01 September 2020

Political and military games in the Eastern Mediterranean

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Known for too long only for its holiday’s destinations of its Northern, Eastern and Southern coasts, the Eastern Mediterranean has changed lately, rather drawing the attention of security analysts than that of tourism agencies. 2020 did not come with any changes, and the COVID-19 was not the only one to be “guilty” for this new reality. The energy resources hidden at the bottom of the sea, the political confrontations regarding the imaginary demarcation lines of the exclusive and national economic areas and, recently, even the dislocation of naval military forces, sometimes even from states which are somehow outside the region, are creating a complicated and threatening perspective for this region, which seems predestined for the intersection of its riverside interests areas, but also, as I was previously saying, of other actors, who played roles on this scene before.

Image source: Profimedia

“Win-win”? Or, better said, “kazan-kazan”. What is ours stays this way

“Oruç Reis” was a famous Ottoman admiral during times when, here, the sons and grandsons of Stefan the Great still had something to share in terms of the legend and territories of the great ruler. The admiral, a former corsair, who made Alger get under the control of the sultans, is also known as the Barbarossa, inspiring for movies like the “Pirates of the Caribbean”. The Turkish submarines are called after his name and, recently, also a research vessel, the MTA Oruç Reis.

These days, this ship is doing marine investigations in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, being able to identify the oil reserves up to 20.000 meters depth. The space where the research is done is also claimed by Greece which, at the beginning of August, has also dislocated some military ships in the area.  One of them, the Limnos frigate, has even rammed the Turkish ship, part of the MTA vessel Reis protection convoy, a few kilometers from the Dodencanez archipelago.

The Turkish vessels’ researches basically ended with highlighting possible oil and natural gases reserves, wherefore Turkey is launching exploitation auctions, hoping to get some financial, economic and political incentives. The only problem is that it does that, as some other actors in the area claim, outside its Exclusive Economic Area (EEA).

The Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, has recently stated that a new phase for issuing these exploitation licenses will take place at the end of August –beginning of September. And he underlined: “We will defend Turkey’s exploitation rights and those of the Turkish Cypriots in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and we will not accept any compromise”. As we can see, great part of Ankara’s arguments are based on the rights of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, a recognized entity only by Ankara and a few similar autonomies on Russia’s borders. The Greek minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Dendias, calls this approach a “gunboat diplomacy”, that one diplomacy that uses the naval force to reach its objectives. “Oruç Reis”, the corsair and the admiral, was its precursor.

For a better functioning, the naval diplomacy uses also the tools of classic diplomacy, even if, here as well, the limits are quiet unclear.  

In November 2019, the agreement between Ankara and Tripoli (the internationally recognized government, although international means, lately, only Turkey and Qatar) lead to the establishment of a direct Exclusive Economic Area between the Southern coast of Turkey and the North-Eastern coast of Libya (where Tripoli does not even have control anymore), which connects not only the Greek maritime spaces but, in some of the cases, also the land space.

On their turn, at the beginning of August, Greece and Egypt have done the same by signing a maritime agreement for the demarcation of the Exclusive Economic Area between the two countries. It is no surprise that the maritime borders goes over the EEA between Turkey and Libya.

Thus, the Eastern Mediterranean Sea currently has a big X, its arms being claimed by different states, ready to fight for their rights. Or make others to that for them.

This last agreement has stimulated the dislocation of the research vessel “Oruç Reis” near the Greek islands, preventively accompanied by a strong military naval force.

The Turkish president Erdogan has stated, however, that “The solution in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea is dialogue and negotiation”. And, then, he continued: “The solution must be kazan-kazan” (win-win), which means that everyone can win, but Turkey must not lose, ever. Nothing at all.

At stake with all of this are the 2 trillion cubic meters of natural gases which are, according to estimations, in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. This quantity can make the difference even for a massive economy like Turkey’s.

Why are things escalating now?

For different reasons: historical ones, due to the complicated map of the border between Greece and Turkey, for political motives, economic reasons. Basically, along the maritime borders between the two countries, it is impossible to make everyone happy when it comes to drawing the lines of an Exclusive Economic Area. It is just like the “tag of war” game which, long ago, was supposed to be an Olympic sport.  But in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea things are different, and actually, the other way around, because each side tries to push away its enemy as far as possible.

