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Maritime disputes in the eastern Mediterranean: Why and why now?

Maritime disputes in the eastern Mediterranean: Why and why now?
Photo: Shutterstock/Aerial-motion

In August 2020, Greek and Turkish frigates collided in the eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish ship had been escorting a Turkish seismic survey vessel, RV MTA Oruç Reis. The activities of the Oruç Reis, mapping for potential future oil and gas resources in waters disputed by Greece and Turkey, have been a cause of diplomatic and military tension.

The withdrawal of the survey vessel in mid-September was a factor in the decision of the Council of the European Union (EU) not to impose sanctions on Turkey at its meeting on 1 October. It also helped open the way for a new military deconfliction mechanism between Greece and Turkey established under the auspices of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The August incident could have had serious repercussions had it caused loss of life or greater damage to the ships involved. The process of seemingly unstoppable escalation, indeed militarization, in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean has become a matter of grave concern in 2020, with no apparent easy fix.

The Turkish survey ship was spotted again in an area south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo in October 2020, which seems to have jeopardized the hoped-for de-escalation of tension between Greece and Turkey. The prospects for diplomacy now look uncertain.

Currently several long-standing conflict arenas stretching from Libya to the Caucasus are experiencing a period of escalation. In the recent past, analysts would have looked to the policies and interests of global powers to explain this development. But today Turkey is perhaps the common factor whose role, aims and motivations, need to be taken into account.

The background

Tensions over Turkey’s surveying activities in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean have their roots in unfinished and unimplemented sovereignty issues left over from the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which formally ended the conflicts involving the Ottoman Empire and established the new, sovereign Turkish republic. The treaty’s Aegean map was particularly complicated and has remained disputed.

Bilateral Greek–Turkish talks on these matters, co-initiated in 2002 by the then new and pro-European Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in Turkey, broke down in 2016 just as other developments introduced new complexities.

In March 2016, the Turkey and the European Union reached an agreement how to handle a surge in irregular migration. July saw an abortive coup attempt against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Also, in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and Turkey’s adoption of a new, regionally assertive foreign policy, military engagement in Iraq, Syria and later in Libya has alienated Turkey’s Mediterranean neighbours and isolated Turkey more broadly internationally.

Recent discoveries of hydrocarbon reserves have increased the importance of legal delimitation of continental shelves and exclusive economic zones, expanding the number of states involved in contemporary maritime disputes in the area. In January 2019 Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel and Jordan created an Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) to discuss the extraction and use of natural gas. In September 2020 the partners, together with Italy, institutionalized their partnership by establishing a secretariat in Cairo and expanded the scope of their cooperation to develop a regional energy market.

Excluded from regional energy policy discussions, Turkey’s countermove took the form of a deal with the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya in November 2019. Turkey provided military support to save the GNA from an offensive against Tripoli by the forces of the Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar in return for a bilateral economic mapping agreement on the eastern Mediterranean that criss-crosses pre-existing or planned exploration zones claimed by other countries in the region.

This controversial maritime boundary agreement immediately made the unsolved problem of Cyprus directly relevant. If, as Turkey insists in the face of an international consensus to the contrary, Northern Cyprus is to be recognized as an independent state (or as having sovereign rights within a unified Cyprus), this has a direct bearing on the map of exclusive economic zones in the eastern Mediterranean, and thus on hydrocarbon rights. There can be no resolution of the territorial questions in the Aegean left over from the Lausanne Treaty without an agreement on the status of Northern Cyprus.

Perceptions of Turkey

The disputes over maritime jurisdiction in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean are long-standing, but they have become particularly contentious recently. The EMGF partners decided not to invite Turkey into their dialogue even though new resources that may exist under the seabed could be explored and exploited together, and Turkey could add value as part of a regional energy market.

How Turkey’s maritime policies in the eastern Mediterranean, and the military actions that support them, are seen from the outside is coloured by a broader perception of Turkey under President Erdoğan as an aggressive actor in its region—not least as it is today militarily active in Iraq, Libya, Syria and now the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. This clearly clouds attitudes towards understanding the Turkish point of view and accommodating those Turkish claims that could well be seen as legitimate.

For Greece, and Cyprus, this poses a strategic dilemma: ‘provocative’ and ‘aggressive’ actions by Turkey pose a serious security threat, but at the same time increase the support they can rely on from allies and partners.

