Considered for decades a frozen-conflict area, the Eastern Mediterranean has come to the forefront of rising regional competition. The precarious equilibrium and détente that governed the region since the end of the Cold War appears to have been gradually eroded during the last decade. Burdened by the resurgence of historical rivalries and the emergence of new alignments, the Eastern Mediterranean has become the arena of confrontation for riparian countries vying for power. The discovery of considerable amounts of offshore gas fields in the 2000s, the growing instability brought about by the Arab Uprisings since 2011, the contested legitimacy of some exclusive economic zones (EEZ), and the rising antagonism between some countries in the region are all elements that have intensified disputes in the water basin connecting Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. As the number of actors with vested interests in the region grows, the risk is that divergent visions and simmering tensions might turn into open hostilities.
No fixed equilibrium: between old rivalries and new alignments
“The Eastern Mediterranean has become the eye of a gathering geopolitical storm”, affirms Michaël Tanchum. Indeed, even though the area should be considered a sub-region governed by “frozen conflicts” in terms of its security profile, the Eastern Mediterranean is, due to its position in geographical proximity with a number of critical fault zones such as Libya and Syria, highly vulnerable to an escalation of tensions resulting from a spillover of animosities originating in these active conflict arenas. As a result, old conflicts tend to overlap with new ones when tensions soar in the region.
The rivalry between the Hellenic and the Turkish worlds has centuries-old historical roots that date back to the Ottoman Empire’s rule over the Balkans. This protracted enmity dramatically resurged during the 1974 Cyprus crisis, when the Turkish army militarily occupied the northern part of the island to prevent a coup staged by the Cyprus President Archbishop Makarios III and backed by Greece. Since then, the island has been de facto divided into two territorial entities: the north under the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) – officially recognized as an independent state only by Ankara – and inhabited by Turkish Cypriots; and the south governed by the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) and populated by Greek Cypriots. The established, substantial military presence of Turkish armed forces on the island is estimated to number around 30,000 personnel. There are sporadic exchanges of fire between the two parts of the island, and recurrent quarrels over the sovereignty of contested islands and swaths of sea that have frequently contributed to prolonging the conflict and exponentially souring the relations between the Athens-Nicosia axis and Ankara.
Pressured by the looming Turkish menace and incapable of self-defending its national interests due to its limited hard power capabilities, Cyprus has balanced against Turkey’s military superiority by resorting to a diplomacy-based strategy. Indeed, Nicosia has sought to uphold its sovereignty and rights at sea by seeking partners and allies willing to help the country overcome its geographical and political encirclement. Cyprus took significant steps in this direction by becoming a state party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1998 and by signing sea boundaries agreements with its neighboring countries including Egypt in 2003, Lebanon in 2007, and Israel in 2010.
It was primarily through the rapprochement with Israel that Cyprus’s strategy obtained its most important results. Indeed, though historically marred by mutual suspicion and antagonism, Cypriot-Israeli relations have warmed exponentially since the early 2000s and brought about a significant transformation of the Eastern Mediterranean’s balance of power. Moreover, fences were also increasingly mended between Israel and Greece, to the extent that in 2015 the two countries ratified a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) – a deal which granted Athens a special status that no other nation apart from the US can boast. Ultimately, the “dramatic warming” in Greece-Cyprus-Israel relations proved that Nicosia’s strategy succeeded in strengthening the Cypriot diplomatic stance at the international level and further isolating Turkey at the regional one.
In this regard, the rapid deterioration of the ties between Turkey and Israel played a significant role in the latter favoring the Greece-Cyprus-Israel rapprochement. Indeed, the ties between Turkey and Israel, which traditionally shared a positive and constructive dialogue, were strained in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010. Ultimately, Ankara’s decision in the early months of 2011 to abandon the “zero problems with the neighbors policy” – the paradigm defined by the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu and which, for almost a decade, represented the blueprint of Ankara’s foreign policy – and “to engage in a more assertive behaviour in regional affairs” represented the final blow to Turkey’s relations with Israel. Therefore, as Hakkı Taş stresses, “Ankara’s overstretched policies, in tandem with the Islamist and nationalist character of its vision, triggered an unprecedented state of isolationism in the 2010s.”
