The Eastern Mediterranean is without a doubt a conflict-prone geographic location. Most consider the conflicts between Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and occasionally, Egypt, when discussing the region, but new players are clashing with one another, and this time, they’re allies. While the world looks at nearby Syria, it has been Turkey, Cyprus and Greece that are on a collision course, and it has to do with gas – lots of it.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that has followed events in the region to know that the interests of Turkey, and it’s NATO allies, the United States and the European Union, are quickly diverging. Russia continues to flex its military might by reinforcing its presence in Syria’s Tartus, while Iran, on the other hand, is moving its bases closer and closer to the Mediterranean, adding in more players to an already dangerous game and crowded region.
In the last decade, vast deposits of gas have been discovered all across the Eastern Mediterranean, including in Lebanese, Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian, and Cypriot waters, many of which have overlapping claims to their exclusive economic areas. Israel has already begun developing its offshore gas fields, while Lebanon is attempting to catch-up, increasing the tensions between the two. Egypt, with its large exclusive economic area, seems to have been left out of the recent tension, but the focus of worry has shifted towards Cyprus. Of course, as with anything else relating to Cyprus, the two historical ethnic backers, Turkey and Greece, are inserting themselves into a dispute that could easily be resolved by dialogue, but hasn’t been.
The historical rivals have had a decently long stretch of good relations in recent times, with both being NATO allies. There had even been hope in the last round of Cypriot peace talks between the ethnic Greek and ethnic Turkish sides that an agreement could be reached, with the island having essentially been split between the two ethnic sides since 1974. However, with Turkey feeling increasingly pushed away by its allies, the peace talks ending with no agreement, and Greece giving Turkish military personnel asylum in the aftermath of the failed coup in 2016, tensions have resurfaced.
Over the last several months, Turkey has arrested two Greek soldiers who claim to have accidentally entered Turkey in the northwest border area with Greece on espionage charges, and the two countries have had a coast guard vessel boat and a cargo ship crash into one another in the Aegean Sea. The crash occurred in a disputed area which the two nations almost went to war over in 1996.
Disputes between the two took a sharp turn when the Turkish navy expelled a drilling rig by Italy’s oil & gas giant, Eni, which had been hired by the Greek Cypriot government to begin drilling, and exploring and extracting gas. The EU slammed Ankara for interfering in Cyprus’ right to utilize its own resources, but Turkey countered with the argument that a part of the gas field falls within the exclusive economic zone of the Turkish Cypriot side, which had not been consulted.
Perhaps the most shocking development for the Greek side was Erdogan’s encouragement for the reconsideration of the Treaty of Lausanne, even going as far as citing the Turkish-speaking minority of Thrace as a justification for such a move. Whether Erdogan truly intends to move forward with that serious of an escalation or not, is irrelevant for the Greeks, as he has now given them a possible ideological reasoning behind Turkey’s provocative moves, suggesting a shift towards a neo-Ottoman era and a permanent renewal of tensions.
The U.S. is unlikely to get involved in a naval dispute or show of force, and is wary of pushing Turkey further away as an ally, thus choosing to stay uninvolved with the exception of the occasional rhetoric. NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg’s statement that this is “not an issue for NATO” is hugely symbolic of the reluctance of other actors to stop these tensions in their tracks. As Turkey continues with its policy of provocation, it is possible that the two nations could sleepwalk into a military conflict neither of them wants.
These developments are seriously dangerous for all sides, as trust between Turkey, and the European Union quickly diminishes, even though an equitable and reasonable solution reached via dialogue would change the region and turn all actors involved into significant energy players; for Europe, this would also be a welcomed shift away from a dependence on Russian gas.
While Erdogan is known for intentionally creating international diplomatic incidents with a plethora of nations for the purpose of rallying his nationalistic base for domestic purposes, these are not a series of events that could be easily ignored and attributed to campaigning. For Greece, Cyprus and their backers, this could be a foreshadowing of Erdogan’s intentions if he gets voted back in as Turkey’s president, driven by the new powers given to the president after last year’s referendum on changing Turkey’s governance structure.
What is needed, now more than at anytime in the last two decades, is a re-engagement by all relevant actors, to re-build the Euro-Atlantic-Turkish relationship and the trust that comes with it. The reinvigoration of Cypriot, Greek and Turkish civil societies both on the island of Cyprus and across all three nations is imperative for their collective good and future, perhaps even providing a framework for the eventual settlement of the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot separation.
Photo: Flag-map of Greece, Turkey and Cyprus (2010), by Masterdeis via Wikimedia. Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.