Tensions are visibly mounting in the Eastern Mediterranean. Greek and Turkish navies have conducted rival exercises. The Turkish seismic research vessel, the Oruc Reis, accompanied by naval vessels, has proceeded with exploration activities in areas deemed to be within Greece’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Commensurately, the level of hostile rhetoric accompanying these tensions has also escalated. European countries are alarmed by these developments: German Chancellor Angela Merkel has done her utmost to calm down the intensifying pressures; France, by contrast, has taken a dim view of what it perceives to be aggressive Turkish behavior and has openly sided with Greece by deploying its own naval vessels to the region.
At the root of the conflict lies the divergence over delimitation of each country’s EEZ, an exercise that has assumed greater importance and urgency following sizable discoveries of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean seabed. Egypt, Israel, and Cyprus have to varying degrees of success begun to exploit their respective gas fields and have also initiated cooperative efforts to jointly export excess gas. The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), established by the three countries along with Greece, Jordan, Palestine, and Italy, has been seeking ways to create export routes to Europe, either through pipelines or liquified natural gas terminals.
Turkey, which has been occupying Northern Cyprus since its 1974 invasion, has taken umbrage at these efforts and aggressively pushed to extend its own EEZ at the expense of especially Cyprus and Greece. It refuses to recognize the EEZ of major Greek islands, such as Crete. It has signed an agreement with one of the two governments in civil war–torn Libya, effectively dividing the Mediterranean. This has been disputed by all interested parties in the region.
If Turkey has been able to ardently insist on its claims, it is because over the course of many years it has built a flotilla of four seismic and drilling ships—all, incidentally, named after Ottoman-era admirals or sultans—that are now accompanied by an expanding naval armada. This purposeful policy and investment signify that the Turks will not give up and pursue their current exploration strategy.
In mid-August, the Erdogan government, with great fanfare, heralded a moderately sized gas find in the Black Sea. The announcement was somewhat rushed as most gas professionals would argue the find had not yet been completely confirmed. Still, the breakthrough’s importance was more psychological than material. It was a source of pride as it proved that Turkey could with its own home-grown technology—never mind that some of the crews operating in the drilling ship were leased from foreign companies—discover such resources on its own. As Erdogan and many others in Turkey pointed out, the Black Sea finds were a harbinger of similar successes in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Black Sea, the Aegean, and the Eastern Mediterranean are now defined as part of Turkey’s Blue Homeland, a concept invented by nationalist naval officers that has increasingly gained currency in everyday Turkish discourse.
If the Turks, with the strongest navy and military in the region, are adamant in pursuing their claims to the riches of the Eastern Mediterranean, then the chances of a skirmish on the seas deteriorating into the politico-military sphere will certainly increase. In August, two naval vessels, one Greek and one Turkish, were involved in a minor collision. Earlier, a French and a Turkish warship were involved in a tense altercation near Libya. This state of affairs prompted the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Mass, to warn that Greece and Turkey were playing with fire.
Erdogan has been constructing a fervent coalition and public opinion at home that is increasingly buying into his combative rhetoric and claims of inalienable Turkish rights in these waters. There are two possible explanations for this behavior. He may be aiming to force Greece—he will not engage Cyprus since Turkey refuses to recognize it—to negotiate with him over the sharing of these resources. This is, however, far more difficult than one would imagine, largely because Greece has not just international law on its side but also a large coalition of states supporting it. Also, as much as Erdogan may be confident he can alter his policies at will, the hardening of the nationalist sentiment at home may emerge to become a major obstacle.
Alternatively, Erdogan, who has almost transformed Turkey into a revisionist power, may be gambling that might will trump diplomacy and at the end of the day no one will want to risk war for a few gas fields. So far, he appears to believe that his brinksmanship has served him well elsewhere, as demonstrated by his actions in Syria. Making things worse is that there is no one in his entourage who dares to contradict him.
The future course of the Eastern Mediterranean, assuming there is no conflagration before then, will depend on the outcome of the American elections. Erdogan, who has received a carte blanche of sorts from President Trump, would, in all likelihood, find a far less sympathetic ear in a President Biden. On the other hand, conscious of the potential destructive consequences of the crisis, especially for NATO, a Biden administration will be more willing to use Washington’s considerable influence to minimize, if not resolve, tensions.