However, aside from the Cyprus crisis, the tensions opposing the Athens-Nicosia axis vis-à-vis Ankara find their raison d’être in the Seville map – which is the map defining the commonly accepted maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean – and the conflicting interpretations that the two blocks have made concerning the criteria that have to be used to delimitate maritime boundaries. The Seville map, which relied on criteria defined by the UNCLOS, recognizes that islands – regardless of their size – are entitled to have twelve nautical miles of territorial water and rights to a continental shelf or an EEZ of 200 nautical miles. Therefore, the Seville map represents the cornerstone on which the maritime claims of Greece and Cyprus are rooted. On the contrary, Turkey, which is not a signatory country to the UNCLOS, firmly contests this view and considers Greek and Cypriot claims to be an illegitimate attack to its maritime rights, especially regarding the small Greek islands, such as Kastellorizo, which are close to the Turkish coast.
The game-changer: gas enters the Eastern Mediterranean equation
When official statements concerning the discovery of profitable offshore gas reservoirs started to dominate the public debate in Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, it became clear that the Eastern Mediterranean faced a watershed moment. This transformative period led the region’s players to significantly reshape their policies, both in qualitative and quantitative terms. Indeed, as the newly introduced gas variable began to exert its effect in producing a renewed geopolitical environment, not only did the posture of the traditional protagonists adjoining the water basin undergo a profound transformation, but also the number of players – directly and indirectly – involved in the Eastern Mediterranean’s geopolitical dynamics increased.
Israel has been the forerunner of gas field exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean. Indeed, a consortium led by Noble Energy, a US company leader in the natural resources industry, discovered the Tamar (280 bcm) and Leviathan (605 bcm) gas fields, in 2009 and 2010 respectively. Cyprus followed suit in 2011 when the Aphrodite (140 bcm) gas field was discovered in its EEZ. Nicosia went on to make two additional discoveries in 2018 and 2019, when the Calypso and Glaucos gas fields were identified. From its side Egypt, despite being a latecomer in gas exploration, was able to gain most from the new series of finds. As a matter of fact, the discovery by the Italian energy company ENI of the Zohr gas field (850 bcm) in the Egyptian EEZ in 2015 represented the real “game-changer” in the Eastern Mediterranean by placing Cairo in a position to become the uncontested regional leader in the gas market.
According to Michaël Tanchum, the discovery of Zohr had significant implications for the region at both the economic and geopolitical levels. On the one hand, thanks to the massive gas reservoir in the Egyptian offshore field, the Levantine gas basin finally achieved “marketable volumes of natural gas” and drew mounting interest from investors. On the other hand, the increased centrality of Egypt both in gas extraction and export – thanks to its two LNG processing facilities in Damietta and Idku – “left no role for Turkey and its pipeline infrastructure to Europe, dashing Ankara’s in-progress plans to become a regional energy hub.”
As Hakkı Taş affirms, “these discoveries were substantial enough to alter the region’s economic and security landscape.” Successful drilling missions and the consequent allocation of lucrative contracts for extraction rights had a major geopolitical impact by forcing Turkey, Cyprus, and Greece to re-open the ‘Pandora’s box’ where unsolved maritime border disputes were relegated.
Therefore, if it were true that a sporadic battle of words rather than a daily fight of swords characterized the previous confrontation on borders disputes, this precarious equilibrium was disturbed by the emergence of competition for gas – with its inherent strategic priorities – and climbed to the top of the riparian states’ political agenda. Indeed, as Filippos Proedrou maintains, “gas discoveries […] in essence have raised with renewed urgency the need of these three states to project, enforce and secure their sovereignty rights.”
