The energy security interests of states carry the potential of cooperation as well as conflict. The Eastern Mediterranean is without a doubt a very expressive example. James M. Dorsey, a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, referred to the Eastern Mediterranean as a “microcosm of regional and global battles,” which epitomizes the potential for tension in this region and the multiple challenges it faces.
Recently, the presence of natural gas has emerged as a focus for cooperation and rivalry in the region. Over the past decade, significant offshore gas reserves have been discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean, which has had a major impact on the regional energy security agenda. Newly discovered gas reserves have brought the promise of self-sufficiency for countries in the region as well as the prospect of getting engaged in lucrative gas export business.
Within the framework of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) – involving Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories – a new regional platform for effective cooperation in the field of natural gas appears to have been established. However, questions remain about how those countries being left out from the EMGF perceive the changing energy dynamics of the Eastern Mediterranean, and what policies they may adopt to counterbalance the negative effects of being marginalized.
Energy-hungry Turkey’s situation is specifically interesting in this regard: it has tense relations with many other countries in the region but, at the same time, aims to benefit from the region’s rise as an energy security hotspot. This article seeks to shed light on the controversies and perspectives relating to Turkey’s involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean’s great energy game.
Gas goals in a nutshell
Turkey’s unique geopolitical situation derives from the fact that it is poor in hydrocarbon reserves while its neighborhood has abundant resources. This provides an imperative for Ankara to pursue stable energy ties with energy-rich countries or regions in its proximity. In line with Turkey’s ever-growing domestic demand, energy security-driven endeavors have become integral to the country’s foreign policy in the past two decades. The pursuit of hydrocarbons, especially natural gas, has become a key geopolitical and geo-economic goal for the country.
|Demand (in bcm)||17.890||22.530||31.185||36.647||38.119||45.254||48.829||46.471||49.643|
1. Turkey’ natural gas demand over the years 2002-2018 (in bcm)
2. The proportion of piped gas vs. Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) in Turkey’s natural gas import
|Year||Volume (bcm)||Share (%)||Volume (bcm)||Share (%)||Volume (bcm)||Share (%)||Volume (bcm)||Share (%)||Volume (bcm)||Share (%)||Volume (bcm)||Share (%)||Volume (bcm)|
3. The volume (in bcm) and share (% of total import) of natural gas import of Turkey by country
The motivations behind Turkey’s natural gas-related policies can be depicted in the following triangular framework:
From a geographical point of view, the developments around the three seas and sea basins adjacent/close to Turkey should be followed when it comes to assessing Turkey’s challenges and opportunities in the regional energy security balance.
First of all, the Black Sea is a key energy axis for Turkey, through which the Blue Stream and the recently inaugurated TurkStream pipelines transport gas from Russia. Second, the hydrocarbon-rich Caspian Sea is a major source of gas and oil supplies for Turkey: the country is linked with Azerbaijan through the Southern Gas Corridor, as well as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.
In Turkey’s southern neighborhood, the Eastern Mediterranean has emerged as a major source of natural gas due to discoveries made in the past decade. Accordingly, this has resulted in Turkey’s increased interest in and foreign policy orientation toward the region in recent years.
Eastern Mediterranean: A complicated storyline
Over the past decade, Turkey’s relations deteriorated with many countries in the Eastern Mediterranean, which has further complicated Ankara’s energy security aspirations. To give but a few examples, Turkey’s relations with Israel went downhill in 2010 following the Mavi Marmara incident, while its relations with Egypt worsened after Turkey-supported President Mohammed Morsi was ousted by the country’s military in 2013. Turkey’s relations with both countries have remained chilly since then. Despite being a NATO ally, tensions rise occasionally with Greece too, most recently in early March 2020 as a consequence of Turkey’s decision to open up its Western borders, allowing thousands of refugees to seek entry to the European Union (EU). However, Greece responded with reinforced border protection, resulting in people getting stuck in the border zone.
However, Turkey’s most complicated regional relationship is with Cyprus and the two countries have been at odds for decades. The history of the island, which is inhabited by both Greeks and Turks reached a turning point in 1974 when Greek army officers launched a coup d’état and called for the island’s unification with Greece, which triggered a Turkish military intervention that resulted in the occupation of around 37 percent of the island’s territory and led to its de facto partition. In 1983, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) was proclaimed but has been internally recognized by Turkey only. At the same time, Turkey does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus, which controls the rest of the island, as a sovereign state. Tensions have been ongoing since then, and all efforts to secure the reunification of the island of Cyprus have failed so far.
