The currently dominating Turkish elite has been described as "a curious blend of Islamists, disguised jihadists, hard-line Eurasianists, ultra-nationalists, a bulk of military adventurists and political opportunists" and Erdogan’s doctrine as simultaneously one of "post-kemalism", "anti-imperialist nationalism", and of "syncretic pragmatism". His references thus range from Sultan Mehmet II Fatih, the conqueror of Constantinople (1453), to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, while also hearkening back to the days of Sultan Abdülhamid II (1842-1918).

Escalation and Entrenchment

The emergence in 2020 of the Eastern Mediterranean as a hot geopolitical spot is the product of nearly five years of crises and opportunistic actions in a political space opened by the Arab revolts (Syria, Libya), the migration crisis, and the diminishing role of the United States as an honest broker in the region. 

The geopolitical temperature clearly rose in the spring and summer of 2020 as Ankara licensed several ships to explore in disputed waters.

But Mr. Erdogan’s personal role and choices should not be underestimated: allied with the ultranationalist MHP since 2015, he was galvanized by the failure of the July 2016 coup. He changed the Constitution and assumed full presidential powers in 2018. There is little doubt that the symbolic date of 2023 – the centennial of the Republic and the year of the next elections – now looms increasingly large in his calculations. 

The overlapping of political, military, legal, economic and religious stakes in the region have now led to the constitution of two broad groups of countries. The "Turkish-Islamist" camp comprises Turkey, Qatar, Libya (GNA), Somalia and Djibouti – two countries where Turkey’s checkbook diplomacy has been active.

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

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