In the specific environment of the Eastern Mediterranean, where the definition of maritime borders is at the core of long-lasting rivalries, the management of gas – which is predominantly a technical issue – soon became interrelated with the management of borders as a matter of high politics par excellence. In this regard, “the question of drilling rights in the Levant Basin’s gas reserves has ignited a significant maritime dispute among coastal states to exercise their sovereign prerogative at sea,” notes Hakkı Taş. Indeed, the possibility for a state to grant the allocation of exploration and exploitation rights of the gas fields and profit from them represents a fully-fledged ‘act of sovereignty’. Affirming the state’s control over the energy reservoirs represents a tool through which regional governments can affirm their sovereignty and independence, this being a goal of primary urgency in an environment where the recognition of legitimate borders is the main bone of contention.
As regional competition over gas increases, it is crucial to highlight that the issue represents a sensitive subject for Ankara for two reasons. On the one hand, to recognize a country’s rights to exploration and exploitation of energy resources means recognizing the state’s sovereignty over the territories where these resources are located. Undoubtedly, this is problematic in an environment where enmity over the definition of maritime borders has been a leading cause of disputes. Indeed, any gas-led initiative that took place in contested areas at sea is perceived by Ankara as a direct threat to its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Therefore, since gas disputes are framed as a matter of national security, this process of “securitization” of energy provoked Turkey to deal with gas-based maritime disputes by resorting to exceptional measures and an array of strategies typically used to address military and existential threats to the state.
On the other hand, Turkey has rising domestic demand for energy while being deprived of endogenous resources to satisfy it. These supply and demand pressures represent a long-standing nightmare for Turkey. As a result, to overcome its inherent vulnerability and secure reliable energy supplies, Ankara has adopted a long-term strategy aimed at transforming the country into an “energy hub” connecting regional energy producers – generally located in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East – with European markets. For a country with a constantly growing appetite for energy, burdened by the absence of domestic natural resources, becoming a transit road for energy represents a viable and successful strategy for Turkey to cope with this energy dilemma. Therefore, due to its fragile energy architecture, it is no surprise that “Turkey’s main energy objectives are to reduce its dependence on imported energy sources, secure its energy supply, and improve energy efficiency.”
The policy of ‘fait accompli’: a hazardous modus operandi
The policy of ‘fait accompli’, which has characterized the evolution of the Cyprus crisis for a long time, acquired a renewed and more threatening dimension when the Turkish navy entered the fray vis-à-vis the Western energy companies operating for the Republic of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean. Anchoring its justifications to the need to defend Turkish Cypriots’ rights, Ankara dispatched its military vessels to the contested Cypriot EEZ to prevent the Italian energy company ENI’s drilling platform Saipem 12000 from carrying out its exploratory mission. As a result, by forcing its way in the Cypriot waters to disrupt the drilling program, “Turkey has demonstrated an unwavering resolve to uphold its interests. Ankara has responded to faits accompli by imposing faits accompli of its own,” according to Mona Sukkarieh.
Motivated by the need to balance against Turkey while pursuing a more coordinated regional energy policy and promoting their common geostrategic interests, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority joined forces on January 19, 2019, under the banner of the Cairo Declaration. This represented a stepping-stone that ultimately led to the creation of a regional intergovernmental organization dedicated to gas management; the “Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum” (EMGF). According to the Cairo Declaration, the EMGF’s goal is “to foster cooperation and initiate a structured and systematic policy dialogue on natural gas, potentially leading to the development of a sustainable regional gas market.” The EMGF rapidly gained traction and enlarged its ranks, with France receiving full membership in March 2021 and the UAE joining the EU, the US, and the World Bank with observer status in December 2020.
