What’s Driving the Conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean?
On Jan. 25, Turkey and Greece will begin exploratory talks in an effort to resolve the issues at the root of their often hostile relations. This isn’t the second round of talks, or the third, or the fourth—it’s the 61st. Given that tension between the two countries almost led to military confrontation in August 2020, this latest attempt to resolve the conflict is a welcome development. But will it work?
The ongoing dispute in the eastern Mediterranean directly involves Turkey, Greece and Cyprus—but it also implicates Egypt, Libya, Israel, Italy, France and Germany. Turkey, Greece and Cyprus are at odds over exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and ownership of the associated Mediterranean gas fields. Meanwhile, Israel, Egypt, Greece and other EU member states are concerned that Turkish aggression could undermine a planned pipeline, threatening exporters’ economic potential and importers’ access to gas. And all are concerned about falling behind in the race for regional dominance. These tensions have been exacerbated by other factors shaping Turkey policy in European and Arab states—including security, migration, and domestic politics, as well as a desire to contain Turkey’s regional ambitions.
The clashes in the region have a long history. Following the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus—itself in response to a Greek-backed coup—the island was partitioned into the internationally recognized, majority-Greek Republic of Cyprus in the south, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) in the north. While the former has been an EU member since 2004, the latter is recognized only by Turkey.
Tensions have ratcheted up in recent years as Turkey, Greece and Cyprus have butted heads over rights to exploration and drilling for hydrocarbon resources. In 2011, the American company Noble Energy discovered the Aphrodite gas field in Cyprus’s EEZ, sparking a new round of conflict. The Republic of Cyprus is seeking to assert the right to make its own energy decisions, while Turkey argues that the distribution of Cyprus’s natural resources ought to be negotiated with the TRNC. To this end, Turkey has sent ships into Cypriot waters repeatedly since spring 2019—a move that the European Union met with condemnation and sanctions. Greece, meanwhile, defends its entitlement to exclusive drilling rights over the continental shelves created by each of its many islands in the Aegean Sea. Ankara rejects these claims, arguing that the shelves of the Greek islets impinge on its own EEZ.
In the second half of 2020, tensions between the two NATO allies reached a high. In August, Ankara sent a seismic research vessel to the vicinity of the Greek island of Kastellorizo, not far from Turkey’s western shore, in response to the signing of a maritime accord between Greece and Egypt—itself a response to a Turkish EEZ agreement with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA). On Aug. 12, Greek and Turkish frigates collided in contested waters. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan quickly threatened retaliation. The escalation between Athens and Ankara worried the international community, especially given the recent rapprochement between Turkey and Russia. In a show of solidarity with Athens, French President Emmanuel Macron decided to “temporarily reinforce” France’s military presence in the region, while the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sent warplanes to the Greek island of Crete for joint military exercises.
The early fall was quieter. But Turkey began to act aggressively again in October and November 2020, only to back down in advance of a December summit where European leaders voted to impose economic sanctions on Turkey for its actions in the region.
The conflict in the eastern Mediterranean brings together intertwined disputes over energy sources, geopolitical dominance and domestic factors influencing Turkey policy. Taken together, this makes for a highly combustible situation—especially because continued provocations from Turkey, and to a lesser extent other states, have repeatedly exacerbated the situation. A diplomatic solution to competition over hydrocarbon exploration that includes Ankara is the only way forward. Europeans, for their part, need to develop a common policy toward Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean, while Middle Eastern states should compartmentalize their disagreement with Turkey on its support for Islamist groups.
Disputes in the eastern Mediterranean are animated by a host of underlying conflicts. But in a proximate sense, they are caused largely by disagreements over access to and ownership of energy sources, particularly gas. Access to domestic gas is a ticket to greater influence on the international stage and to economic independence, which significantly shapes the stances of Turkey, Greece and Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as those of Egypt and Israel. Both Middle Eastern states have, in fact, recently discovered gas fields off of their own coasts and have ambitions to become energy hubs in the region.