For that to happen, they use far and complementary military operations, like Turkey’s involvement in Libya.

The problem with the Libyan war, so far carried concurrently with sea’s coast, for the territory where more than 90% of the Libyan people live, or in the inside, to take over the control of the oil fields in the Saharan desert, is also that is risking to go further in the Mediterranean Sea and to complicate the path towards “dialogue and negotiation”.

Considering the previous experiences, one can say that this type of escalations took place constantly, almost each two-three years, without getting to a violent end. Except for 1974, when Greece and Turkey were much closer to a direct conflict.

For Turkey, the supposed advantage is that the disputed area and the one the “Oruç Reis” vessel is doing researches are far from the Greek land and island’s center of gravity, in other words, it is a military operation that becomes complicated and risky for Greece.

For Greece, however, the situation developed in a better way, as Athens was able to quickly create a partnership with a series of states in the region – Israel, Egypt – and outside the region – France, UAE, possibly Russia, even if it is just to pressure a bit more Ankara to continue with the Russian military technique acquisitions – which, considering the transactional character of the dispute, it is better for the negotiations.

Hence one of the matters of this dispute is the participation to sharing the bottom of the sea and its resources. The imaginary lines drown on the surface have bigger or smaller percentages when it comes to the underwater natural gases reserves. Therefore, when planning the negotiations, these must be moved on the other side’s territory, to have a bigger space wherefrom to pull out the cards if things will get complicated.

But these fights have, also, a different nature and, among them, the states in the region are trying to balance the system and leverages the regional projection of their power relies on. And, indeed, the Gordian center is still in Ankara, where most of Trump’s challenges come from.

Today’s Turkey is not the same with the one it used to be during the Cold War, as it now has old Ottoman ambitions and new Islamic ones. The status quo that’s old for decades in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, the legitimacy of the Lausanne Treaty (Erdogan says that the treaty has unfairly divided the Aegean Sea islands), are permanently doubted. And the problem is not only the energy which could be produced by underwater reserves, but by Turkey’s regional position.

The current situation has some resemblances with the 1996 incident, in the Imia-Kurdak islands, when they were close to a conflict, and the tension was only cooled down after the US interfered.

 Currently, however, the United States have a different agenda, and the coronavirus crisis keeps all the countries in the region busy.

Are we going to witness a war or not?

This does not mean that someone truly wants a conflict, but the crisis is, however, an opportunity to mark the territory of foreign ambitions, like it is also a chance to destroy/win the internal public attention. And this is not available only for Turkey. Nor the French president, Emmanuel Macron, looks good when it comes to public trust, or the Egyptian president, Sisi, who did not do what he promised, or even Israel, that has a prime-minister who is constantly fighting the other parties and the electorate, and the justice, and who could use this crisis to get some political advantages.

Therefore, the Eastern Mediterranean Sea crisis has both meanings suggesting a classic, military confrontation that each part seeks, however, to avoid, and a indirect confrontation, through the support given to competing entities, or even at war, with similar structures, supported by the enemy camp.

This is the case of the conflict in Libya, where two opponent groups of states are revealing their loyalties and support.

Similarly, the Palestinian problem is exploited to bring more political and electoral ammunition.

Nor the situation in Northern Syria, in the Kurdish territories, even if it is not a riverside space of the Mediterranean Sea, is unaware of Ankara’s objectives or of the other states involved in the last developments in the region.

And Lebanon, after the explosion, is also a competition field for the charity proposals the old and new allies hurried to make. Of course, with no interest at stake!

The map of interests and controversies is too complicated for the two camps and their interests to be very clear. The situation can cool down the warrior spirits. But the conflict is there even if the main actor who could persuade the parties to refrain from reckless gestures, the USA, is in silenzio elettorale, due to presidential elections.

Peace is now pursued by Europe only. Through representatives

According to the statement of the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, who is in the region in a mediation effort, all that is needed is a spark for the developments to become dramatic. And over the political fuel, represented by the dispute over exclusive economic areas, some military additive has already been poured, represented by the simultaneous development, and in the same space, of the military drills organized, in competition, by Greece and Turkey.