Given these challenges for Turkish foreign policy in the region, the pursuit of natural gas in these troubled waters is a difficult task. A succession of offshore gas discoveries by Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt during the past decade gave these countries the prospect of satisfying their domestic gas demand as well as the chance to develop their export potential. The discoveries of the Leviathan gas field in Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in 2010 (605 bcm), the Zohr gas field in Egypt’s EEZ in 2015 (850 bcm), and the Glaucus field in Cyprus’s EEZ in 2019 (142-227 bcm) among other fields not only shook up the regional energy security agendas but led Turkey to adjust its strategic calculations to take account of intensified regional energy competition.
|Gas field||Country||Year of first gas discovery||Estimated gas reserves|
|Tamar + Tamar SW||Israel||2009||318 bcm|
4. Some of the most significant offshore natural gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean
|Country||Plant name||Start date||Nameplate capacity
|Egypt||SEGAS LNG T1||2005||5|
|Egypt||Egyptian LNG T1||2005||3.6|
|Egypt||Egyptian LNG T2||2005||3.6|
|Libya||Marsa El Brega
(not in operation since 2011)
5. Liquefaction plants in the Eastern Mediterranean as of February 2019
|Country||Terminal name||Start date||Nameplate receiving capacity (in MTPA)|
|Egypt||Sumed BW (floating)||2017||5.7|
|Egypt||Ain Sokhna Hoegh (floating)
(no chartered FSRU as of February 2019)
|Egypt||Ain Sokhna BW (floating)
(no chartered FSRU as of February 2019)
|Israel||Hadera Gateway (floating)||2013||3.0|
6. LNG receiving terminals in the Eastern Mediterranean as of February 2019
Two major issues complicate Turkey’s approach toward the Eastern Mediterranean gas reserves: the contradictions within the delimitation of EEZ’s in the Eastern Mediterranean; and Turkey’s ongoing tense relations with Cyprus.
It should be emphasized that Cyprus managed to sign agreements on the delimitation of its maritime borders with Egypt (2003), Israel (2010), and Lebanon (2007). However, such an agreement was not reached with Turkey. Turkey, on the contrary, reached a maritime border agreement with the TRNC, in 2011. TRNC claims 44 percent of the EEZ of Cyprus, which the latter categorically rejects. Moreover, Turkey has not ratified the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and contends that Cyprus, as an island, is not entitled to have a full EEZ. Accordingly, Turkey also claims a portion of the maritime territories that Cyprus claims according to the Law of the Sea. Furthermore, Turkey does not recognize Cyprus’s maritime border agreements with Egypt and Israel.
As the search for natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean intensified, political tensions started to rise. In 2011, shortly after the Turkey-TRNC agreement on the maritime border was concluded, Turkey began drillings in the contested maritime territories. Ömer Çelik, then Vice-Chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party, announced that an exploration mission escorted by warships had started work and that “we have shown clearly to everyone that we will not allow the eastern Mediterranean to become a Greek-Cyprus-Israel goal.” A year later, Turkey began onshore drillings for oil and gas in TRNC, which triggered tensions with the government of Cyprus. Cyprus perceives such actions as violations of its sovereignty.
After this, Turkey deployed navy vessels to escort its drilling ships or block the navigation of other nations’ drilling ships as a clear sign to other regional actors that Turkey did not accept maritime borders of Cyprus and was ready to demonstrate its military capabilities. After dispatching two warships and a submarine to monitor a ship performing drillings for Cyprus in July 2017, the Turkish foreign ministry stated: “Turkey is determined to protect both its rights and interests in its continental shelf and to continue its support to the Turkish Cypriot side.” Six months later, in February 2018, the Turkish navy stopped a drillship on its way to carry out drillings on behalf of Cyprus, which again resulted in a diplomatic standoff between Turkey and Cyprus.
Parallel to these tensions, cooperation between Cyprus, Israel, and Greece has been developing and is often referred to as the “energy triangle” in the Eastern Mediterranean. They have actively discussed plans to construct a pipeline aimed at the European markets. To strengthen its potential to become a regional gas hub, Turkey also explored possibilities of partnership with Israel to conclude a pipeline deal. However, the strained overall relationship between the two countries prevented the plan’s realization.
