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Tensions have gripped the Eastern Mediterranean (East Med) for the past few months owning to differences between Turkey, Cyprus and Greece over the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Mediterranean Sea and the right to undertake gas exploration activities in the resource- rich waters. The root of the dispute lies in the definition of the EEZ and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Turkey considers itself at a disadvantage in the East Med (as well as the Aegean Sea) due to the UNCLOS, and hence, has not signed the Convention. It disputes the EEC claims of Cyprus and Greece that overlap the Turkish definition of the EEZ in the Mediterranean. Moreover, the conflict between Turkey and Cyprus going back to 1974 over Northern Cyprus makes the issue more complex. The exclusion of Turkey from the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum formed in early 2019, had alarmed Ankara on its claims being overlooked by the regional grouping.

Turkey has since then undertaken aggressive drilling activities in the East Med to explore for hydrocarbon and this has accentuated the matter, especially since both Cyprus and Greece are members of the European Union (EU) and the Turkish action invited sanctions from the EU. As the hostilities continued to rise, the EU threatened to sanction Turkey but withheld the imposition giving talks a chance. However, with the rising hostilities in Libya, the situation in the East Med got convoluted and intertwined with the Libyan conflict. In November 2019, Ankara signed an agreement on maritime boundary in the Mediterranean Sea with the UN-recognised Tripoli-based government in Libya led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. The agreement facilitated Turkish military intervention in the Libyan conflict on behalf of the Tripoli government that was under serious attack by the Libyan National Army of General Khalifa Haftar that is aligned with the Tobruk-based government of House of Representative (HoR) led by Speaker of the HoR, Aguila Saleh Issa.

Notwithstanding the way Turkish interventions transformed the conflict in Libya, it led to Ankara increasing drilling activities in the East Med claiming the additional justification of a pact with the Sarraj-led government. The Turkish activities brought it in conflict with Greece and Cyprus as well as pitched it against Egypt, Israel and other countries who share the EEZ in the East Med. France, which unlike Turkey, has no direct stake in the East Med, became involved because of its growing desire under President Emmanuel Macron to play a greater role in the Mediterranean and North and Sub-Saharan Africa because of its colonial legacies. As member of the EU, France came out in the support of Greece and Cyprus which led to tense moments between Paris and Ankara, putting them on collision course. Even Italy, that in the Libyan conflict was sympathetic to the Sarraj government, took a position against aggressive Turkish behaviour in the East Med as member of the EU.

The growing tensions led to the US joining the theatre to mediate between the parties involved. The US under the auspices of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has been trying to bring Turkey and Greece, both members of the alliance, on the negotiations table and find a workable solution to ease the tensions. The US intervention helped as both Ankara and Athens have shown inclination for talks. The Turkish decision to withdraw its exploration and drilling ships Oruc Reis and Yavuz from the disputed waters have helped tone down the rhetoric on both sides. Ankara and Athens have agreed to establish a bilateral military de-confliction mechanism to reduce the escalation. Nonetheless, the situation remains strained.

The Turkish actions in the East Med are part of its larger international relations wherein it has adopted an assertive foreign policy to regain its lost international influence. However, this has put it at odds with all major regional and international actors. Its actions in Syria, Qatar and Libya, for example, placed it at odds with leading Arab countries including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as well as Iran. Moreover, its aggressive postures in the Middle East and the Mediterranean has created tensions with Israel. Turkish criticism of the UAE-Bahrain-Israel agreement to normalise relations further aggravated the situation. In Libya, the manoeuvring by Ankara and Cairo has brought the two regional players on the verge of a military conflict. This has led to Egypt and Israel come out in support of Greece and Cyprus in the East Med. Turkish relations with the EU and the US are also at an all-time low. While the EU has suspended accession talks with Ankara and weighing economic sanctions, the relations with the US have nosedived since the Turkish decision to buy S-400 missile defence system from Russia. Turkey’s relations with Russia have also come under strain due to, among other factors, Ankara’s role in escalation of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, but thus far Moscow has taken a considerate position on the issue and has urged all parties to stop the fighting and resolve differences through talks and has kept the lines of communications with Ankara open.

Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has adopted an aggressive foreign policy posture aimed at asserting Turkish regional and global power status. Turkey considers itself a natural regional leader in the Middle East, Mediterranean and the South Caucasus because of its location, demography and size of its economy and wishes to achieve global middle power status. Erdogan believes that the only way Turkey can assert itself in regional and global politics is by regaining lost influence in the neighbourhood and its historical area of influence in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. This brings back memories of the imperialist overreach of the Ottoman Empire among the regional countries, placing them at odds with Turkey and the condemnation of Erdogan’s “neo-Ottoman” desires. Foreign policy apart, for Erdogan the rhetoric to revive past glory is an effective domestic tool to maintain his popularity, especially at a time when the Turkish economy has suffered setbacks and the polity is seriously fissured due to Erdogan’s authoritarian and autocratic style of governance.

For now, the tensions in the East Med have been brought down due to NATO’s intervention and the willingness of both Greece and Turkey to talk. However, the lure for hydrocarbon resources in the Mediterranean remains intact and the likelihood of a long-term resolution in the East Med is bleak. Ankara is unlikely to easily give up its claims over the disputed waters and Erdogan appears bent on mounting a hard bargain. Meanwhile, the aggressive foreign policy posture serves his domestic political agenda.

Note:  This article was originally published in Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, West Asia Watch Vol 3, Issue 3, July-September 2020 and has been reproduced under arrangement. Web Link

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy