A storm brewing in the Mediterranean

Turkey and Greece threaten each other with war. Natural gas is only the trigger, but not the fundamental reason.

What happened (in 20 seconds)

The eastern Mediterranean is full of natural gas. Turkey has started seismic surveys to discover new sources. The question whether this takes place in Turkish or Greek maritime territory brought the countries to the brink of war: both have readied their navies, conducted military exercises and drew red lines into the geopolitical sand. But in the end, it is all about spheres of influence in the Mediterranean, national pride, and domestic politics.

What you need to know to understand the situation

If there is one thing you can rely on, it is conflict between Turkey and Greece. In 1996, the two states almost waged war over a group of islands. In the century before, there were four conflicts, for example when Greece, after its independence, eyed the coast of Anatolia. The oldest known conflict between Greece and Turkey might date back to the Bronze Age. What back then was the most beautiful woman in the Mediterranean, has now become natural gas.

The latest dispute is based on the question of who owns what in the Mediterranean. If Ankara has its way, Turkey owns almost 300,000 square kilometers of sea surface. Athens’ plan, on the other hand, grants its neighbor only 41,000 square kilometers (see chart). The whole thing is complicated by the numerous Greek islands. Athens argues that these exercise their own maritime control zone; Ankara rejects this and claims everything that lies on Turkey’s underwater continental shelf. Athens invokes a UN treaty, but Ankara is not a party to it.

Natural gas had its first big moment in the region two years ago — with Cyprus. Large gas reserves were discovered off the island, which is divided into two parts, and the Cypriot government wanted to use the find commercially. But Turkey also claimed them, for itself and for the autonomous region of Northern Cyprus, which is only recognized as a state by Turkey (and de facto controlled by it). To assert its claim, Turkey sent its navy into the region.

Good to know: Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Greece supported a military coup on the island and Turkey carried out an invasion in return. In the north lies the internationally unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, in the south EU member Cyprus. There are also two British exclaves on the island, because why not.

Gas fields and claims in the eastern Mediterranean. The most recent dispute between Athens and Ankara arose from the Oruc Reis (blue triangle) drillings. Source: FT

Die letzten Monate

The current round between Turkey and Greece began at the end of 2019, when Ankara concluded an agreement with the Libyan government in Tripoli. Exactly the government, which was under heavy military pressure by the warlord Haftar for four years, until Turkey intervened and turned the fortunes of war. This yielded Ankara a favor to cash in. The agreement divided the maritime claims in the eastern Mediterranean advantageously.

This was a thorn in Athens’ side. So without further ado, it concluded its own agreement with Egypt (which, by the way, supports General Haftar) in order to divide the eastern Mediterranean into advantageous economic zones. Turkey was furious — and launched seismic surveys in disputed areas of the Aegean Sea.

It wasn’t a help that the two countries had actually agreed behind the scenes to start de-escalating talks and confidence-building measures. One day before an announcement by President Erdogan and Prime Minister Mitsotakis was planned to be given, Greece suddenly presented its agreement with Egypt.

Since then the escalation has been turning. Navies have been mobilized, maneuvers have been held, and reasons for a full-blown war have been outlined publicly.

Sweet, sweet natural gas

Natural gas doesn’t just heat up the atmosphere but also the political arena. There is the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, the gas reserves in the South China Sea, the attempt of the US to push its liquefied natural gas (LNG) onto the world markets, and the dispute over Cyprus and the Aegean Sea.

Natural gas does not always have to lead to disputes. The large “Leviathan” and “Tamar” wells in Israel also supply Jordan and Egypt. Several countries have founded a cooperation forum for the commercialization of further sources in the eastern Mediterranean. Greece, Israel and Cyprus work together on the “EastMed” pipeline to Europe.

Cooperation makes sense, because gas requires transnational infrastructure and turns neighbors into buyers of cheaper energy. This is one of the reasons why a few decades ago, think tanks all over the world were curious to find out whether new natural gas discoveries would lead to more cooperation or more disputes. So far the latter seems to predominate.

What does natural gas mean for Turkey? It currently imports around 99 percent of its natural gas requirements, which is 6 percentage points more than Germany. At around 30 percent, natural gas accounts for a large proportion of Turkey’s energy consumption. Russia and Iran supply most of it — not the most reliable friends.

Additionally, these treaties expire in the next few years, so in the worst case Turkey will suddenly find its energy security as a liability on its geopolitical negotiating table. The figures show that it is aware of this: Between 2017 and 2020, Turkey has reduced the share of Russian gas from 52 to 21 percent and turned instead to Azerbaijan.

And the biggest economic problem for Turkey at present is its weak currency. The more it has to import from abroad, the greater the pressure on the lira.

If Turkey had more natural gas of its own, it would have more control over these variables. And could export natural gas to the EU on a whim — especially if the EU is having trouble with Russia and Nord Stream 2 fails. All hail the natural gas, then?

Natural gas? No, thank you

But natural gas isn’t really good enough to explain the conflict. Above all because the raw material is difficult to turn into money. If a natural gas field is found, it will take up to seven years before it can actually be used commercially. First it has to be determined how much of the gas field can actually be utilized. Then expensive production facilities and cross-border infrastructure are needed, especially pipelines — bad conditions for starting a dispute with your neighbors.