As Andreas Stergiou points out, the creation of the EMGF reflected the emerging “common perceptions of the countries involved regarding the importance of the Eastern Mediterranean to their national security,” The mounting relevance of the area manifested itself at the energy, economic, and political levels. Indeed, even though the Forum was founded as an energy-based endeavor aimed at monetizing gas resources and attracting investors to finance new exploration missions, it was also clear that it had an essential political vocation. Moreover, as Mona Sukkarieh emphasizes, the EMGF “has an undeniable geopolitical dimension fuelled in particular by poor or troubled relations between Turkey and its neighbors, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, and Israel.”
In this regard, given Ankara’s attempts to build its national energy model by positioning itself as a pivotal energy corridor for the regional gas and oil markets, Turkey’s exclusion from the EMGF represented a major blow to its energy strategy. Moreover, since “the Turkish government has long suffered from a chronic siege mentality, believing itself to be surrounded by hostile forces that threaten its core interests”, the EMGF’s creation added more wood to the fire of the Sevres syndrome. Furthermore, Ankara viewed the EMGF suspiciously because the organization was based on the legal recognition of maritime borders, a principle that is fundamentally at odds with the historical claims of Turkey and the TNRC in the Eastern Mediterranean. Consequently, by perceiving the external environment as increasingly hostile, Turkey has opted to break its regional isolationism by implementing a hard power-based interventionist foreign policy.
Indeed, in this process of geopolitical readjustment, President Erdogan concluded a Memorandum of Understanding in November 2019 with the Libyan PM Fayez al-Serraj, which redefined the maritime borders of the EEZ between the two states. The agreement, which completely overlooked the Greek islands’ right to claim continental shelves and EEZs, as set out by UNCLOS Article 121, signalled that Ankara had both the diplomatic strength to overcome its regional isolationism and the political will to uphold its strategic priorities by presenting its rivals “with a fait accompli disregarding their interests.”
Inevitably, with both Turkey and the EMGF members more and more inclined to achieve their goals by resorting to “gunboat diplomacy” rather than negotiations, relations between the two blocks have deteriorated in recent years. Tensions have been triggered by the presence of a Turkish energy exploration ship – always heavily escorted by the Turkish navy – in contested waters, as happened with the drillships, Fatih and Yavuz, in 2019. In this context, clashes consistently risked spiraling into military escalation during the summer of 2020. As a gesture of retaliation to the Cairo-Athens agreement defining a new EEZ between the two countries, Turkey dispatched the research vessel, Oruç Reis, to the waters of Kastellorizo, a Greek island situated less than three kilometers from the Turkish coast. Ankara’s move was met by a highly militarized response by Greece and its allies. Indeed, a show of force took shape in the Eastern Mediterranean, with France’s President Macron shipping the nuclear-power aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle to Greek waters and the UAE sending four F-16 fighter aircraft to Crete.
However, although the relations between the Greek-French axis and Turkey came dangerously close to the point of no return in mid-2020, tensions have gradually cooled down since then with the result that no similar episodes have taken place in 2021. Most of the credit for this cooling down in relations is attributable to President Erdogan’s desire to improve relations with Turkey’s European neighbors and NATO allies, especially in the light of the advent of the Biden administration in Washington. Ankara’s political goodwill was well received in Brussels, as proved by the EU decision in March 2021 to halt punitive measures the previous December to sanction some top executives of Turkey’s state-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation. However, whether the Eastern Mediterranean will not descend into “a geopolitical nightmare for NATO and the European Union” is something difficult to ascertain at the moment; what is clear is that the two camps remain highly vigilant, as proved by the mutual defense alliance against a third-party attack signed by France and Greece in October 2021.
Energy and cooperation: friends or foes?
Whether gas can perform as a catalyst allowing the conflicting parties to bridge the gap that separates them has been the object of a heated debate for a long time. However, what is certain is that energy resources represent a double-edged sword for a region plagued by conflicts. On the one hand, some consider energy resources as the driver towards cooperation; on the other hand, others argue that the presence of fossil reservoirs is more likely to cause competition, if not open conflict, rather than bring together states located in the same energy basin.