In the year 2019 intense events took place. In January, the formation of the EMGF increased Turkey’s isolation in the region. In May and June, Turkey sent drillings ships into Cypriot waters – seen as a response to the exclusion of Turkey from export-oriented cooperation. Ankara’s actions were condemned by the European Union, and the latter introduced punitive measures against Turkey including shelving ongoing talks and the suspension of certain aid. In response, the Turkish foreign ministry stated that these measures “will not affect in the slightest our country’s determination to continue hydrocarbon activities in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
Tension escalated, in early October 2019, when Turkey asserted that it was sending one of its drill ships to waters off southern Cyprus where the Cypriot authorities had already awarded exploration rights to other companies. In response, Turkey was warned by Cyprus, the EU, and even by the US to refrain from illegal activities. To put pressure on Turkey, the EU adopted a framework for sanctions against Turkey in November. Later that month, Turkey decided to raise the stakes by concluding two agreements with Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord: one related to military and security cooperation, which resulted in Turkish troops being deployed in Libya, and another on the delimitation of maritime borders between the two countries.
This step further complicated the question of contested maritime borders in the entire region. By agreeing with the Tripoli-based entity, Turkey hopes to gain a stronger basis for its claims for maritime territories over its rivals in the Eastern Mediterranean. About the agreement, President Erdoğan stated that it “would allow Turkey to legally carry out drilling on Libya’s continental shelf with Tripoli’s approval…With this new agreement between Turkey and Libya, we can hold joint exploration operations in these exclusive economic zones that we determined. There is no problem.”
Furthermore, in light of the new agreements, Ankara claimed that other regional countries, such as Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, or Greece, could not continue exploration for gas reserves or laying pipelines without its approval, with evident implications for the planned EastMed pipeline project. After the agreement with Tripoli, Erdoğan emphasized: “We will use our rights under international law and maritime law until the end in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
While Turkey asserted the international legality of its action, the EU condemned this step and noted that the Turkish-Libyan agreement on maritime delimitation in the Mediterranean “infringes upon the sovereign rights of third states, does not comply with the Law of the Sea and cannot produce any legal consequences for third states.” Nevertheless, it is arguable that Cyprus and Greece could be the main losers from Erdoğan’s move given their geographic location, since Israel could, in principle, build its pipeline through Turkey without crossing the contested maritime territories.
In December 2019, Turkey approached Israel stating that it would be interested in negotiations for potential construction of a pipeline carrying Israeli gas through Turkey to Europe. By taking such a step, Turkey could strengthen its long-desired role as an emerging energy hub in the region. Concerning cooperation with Turkey, Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said: “We are ready to discuss some kind of cooperation, energy cooperation, also with the Turks. We are not against the Turks, but we are very much in favor of the EastMed gas pipeline project.”
In line with this, Israel signed a deal with Cyprus and Greece in early January 2020 to build the 1,900 kilometer-long EastMed subsea pipeline to carry natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean’s gas fields to Europe, with completion scheduled for 2025. Turkey, however, opposes the EastMed pipeline and claims that such a project cannot proceed without Ankara’s permission. It sees the project only as a tool for Turkey’s exclusion.
The EastMed pipeline would carry 10 bcm of natural gas to Europe per year, though experts have draw attention to the potential pitfalls of the project. Simone Tagliapietra, a Senior Associate Research Fellow at ISPI, says that the pipeline project should first attract sufficient funding and become economically sustainable. Also, the “European Green Deal” – a plan designed to achieve climate neutrality in Europe by 2050 – raises additional questions about the viability of the pipeline given that the EU is the main customer.
Tensions further exacerbated in January 2020 after the Presidency of Cyprus condemned Turkey’s continued drilling activities in contested waters saying “Turkey is turning into a pirate state in the Eastern Mediterranean.” During the same month, Israel started to export gas to Jordan, and two weeks later to Egypt, which was another important milestone in regional energy relations.
Egypt might soon re-export Israeli gas through its liquefaction infrastructure. While the situation remains complex, Turkey continues to explore potential hydrocarbon reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean with its two seismic research vessels and two drill ships, while a third drillship was reported to have arrived in Turkey on 15 March 2020.