And then the price of gas must be high enough to make it worth all the effort. You can already guess what comes next. Better hold on to the oil barrels you bought in a panicked frenzy a few months ago amidst negative prices:

The price of natural gas has seen better days. Don’t let the pre-2008 boom distract you: natural gas is currently 50 percent down on 2014 as well. Source: Investing.com

Mediterranean, meet your regional power

It is mainly about the Turkish self-view as a regional power in and around the Mediterranean. Turkey has been pursuing a much more active foreign policy for several years, intervening in Syria against the Kurds and the government, accepting escalations with Russia, and increasingly openly butting heads with the EU and Washington.

In the vacuum of the Libyan civil war, Ankara saw another opportunity and supported the underdog: the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, which was attacked by the warlord Haftar. Haftar received support from the UAE, Egypt and Russia, while Tripoli had to settle for the EU at first. As many advantages the EU may have as a partner, as little Syrian mercenaries can be tickled out of it. Turkey, however, intervened much more robustly and turned the fortunes of war around for Tripoli. Now it is probably the most dominant international player in Libya.

Turkey’s new self-confidence is a consequence of five things. First, domestic policy. President Erdogan has an interest in signaling strength and creating distractions. Although the worst seems to be over for the time being, the economy is fragile and the lira is weak. In addition, there are new political challengers for Erdogan, for example in the form of former foreign minister Davutoglu and ex-vice premier Babacan.

Second: Erdogan has had full power at home since the country was changed from a parliamentary to a presidential republic by referendum in 2017. This gives him far more flexibility to experiment with foreign policy and take risks.

Third: The US is gone. What already began with the “Pivot to East Asia” under Obama, picked up speed under Trump: A declining strategic interest in what is becoming of the Middle East and North Africa (with Israeli-Arab relations being the notable exception). Syria? Get out of it, no matter what the allied Kurds think and how much that helps Russia or Iran. Libya? From the get-go no interest, even after Russia intervened there. This has left gaps for Turkey to establish itself as an ordering force with Syria invasion, Libya maneuvers, and the Cyprus dispute.

Mare Nostrum

Fourth: Turkey finds itself increasingly isolated politically. Its relations with its largest neighbors are either strained (Russia, Egypt, EU) or outright poor (Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Syria). In the Mediterranean, other states are making common cause and deliberately leaving Turkey out of the equation.

Mediterranean Cooperation Forum and EastMed Pipeline, our two examples of successful natural gas cooperation? Turkey was not even invited to either. EastMed even has the relatively obvious aim of excluding Turkey from the regional gas trade by connecting the Levant directly with the EU. Ankara’s active foreign policy is probably a reaction to the feeling of no longer being at the table in the region.

And to the feeling that their own concerns are not taken seriously enough by the EU and Washington. For example, when it comes to the growing influence of the Kurds in northern Syria or claims in the Mediterranean. Anyone who has the feeling that they are not being treated fairly is more likely to take drastic measures.

Fifthly and finally: Turkey draws lessons from the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish predecessor state did not play a decisive role at sea in the entirety of its history. The Erdogan government believes that this is what sealed its demise. That is why it adopted the Blue Homeland Doctrine, a plan to make Turkey a maritime power. For this the country must assert itself in its strategic waters.

Blue Homeland is the result of a pact with the devil, which Erdogan had to close. Specifically, with the secular ultra-nationalists, usually found in the security apparatus, many of whom are believed to have been involved in an attempted coup against the Erdogan government in 2011. The admiral who conceived the doctrine was imprisoned for 18 years. He was released four years later, as Erdogan was now joining forces with the ultra-nationalists for electoral reasons. Blue Homeland became the core of Turkish foreign policy. A conflict with at least Cyprus and Greece was thus unavoidable.

Good to know: The Ultranationalists are also called Eurasianists. They prefer a stronger strategic autonomy for Turkey, including turning away from the EU and NATO. Instead, the country should orient itself towards Russia and China.

Geopolitics, meet domestic policy

So the reasons for the Turkish-Greek dispute have only superficially to do with raw materials. It is based much more on the Turkish striving for status as a regional power (driven by the country’s domestic politics) and the resulting complications with neighbors.

A good example is the list of actors who took sides in the gas dispute: Greece’s new partner in the Mediterranean is Egypt, which supports General Haftar in Libya — against Turkey. A recent military exercise by Greece was accompanied by the United Arab Emirates, who were Haftar supporters from the outset. France also took part in the maneuver and was the first country to publicly back Greece in the gas dispute. France is regarded as Haftar’s most important advocate in the EU.

Russia also supports the warlord, but has not yet taken a position in the gas dispute (and would have no acute reason to do so). Instead, it is an ally of President Assad in Syria, another strategic opponent of Turkey.

Some connections in the Mediterranean. Source: Economist

How do you get all that apart? Not very easily. Turkey and Greece would both have to drop their maximalist demands with regard to maritime control zones. Otherwise, they would force the other side to stand firm. Turkey should, where possible, be more involved in regional projects. This takes away the need to represent its interests through faits accomplis and demonstrations of power. The EU and the USA should ensure that they do not automatically dismiss Turkish interests in order to keep the country at the table. At the same time, it must be made clear to the country that rash actions come with significant cost.

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