Following the Arab Spring, Egypt faced natural gas shortages, a result of decreased domestic production and increased demand. This, combined with deep cuts in fuel subsidies due to the conditions of an International Monetary Fund loan, has led to low-level political instability in the country. As prices of commodities continue to increase, wages have failed to keep up. Luckily for Egypt, though, there seems to be reason for hope. In 2015, the Italian energy company Eni discovered Zohr gas field in the Mediterranean Sea within Egypt’s EEZ. The gas field contains approximately 30 trillion cubic feet of gas, making it the largest in the eastern Mediterranean thus far. Not only has this find allowed Egypt to slowly decrease its reliance on imports and plan for a more self-sufficient future in terms of energy, but it also presents a significant export opportunity for Cairo.
Egypt possesses two liquefaction facilities, though only one is currently in operation. These facilities convert natural gas into liquefied natural gas (LNG), making it easier to ship. Given Egypt’s central location, the state can act as both an exporter and a reexporter of LNG. The opportunities for reexport include a potential Cyprus-Egypt pipeline, through which Cyprus would export gas from the Aphrodite gas field to Egypt for liquefaction and Egypt would then reexport LNG to the European market. Turkey, however, insists that revenue from Aphrodite must be shared with the TNRC. But regardless, for Egypt’s struggling economy, export opportunities like this pipeline and its recent gas finds are a lifeline and a way to reestablish itself as a regional power.
If Turkey continues on a path of belligerence in the Mediterranean, this could compromise Egypt’s emergence. Egypt can ill afford that—and, as a result, has made clear that it stands with Greece and with general eastern Mediterranean cooperation through initiatives like the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), an intergovernmental organization that serves as a platform for organizing the exploitation and sale of energy resources in the region.
Israel is also aiming to become a major energy exporter in the eastern Mediterranean. The Leviathan gas field, discovered in 2010, and the Tamar gas field, discovered in 2009—both in Israel’s EEZ—have been central to the country’s pursuit of that goal. For the first time since the Leviathan gas field’s discovery, gas from the field was exported to Egypt and Jordan in 2020. (Lebanon and Israel have conflicting maritime claims, the resolution of which would add Lebanon as another potential producer of offshore gas reserves.) More important yet for Israel is the proposed EastMed pipeline, which would export Israeli and Cypriot gas to Greece and then on to Europe. The proposed pipeline is expected to be completed in 2025, though it would need to pass through Turkey’s purported EEZ—as established in Turkey’s November 2019 agreement with the Libyan GNA. This accord recognizes Libya’s and Turkey’s EEZs as extending across the Mediterranean through what Greece and Cyprus consider their EEZs and ignores the presence of the Greek islands of Crete and Rhodes. While no other countries recognize the boundaries set by Turkey and Libya, the accord may still present obstacles to the EastMed pipeline. Permissions for the pipeline must come from the countries whose EEZs it would pass through, and if Turkey asserts itself, it could block efforts to move forward with building the pipeline.
Ankara, for its part, recognizes that if it gets left behind in the race for energy security and is excluded from export plans, it may lose an opportunity to gain durable influence in the region. Until its recent find in the Black Sea, Turkey had been fairly gas-poor compared to its neighbors. Historically, it had relied almost exclusively on imports, with its largest gas partners being Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran. Now, however, Turkey also aims to become a regional gas trade hub. Proposals for a Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline—part of the Southern Gas Corridor, which would bring gas from Azerbaijan to Europe by way of Turkey, thereby reducing the region’s reliance on Russian gas—were key to achieving that goal. There were also talks between Israel and Turkey of a pipeline from Israel to Europe running through Turkey.
But Turkey’s relations with Israel have deteriorated following Erdogan’s vocal support of Palestinian statehood and rights under the Israeli occupation, and more controversially of Hamas and other Islamist factions—not to mention Ankara’s involvement in regional conflicts. This has led Israel to work instead with Cyprus and Greece on the EastMed pipeline, which may lower the value of the Trans-Anatolian pipeline. As a result, Turkey is realizing its neighbors may survive just fine without it. That fear is likely contributing to Turkey’s increasingly confrontational approach in the eastern Mediterranean and in other conflicts, such as Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, which enables it to expand its sphere of influence and ensure, to some degree, that it continues to hold some form of regional importance.