Germany's effort is necessary, and perhaps even more difficult, because it comes not only from Berlin, but also from Europe, through the German presidency of the Council of Europe. Germany is also seen as needing a more reserved position, less complicated by historical problems, towards this region, which makes it a more listened mediator.

This is not the case of France, the other central European pillar, which has directly expressed its support for one of the parties, Greece, and whose president recently visited the region. In fact, Paris's relations with Ankara have other controversial connotations, perhaps the most obvious being the totally different points of view in terms of the Armenian issue.

Given these considerations, Turkey will respond to the requests for dialogue addressed by the representatives of Europe, through Germany’s well-intended mission, only if the situation on the ground requires it, the steps coming from Brussels do not arouse great enthusiasm in Ankara.

Let's recap and draw, perhaps, a conclusion

1. There is a historical conflict between Greece and Turkey, which burns smoldering most of the time, but which re-ignites, periodically, with an incident caused by political statements or military incidents. The recent one, extended beyond the disputed maritime border between the two parties, also has an important economic connotation;

2. Turkey is not a signatory to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), so it considers itself exempt from the conditions of this document and draws its naval borders taking into account, first and foremost, the interests and its security issues;

3. While the rest of the countries consider the Greek Cyprus, an EU Member State, to have all the attributes of sovereignty, including the granting of licenses for the exploration and exploitation of natural resources in its exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles, Turkey considers that we are still dealing with a disputed territory, which puts all the decisions issued by Nicosia provisionally. Turkey, which does not recognize Cyprus, considers that this island is not currently entitled to its own territorial waters beyond the limit of 12 nautical miles, which would allow, through a very broad interpretation of the law of the sea, Ankara to be able to carry out research and exploit resources, including in the south of the island, under the law of the State of Cyprus;

4. In all this conflict, Turkey has only one ally, Qatar, and several circumstantial partners or for different issues (Russia and Iran in Syria, the authorities in Tripoli in Libya, Hamas in the Palestinian Territories). Of course, its NATO membership makes Ankara an ally of the other 29 members, including its rival, Greece. But, as recent developments show, it is an atypical ally, one of those who buy the best military technology from the opponent;

5. Apart from the difficult relations with Greece, Turkey has the same approach in relation to Egypt (where the contradictions seem to be, rather, between the two leaders, Erdogan - the civilian and Islamist politician who sends secular generals to prison, Sisi - the secular general become a politician, who does the same with Islamist politicians in opposition), or towards Israel. Nor do Ankara's relations with Rome, Berlin, Baghdad, Riyadh, not to mention Damascus, feel too good.

President Erdogan's pragmatism has so far allowed solutions to be found even when the specter of a regional conflict became visible, and has led to the maintenance of a balance between these two otherwise unbalanced camps. As with another highly talented and well-versed politician in the region, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, crisis resolution solutions have emerged in the last minute and the bridge has been crossed.

For now, however, tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean are escalating:

● Turkey's removal from the EastMed gas pipeline project, which will supply Europe with gas extracted from submarine depots in the Eastern Mediterranean, was probably the tip of the iceberg for Turkey. When signing the pipeline construction document, January 2020, Ankara called this act a "challenge". Of course, the "challenge" followed his own signing of the delimitation of the Exclusive Economic Zone with the Tripoli government, but that's not the point, is it? What happened next is the possible Turkish response to this "challenge";

● more military ships in the region, means more possibilities for unforeseen incidents;

● France's rather emotional reaction increases tensions and recalls a past as controversial as Turkey's, especially in Syria and Lebanon;

● The United Kingdom, militarily involved in Cyprus and historically in the region, is in the position to mediate, but does not yet;

● the parties try to resolve economic disputes more by calling, even demonstratively, for military solutions, instead of leaving it to them to the last resort;

● Calling on arbitration at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, as was the case in the dispute between Romania and Ukraine, does not seem to be the views of either party.

Ankara has claimed much from the region close to the Western Mediterranean: historical past, economic rights, extended security at the expense of its neighbors, primacy of representing Sunni Muslims in the region, a model of political Islam in the organization of state and society.

It got a unification forces of almost all of those who felt angry with the maximalist and uncompromised speech of the Turkish president.

Sometimes, even of its closest allies.

Translated by Andreea Soare