The first paradigm, based, for example, on the experience of the European Coal and Steel Community in the 1950s, relies on the so-called “peace pipelines hypothesis”; its core argument affirms that growing levels of regional interdependence ultimately result in a higher degree of regional stability. According to this view, de-escalation, conflict resolution, and peace preservation represent the point of arrival when a cooperation-oriented approach is adopted to manage energy resources. Consequently, as Galip Dalay affirms, the rationale informing this proposal “is the idea that the eastern Mediterranean should be treated as a shared common space and that its strategic resources – oil and gas – should advance the cause of cooperation.”
The second paradigm, on the contrary, looks at energy cooperation as the result of a stable political environment and not as its driver. Therefore, in a context where relations among states are conflictual and shaped according to zero-sum game logic, natural resources are bound to represent a conflict multiplier. Indeed, as Constantinos Adamides and Odysseas Christou point out, when dialogue among states is based on “deeply securitised political relations, energy is more likely to augment their security concerns and heighten tension.”
Even though tensions have significantly thawed during recent years, the current scenario in the Eastern Mediterranean seems to give credence to the second paradigm. As a matter of fact, “the prime geopolitical concerns over sovereignty and balance of power dominate decision-making in the Eastern Mediterranean,” affirms Filippos Proedrou. The priority of geostrategic interests over economic gains is epitomized by the EMGF members refusal to engage with Turkey on gas exports and instead support much more expensive and technically challenging projects, such as the East Med pipeline, a 1,900 km link connecting Cypriot offshore gas fields with Greece.
However, even though geopolitical interests are what have contributed most to the shaping of the foreign policy of the actors involved in the Eastern Mediterranean power game, the balance of power mentality is not the only variable that should be considered. Indeed, as Andreas Stergiou sustains, “commercial viability and bankability of a project is what really matters for a foreign investing company.” Therefore, two main challenges lie ahead of the Eastern Mediterranean gas-exporting countries if they want the gas bonanza to pay its dividends in the long term. On the on hand, they will have to ensure the continued inflow of diplomatic and financial capital capable of nurturing a genuine process of cooperation and integration on gas projects’ development at regional level. On the other hand, they will, sooner or later, be compelled to deal with Turkey, which represents the natural export market for the Eastern Mediterranean’s gas due to its constantly growing domestic demand for energy and potential to offer the most efficient solutions to channel gas towards the European markets. This hypothesis may gain traction, especially if it is considered that the East Med pipeline’s attractiveness has waned in the eyes of the EU due to its costs, technical feasibility problems, and environmental concerns. As Simone Tagliapietra sustains, “in times of the European Green Deal, there is indeed no room for public support for fossil-fuel projects any longer in Europe.” Therefore, the massive pipeline that Brussels once identified as an EU Project of Common Interest appears to have lost its importance among the EU’s energy priorities. At the same time, new options should be discussed to ensure the continued monetization of the Eastern Mediterranean gas.
In the wake of dramatic militarization seen in the Eastern Mediterranean region, especially during the summer 2020 crisis, all the countries seem to perceive a “strategic urgency” in preventing relations from reaching such a dangerous nadir again. However, preserving the current status quo is not enough to achieve a durable stabilization in the region, as “the Eastern Mediterranean is likely to be the space where this tension will first resurface.” Indeed, states are called to step up their goodwill and embark on a genuine dialogue to seek coordinated responses to common problems. Most importantly, states should spend more of their diplomatic capital to compartmentalize both the differences separating them and the reasons for the disputes. In so doing, parallel, but separate, initiatives should be developed to tackle the Cypriot crisis, the maritime boundaries disputes, and the offshore gas field delimitations. By allowing discussions to focus on a very specific and limited number of issues and at their own pace, this approach dramatically reduces the possibility of de-escalation efforts being disrupted or blocked. Indeed, as Michaël Tanchum points out, “the de-linking of the various regional conflicts creates an opening for a pragmatic dialogue on Mediterranean maritime boundaries.”
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