The EastMed pipeline is important not only for Middle Eastern states but also for Europe. For over a decade, Europeans have eyed the eastern Mediterranean as the perfect place to diversify energy supplies away from Russia and boost economic growth, especially for the Republic of Cyprus. The EU has been supportive of the EastMed pipeline project, which is backed not only by Egypt and Israel but also by Italy, Cyprus and Greece.
Energy plays an outsize role in dictating Italy’s policy toward the eastern Mediterranean. Eni, the company that discovered the Zohr gas field, not only is Italy’s largest company by revenue but also is effectively under government control. Although Italy has been one of Turkey’s staunchest advocates within the EU, Eni has undermined Turkey’s regional energy ambitions since the 2015 discovery of the Zohr field, after which the company began using Egyptian liquefaction facilities to deliver LNG to EU markets.
After Turkey blocked an Eni drillship from reaching Cypriot waters in February 2018, Italy backed the establishment of the EMGF alongside Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. With Ankara deliberately excluded, the forum was quickly seen by analysts as an anti-Turkey club of European and Arab states anxious to create a coalition able to counter Turkish belligerence. France—whose own energy giant, Total, is heavily invested in the region—requested permanent membership in the EMGF in January 2020.
In recent years, however, the EastMed pipeline has begun to lose its appeal for Europeans. The competing claims and players in the region, along with the overabundance of LNG from outside Russia, has caused the project to decrease in importance. Moreover, hydrocarbon exploration faces opposition from Europeans wary of its catastrophic environmental effects. Greeks, Greek Cypriots, Italians and even the French are unlikely to lose interest altogether in the energy opportunities offered by the eastern Mediterranean—but energy concerns are only part of what is fueling the conflict today.
Conflict in the Mediterranean is also driven in part by geopolitical concerns, with competition for regional dominance inadvertently turning Libya into a proxy war of sorts. Control of Libya is currently divided between the internationally recognized GNA and the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by renegade general Khalifa Haftar. The LNA bills itself as anti-Islamist and is backed by Egypt, the UAE and Russia via the Wagner Group—a paramilitary organization—as well as France, which provides more covert backing. The GNA, meanwhile, is supported by Turkey and was previously also backed by Italy and the United States. Egypt, which is concerned by the possibility of Islamists gaining power on its western border, views Turkey’s backing of the GNA as an attempt to assert power and prop up Islamists in the region. Nonetheless, largely as a result of Haftar’s inability to consolidate power effectively, Egypt has recently drawn down its support of the GNA and signaled its support for U.N.-brokered talks that have solidified a de facto cease-fire in Libya, which has held since June 2020.
In January 2020, Turkey increased its support of the GNA by sending arms and troops to Libya—a move considered by many to be directly related to the situation in the eastern Mediterranean. This rush of aid was central to stemming Haftar’s attempt to take over Tripoli. Only two months prior, the GNA had signed its EEZ agreement with Turkey, eliciting condemnation from the European Council. Meanwhile, Greece not only made overtures to the LNA but also signed its own agreement with Egypt in August 2020. Greek-Egyptian ties continue to improve, with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declaring that Egypt “will stand by Greece and in favor of its rights, on any issue concerning the country’s security and maritime borders” during his first trip to Athens since signing the EEZ agreement.
