TURKEY’S AMBITIOUS AGENDA IN THE EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN
Executive Director at the Institute of International Relations,
Panteion University, Athens, Greece.
Energy at the core
Natural gas has always been at the heart of EU-Turkey energy discussions. Turkey has emerged as a potential key transit country in a position to contribute significantly to the security of the EU’s gas supply, largely due to its strategic position between Europe and the gas-rich countries of the Caspian and the Middle East.
Particularly on the eve of the first Russian-Ukrainian energy crisis, Turkey became the focal transit country of the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), a European Commission initiative started in 2008 with the aim of reducing the EU’s perceived over-dependence on Russian gas supplies. The expectation back then was that by linking Turkey with every single project that would bypass Russia, bilateral bonds would become stronger, anchoring Ankara in the European family.
But this expectation has not panned out. A key transit route/state has to be credible, predictable and trustworthy. Turkey’s actions are not suggestive of such qualities.
Turkey has numerous things at stake in the Eastern Mediterranean energy game. These include the following:
- strengthening of its regional position,
- ensuring maximum energy autonomy,
- transformation into a transit hub,
- averting the upgrading of the roles of Nicosia and Athens, and
- hindering joint ventures involving the other regional powers.
Thus, when, in the past, the Muslim Brotherhood was in power in Egypt, Turkey unsuccessfully approached them to cancel the delimitation agreement with Cyprus. Through the leaking of maps he had ‘drawn up’, rear admiral Yaycı lured Tel Aviv and Beirut with the prospect of expanding their maritime zones if they backed out of their agreements with Nicosia. However, both the negative climate — especially with Egypt and Israel — and the irrational nature of the delimitation proposals stopped these proposals from being adopted as a basis for discussion.
Subsequently, as of 2011, Turkey adopted the tactic of de facto ‘greying’ of the maritime borders of the Cypriot exclusive economic zone (EEZ), citing the legal rights of the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ — recognized only by Ankara — and discovered that some of the fields being auctioned off by Nicosia abut the Turkish continental shelf. In all of this area region, Ankara has often designated areas for exercises, sent vessels to carry out seismographic research, and in general maintained a presence that is a reminder of the role it would like to play. In every case apart from one (field 3, with the expulsion of the ENI (Italian) drillship), Turkey neither harassed exploratory drilling nor tried to have it suspended, being aware of the consequences such actions would have.
Turkey’s negotiating tactics through the projection of power
Akar contrived “blue homeland” as a recasting of Erdogan’s “borders of the heart” for maritime purposes, and presented maps making absurd, unsupportable claims, provoking an outcry and attempting to shape a tailor-made negotiating framework (that suits Turkey’s ends). After presenting the maps, Turkey proceeded to carry out military exercises, issuing illegal Navtexes to reserve areas in order to subsequently claim that Turkey has the first say in these areas. Later, it sent ships to carry out seismic surveys, and depending on given reactions (which it is Ankara’s longstanding policy to test constantly) it is now in a position to move to the next level of power-projection by sending drillships, as happened in the case of Cyprus. In practice, however, Turkey is careful about choosing the areas it disputes, preferring areas the other side has not fully secured or areas the status of which can be seen as disputable. Turkey acts even more freely in occupied Cyprus, where it has received licenses from the Turkish Cypriot side, which in the north is seen as a state, so that it can issue permits to the Turkish state petroleum company, whereas in the south it is seen as a community that has a right to a share in the exploitation of the hydrocarbons of the island as a whole.
Turkey is threatening to step up its aggressiveness if its demands aren’t met. It wants to give the sense of a gradual asphyxiation of Cyprus through flanking manoeuvres that could reach the south, where there are thirteen delimited sea blocks. Until mid-August, the ones most ‘vulnerable’ to a Turkish projection of power were blocks 2, 3, 8 and 9, where the presence of Italy’s ENI and Korea’s KOGAS didn’t seem to constitute a deterrent for Turkey. The fact that France’s Total became involved in further blocks as well as in block 7 nullifies the chances of Turkey’s taking actions to dispute them, though in a more extreme scenario Turkey could attempt exploratory drilling in block 6 (based on the claim that it overlaps its continental shelf), where Total is operating jointly with Eni.
Can the West mitigate Turkey’s assertiveness?
The EU had no choice but to impose sanctions on Turkey. However, the interdependence that exists in various policy areas doesn’t leave much margin for manoeuvring in such a way that these sanctions would have direct and practical results. Moreover, Erdogan is seeking immediate results, and this is why he is defying international pressures, betting that, in the short term, he will get what he wants (which won’t be the case if the crisis drags on). The sanctions that will “hurt” Ankara the most – and especially its beleaguered economy – are the U.S. sanctions resulting from Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 system, but president Trump is giving time to both Erdogan and the US administration in the hope that they can avoid further confrontation.
So, can the US’s commitment to Eastern Med energy cooperation in partnership with Greece, Cyprus, and Israel act as a catalyst for moving regional projects forward? Not necessarily, although it is helpful. The geopolitical/security perspective is crucial, but at the end of the day it is up to the market to define which project is preferable based on market needs. Given the emerging competition and the drop – or at least stabilization – in oil and natgas prices, the cost is also another defining factor. Still, it is encouraging that the involved companies in the wider Eastern Mediterranean seem to be coordinating their actions while attempting to find common ground. This does not mean that the interests of states and companies converge in all cases (e.g. Egypt seems to be against the East Med undersea pipeline), but the creation of mechanisms (such as the East Med Gas Forum) shows each party’s level of dedication (including that of external powers like the US, France and Italy) to reaching a point of mutually acceptable and beneficial agreements. The support of Washington adds value to regional developments as long as it does not exclude other players from the energy equation. Although Ankara seems defiant and assertive, its revisionist agenda is effectively stalled by the ongoing and developing regional synergies under the US umbrella.