As outlined above, securing access to energy resources concerning natural gas has become a key foreign policy objective for Turkey. Turkey has negotiated extensive and complex energy relationships with its two largest gas suppliers, Russia and Iran, and natural gas-related interactions have always been peacefully managed among them. Energy cooperation is also of great strategic importance for Azerbaijani-Turkish relations. Azerbaijan is one of Turkey’s closest allies and the third-largest gas supplier to the country.
But why is the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean so different? What is new in Turkey’s approach? First of all, Turkey’s energy interests in the Eastern Mediterranean are accompanied by a potential display of its hard power capabilities. To explain Turkish policies, in this case, the concept of “energy power” as outlined by Professor Michael T. Klare can be defined as “the exploitation of a nation’s advantages in energy output and technology to promote its global interests and undermine those of its rivals.” Klare shows how the classic hard power – soft power narrative can be complemented by a specific, energy security-driven type of power exertion.
Concerning Turkey’s goals in the Eastern Mediterranean, energy power is exerted to guarantee an energy secure country that could also possibly be a key regional energy actor. However, the demonstration of classic hard power tools, such as deploying military vessels in contested waters, is also employed to demonstrate Turkey’s assertive stance toward securing its energy and regional power interests.
From a broader perspective, Turkey’s regional power position has been constantly evolving in the past decade. In the wake of the Arab upheavals, Turkey has lost former partners in the Middle East, and the Syrian situation became a top priority on Turkey’s regional agenda. Turkey has had multiple objectives in its involvement in the Syrian conflict, and it has demonstrated that the conflict in its immediate neighborhood should not be resolved without its active participation.
It was obvious for Ankara that the settlement of the Syrian conflict might substantially redraw the regional power balance. Consequently, it did not want to miss its chance for shaping a new status quo. However, as Bashar Al-Assad regains rule over Syria, it appears that the endgame in the country will not increase Turkey’s room for maneuver in the Middle East as much as Ankara might have hoped for. Therefore, the country is increasingly motivated to project power in other regional neighborhoods as well.
This article sought to emphasize that the Eastern Mediterranean can be viewed as an area of key interest for Turkey. As Ankara seeks to stamp its authority in this region, this aspiration reflects the importance of Turkey’s pursuit of energy resources. One should not overlook the fact that Turkey’s prospects for EU accession have essentially faded away, with the result that the country has fewer incentives to desist from engaging in conflict with EU member states in the region such as Cyprus or Greece.
At the moment the Eastern Mediterranean region does not supply gas to Turkey except for occasional spot market deals with Egypt. However, it is emerging as a critical point on the Turkish foreign policy agenda, since the region is viewed by Ankara not only through the lens of energy security but also through the prism of its protracted conflict with Cyprus and in the broader context of the greater regional power competition in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In line with the aforementioned, this article suggests that at least six key factors can be identified concerning Turkey’s increased involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean:
To advance its geopolitical position, a country might directly seek cooperation with other actors in its neighborhood. Alternatively, if it deems this approach impossible, it might choose to put pressure on the other actors first and then try to compel them to cooperate. There is, however, the risk that such a strategy might turn out to be counterproductive. Turkey seems to have chosen the second option in connection with its pursuit of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean.
It is difficult to predict the extent to which Turkey’s policies in the Eastern Mediterranean will be successful. However, it now seems that Turkey has a relatively isolated position in the region about natural gas exploitation, with one result being that mutual suspicions in relations between Turkey and the other actors in the region have become grown and become embedded. The increased tensions with Cyprus will further delay any kind of rapprochement over TRNC.
While the member states of the EMGF form a sort of regional alliance, Turkey’s estrangement from these countries might either further increase its desperation to gain leverage over the others or compel it to seek greater cooperation. It should also be noted that being party to the recently signed EastMed pipeline project by no means guarantees its success: the project’s viability remains uncertain and it should not be seen as the main measure of successful regional gas cooperation.
It seems likely that the natural gas can bring benefits for the entire region, even if Turkey has not found reserves in its waters yet. LNG regasification infrastructure has been quickly developed and can be used for importing more gas in the future, potentially also from other countries in the Eastern Mediterranean once sufficient political will and business justification align. This could help Turkey to further diversify its gas import structure, which is a major energy goal for the country anyway.
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