European powers also have vital security interests in the region that require cooperation with Turkey, with respect to both migration and counterterrorism. In Libya, stabilizing the conflict between the Turkish-backed GNA and the LNA would stem the flow of migrants to Europe. At the same time, Turkey exerts significant control over refugee flows into Europe under a 2016 German-brokered bargain with the EU, which Europeans do not want to see abandoned. On counterterrorism, although France publicly recognizes the sovereignty of the GNA, it has allied itself with Haftar (thereby against Turkey) because of the general’s fight against terrorism in Benghazi and southern Libya and has developed security partnerships with several of Turkey’s regional opponents, namely Egypt and the UAE. Furthermore, French President Macron has repeatedly singled out Turkey for what he calls its “criminal responsibility” in Libya—although France, Egypt and the UAE have all participated in exacerbating the conflict by supporting armed factions allied with Haftar and breaching the 2011 U.N. arms embargo.
While Italy is less aggressive than France in the eastern Mediterranean, it also has security interests in Libya and is involved in the conflict. Having previously supported the GNA alongside Turkey, Italy recently sought to reach a position of “equidistance” between the warring factions, causing Turkey to feel betrayed by its historical ally within the EU.
Domestic Factors Influencing Turkey Policy
Middle Eastern antagonism toward Turkey stems primarily from Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations. Egypt, in particular, has been leading the charge against Turkey, which made its support for the Brotherhood clear after the group’s ascension to the presidency in Egypt in 2012. Erdogan expressed his dissatisfaction with the military takeover in 2013, calling al-Sisi a “tyrant.” Egypt—along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE—view a stronger and more influential Turkish presence in the eastern Mediterranean as an existential threat, fearing that a revival of the Muslim Brotherhood could threaten domestic political stability.
Though the Arabian Peninsula is not involved directly in the ongoing Mediterranean conflict, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have viewed Turkey with wariness and have taken steps to establish closer ties with Greece and Cyprus. European and Middle Eastern leaders have visited each other’s countries more frequently, and increased military engagement has also become commonplace: The UAE has regularly participated in Greek-led military drills since 2017, and Greece came to Saudi Arabia’s aid after the 2019 attack on the Abqaiq oil processing plant.
Israel-Turkey relations have not been as combative as Turkish-Arab relations, but they are not particularly warm either. Relations between the two countries were historically close, but they have deteriorated sharply under Erdogan’s leadership. They hit a low point in 2010 after Israeli forces stormed the Gaza Freedom Flotilla—a group of ships breaking the Gaza blockade to deliver humanitarian aid—and killed nine Turkish activists in a skirmish on one of the boats. Both countries have made attempts at reconciliation over the years, but there seems to be little appetite on either side to move past perceived transgressions. Though the deep-seated animosity between Turks and the Arab states isn’t as present in relations with Israel, Israelis still see a powerful and disruptive Turkey as a growing threat.
Conflict in the eastern Mediterranean has also become a significant thorn in the EU’s side—in no small part due to the bloc’s requirement that foreign policy decisions be made unanimously. On one hand, some member states seek to demonstrate solidarity with Greece and the Republic of Cyprus, both EU member states anxious to see retaliation against Turkey at the EU level for Ankara’s aggression in the eastern Mediterranean. France, for whom tension with Turkey is at a high, has been a key supporter of Greece and Cyprus on the matter and has not shied away from aggressively demonstrating hard power in the region. On the other hand, several member states—including Italy, Spain, Malta and Germany—prefer diplomacy and negotiation. Their position is rooted largely in fear of antagonizing Ankara given Turkish control over refugee flows into Europe. Germany, in particular, which held the EU’s six-month presidency through the end of December 2020, has taken the lead on mediating talks between Athens and Ankara to resolve the conflict.
The conclusions of the December 2020 European Council summit offer a perfect example of the divergence in approaches to Turkey within the bloc. In October 2020, the EU threatened to “use all the instruments and the options at its disposal” in case of “renewed unilateral actions or provocations in breach of international law” from Ankara. But two months later, disagreement at the summit—between Greece, Cyprus and France on one side and Germany, Italy and Spain on the other—resulted in limited sanctions on individuals involved in planning or carrying out unauthorized drilling in the eastern Mediterranean.