Turkey also poses a dilemma for the EU: how to find a balance between, on the one hand, firmness, solidarity with member states Greece and Cyprus, defiance against aggression when needed, and on the other a more positive agenda with Turkey based on dialogue, co-optation and cooperation to address shared problems. Finding that balance with the ‘New Turkey’ envisioned by its strong-armed but controversial leader is becoming one of the most demanding strategic challenges for the EU.

In addition to the complexities in the EU’s capacity and capability when it comes to de-escalation and mediation, there were and are divisions within the EU in the policy area of Europe’s ‘near abroad’ to the south. Competition has emerged between an assertive French (or Emmanuel Macron) policy line perceived as anti-Turkish and a more cautious German (or Angela Merkel) policy line rather seen as appeasing a constantly angry Turkish leader. The French–German policy dialogue over this has not increased clarity over whether compromise with Turkey is desirable and possible from the EU’s perspective.

Turkey is no less sensitive an issue for NATO, which must balance Turkey’s traditional role as the predominant actor on NATO’s southern flank against a long list of problematic and contradictory US–Turkey issues, including Turkey’s controversial procurement of the Russian S-400 air defence system, along with Turkey’s observable glide towards Islamism and authoritarianism.

Discussions about the place of Turkey within NATO are framed by the fact that Turkey is a full member equipped with veto power and has the alliance’s second biggest army. The EU–Turkey relationship, on the other hand, suffers from multiple asymmetries, and the eastern Mediterranean as the arena for clashes of interest is so complicated that freezing disagreements is arguably the best hope for international diplomacy. While a comprehensive resolution remains elusive, disaster avoidance and de-escalation have to be tolerated as realistic, achievable goals.

Back to square one: Brinksmanship rewarded?

Who gained what from this late-summer outbreak of maritime disputes and naval escalation, who tried to achieve what, and what are the prospects for more durable stability?

The new NATO-brokered deconfliction mechanism can reduce the chances that clashes will occur by mistake with the attendant risk of escalation into a more serious crisis. The EU’s efforts to promote bilateral talks between Greece and Turkey, as the core adversaries in the wider controversy, may yet bear some fruit.

However, the recent European Council summit, together with ensuing political comments, mercilessly reveals how vulnerable peace and stability are, and how little substance was and is involved in the current EU–Turkey dialogue. Only a few days after EU leaders spoke of agreeing a starting date for talks between Greece and Turkey, the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, noted that renewed Turkish gas exploration in the more controversial areas of the eastern Mediterranean would be a serious setback for diplomatic efforts to de-escalate. The relationship is now thinly contractual, increasingly based on short-term technical agreements with few aspirations to build more comprehensive engagement.

One thing that is striking is the way that EU–Turkey relations are returning to a package of measures very reminiscent of the way the circle was squared in March 2016, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the then Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, conceived the migration deal. This involved exchanging a Turkish pledge to keep Syrian refugees inside Turkey in return for €6 billion under the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, and promises about upgrading the EU–Turkey customs union, speeding up visa liberalization and injecting new energy into the preparations for Turkish accession to the EU.

Five years later, the same items are likely to form the main substance of any ‘positive agenda’ for EU–Turkey talks. Continued Turkish adherence to the refugee deal remains an important EU objective after the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, recorded an increase in the number of irregular migrants arriving in Europe via the eastern Mediterranean and Balkan routes in 2019. However, hints of new offers to Turkey are now accompanied by the threat of sanctions should Turkey carry out what the EU characterizes as further ‘provocations’; and according to the most recent European Commission report on the prospects for Turkish membership, the process is on hold indefinitely. The EU insists that Turkey refrain from actions that run counter to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the sovereign rights of Cyprus and Greece as an absolute requirement for progress.

Perhaps the ‘winner’ in all this is the Turkish president, because he can now claim before his base and others at home that a series of assertive actions was needed to break an unfavourable status quo in relation to big players—the EU, NATO, Russia and the USA—who now need to accept that they must talk to Turkey, and to respect it as a regional power with a say in global issues. Adventurism and brinkmanship being rewarded: perhaps that has been the intention all along.


Dr Ian Anthony was the Director of SIPRI’s European Security Programme.
Ambassador Michael Sahlin is a Distinguished Associate Fellow with the SIPRI European Security Programme.