The EU’s cautious approach stems from European disagreement over two crucial issues that, on the surface, have nothing to do with energy: migration and domestic politics. In March 2016, following the arrival of more than one million refugees in Europe the previous year, the bloc reached a deal with Turkey to stem the flow of migrants. Notwithstanding criticism from human rights groups, the deal was seen as a critical safeguard for European solidarity, which was crumbling under resurgent nationalism and unilateral impositions of border controls. The current dispute in the eastern Mediterranean—which pits Greece, Cyprus and France against Turkey—is concerning for Berlin especially. Germany, home to a large Turkish diaspora, worries that provoking Erdogan in the eastern Mediterranean risks forfeiting the German-brokered 2016 deal and precipitating the influx of a new wave of refugees. It is not only because of a principled commitment to diplomacy over hard power, then, that Germany is trying to deescalate the combustible situation.
Germany is not the only EU member state for which the Turkey question touches on domestic politics. French President Macron, who will face reelection in spring 2022—likely in a run-off against the far-right Islamophobic nationalist Marine Le Pen—has been tacking right in order to appeal to some of Le Pen’s supporters. His government’s geopolitical assertiveness in the region is likely driven not only by a desire to show solidarity with Greece and Cyprus but also by domestic political concerns. Macron surely is aware that low approval ratings at home are boosted when he takes a hard stance abroad.
Although energy grievances between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus are the core drivers of the dispute in the eastern Mediterranean, intra-European disagreements over how to manage the EU’s relationship with Turkey are extending the life of the conflict. Europeans must strike a delicate balance between retaliation against Turkey for its bellicose actions in the eastern Mediterranean, on the one hand, and cooperation in order to make progress toward resolution, on the other. To make matters yet more complicated, Turkey is formally a candidate for EU membership, although the accession process has long been frozen due to human rights abuses and the erosion of the rule of law in the country. Any credible push from the EU for meaningful diplomatic negotiations requires member states to resolve their disagreement on strategy toward both the eastern Mediterranean and Turkey more broadly. The European Union will not be able to present a coherent position if some member states continue to exert hard power while others rely on mediation.
As others have argued, the EU should consider sanctions similar to the recently imposed U.S. sanctions on Turkey’s defense industry to rein in the militarization of Turkey’s foreign policy. Such measures would clearly convey condemnation of Turkish hostility without engendering the humanitarian repercussions of broader economic sanctions. Simultaneously, however, the EU must push for diplomacy. To this end, Europeans should welcome European Council President Charles Michel’s proposal for a Multilateral Conference on the Eastern Mediterranean.
A strategy under which Egypt, Israel, France, Greece, Cyprus and others establish closer ties with each other while excluding Turkey is unsustainable. Turkey certainly is largely to blame for the increasing levels of instability in the region, but the feeling of being sidelined has only pushed it to lash out further. The only real path toward deescalation now requires bringing Turkey into the fold. That includes allowing the country entry into the EMGF, including it in broader diplomatic negotiations on energy in the region, and perhaps working to find EEZ boundaries with its neighbors that would be mutually agreeable. The resumption of Greece-Turkey exploratory talks on Jan. 25 is a welcome step in this direction, especially given Turkey’s preference for bilateral conflict resolution. But little can be done without the Republic of Cyprus participating in territorial negotiations.
Of course, this approach will be possible only if Turkey is willing to back down from kinetic action and to approach a diplomatic resolution in good faith—rather than continuing with its current strategy of acting single-handedly in the region any time diplomatic negotiations do not go its way. For Middle Eastern states, a diplomatic resolution will mean divorcing anti-Islamist fears from their approach to hydrocarbon exploration and drilling in the eastern Mediterranean, a framing that currently prevents Middle Eastern states from approaching the conflict with the nuance it requires.
Engaging in meaningful diplomacy—restricted, to the extent possible, to the situation in the eastern Mediterranean—will by no means be easy. But it is critically necessary to escape the current pattern of escalation, which harms EU and NATO unity in the region, risks strengthening Turkish-Russian relations, and exacerbates Middle Eastern conflicts—needlessly extending humanitarian disasters like the one in Libya.