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Is Turkey's Gamble in the East Mediterranean a Risk Worth Taking?

Is Turkey's Gamble in the East Mediterranean a Risk Worth Taking?Looking back at 2019 this will no doubt be remembered as the year that Turkey upped the ante in the deep waters of the East Mediterranean by adopting and promoting a highly provocative, if not belligerent, stand. In what appears to be a well thought out plan Ankara has very consistently over

By Costis Stambolis*

Looking back at 2019 this will no doubt be remembered as the year that Turkey upped the ante in the deep waters of the East Mediterranean by adopting and promoting a highly provocative, if not belligerent, stand. In what appears to be a well thought out plan Ankara has very consistently over the years pegged its claims for hydrocarbon exploration in large swaths of the sea areas offshore Cyprus, Greece and lately Libya.

In February 2018 Turkish naval units succeeded in scaring away a drill ship operated by ENI as it was getting ready to prospect for gas in Block 3 in the Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) of the Republic of Cyprus. Then in the spring of last year the Fatih drill ship, operated by Turkey's TPAO, carried out exploration work west of Paphos and within the islands EEZ. Thus Turkey has sent an unequivocally strong message that she is disputing Cyprus's EEZ. This message was further amplified when last summer yet another TPAO drillship carried out exploration in an offshore area east of Cyprus.

According to maps published by various Turkish government departments, Cyprus, with the exception of the Turkish occupied northern part, is not entitled to an EEZ, with Turkey claiming control instead. In the same vein Turkey has laid claims on half of the Aegean Sea and the area up to the eastern coast of Crete. If that was not enough on November 13 Ankara took one more bold step by encroaching a vast area of Greece's sea zone east of Rhodes, i.e. from the 28 and up until the 32 median, by submitting detailed coordinates to the United Nations.

Building fast on this canning move Turkey surprised even its closest allies by announcing the signing on November 27 of a bilateral 'security and military cooperation' memorandum with the besieged, but UN recognized ,Government of National Accord (GNA) of Libya. Furthermore the two countries signed an agreement establishing new maritime boundaries between them, clearly infringing on Greece’s territorial waters and EEZ and sparking an immediate outcry from Athens which saw its sea zone violated once again.

But Turkey's grandstanding in the East Mediterranean is totally in line with president Erdogan's neo Ottoman aspirationsand his blue homeland (Mavi Vatan) vision, whereby the mainland is surrounded by an ample territorial sea zone. Another important reason which explains Turkey's forceful behaviour is its ongoing quest to discover and exploit much needed hydrocarbon resources.

With a constantly rising population, now exceeding 83 million, and even faster rising energy demand Turkey, which imports almost 75% of its fuels, is desperately trying to reduce its energy dependence. Having been excluded from the oil rich areas of Kirkuk and Mosul, following the demise of the Ottoman Empire after the first WW, Ankara is now eyeing the Levant in whose waters some 2,0 trillion cubic meters of gas-considerably higher than Caspian gas reserves- have been discovered during the last decade with Israel and Egypt already covering all their gas needs from indigenous production and with Cyprus and Lebanon soon to follow suit. With more deposits being confirmed every year Turkey feels bitter for having been left out from what amounts to an energy bonanza.

Turkey's very imaginative, but highly contentious, decision to ignore Greece's territorial waters and impinge on its EEZ has resulted in a fierce reaction from Athens which has spared no effort to lodge bitter complaints with the UN and the European Council and also brief her Arab allies and Washington. Athens, which has repeatedly denounced Ankara's expansionist policies and gross violation of international maritime law, is now seeking some form of retribution by demanding European solidarity and sanctions (unlikely) against Turkey.

As Greece is now trying to develop its not insignificant hydrocarbon resources in offshore areas in the Ionianand south of Crete, and has signed concession agreements to that effect with major oil companies, including ExxonMobil, Total and Repsol, Turkey's latest action to openly challenge her rights in its undeclared, yet effective, EEZ is posing an existential threat. According to senior EC officials in Brussels the sea blocks which have been granted for exploration were delineated in accordance with the provisions of UNCLOS and published, along with maps, in early 2015 in the official journal of the European Union, together with the announcement for the 2nd international oil round.

As Tayyip Erdogan is now contemplating his next move in the Mediterranean chess board, regardless of last Sunday’s Berlin conference outcome which dealt with Libya’s imbroglio, he is faced with mounting criticism at home and abroad, from both foes and allies, who are fearful of Turkey’s involvement in a prolonged and uncontrolled military conflict in north Africa.

Should Greece decide to defend its maritime zone and protect future offshore drilling operations, most likely aided by Israel and Egypt, with whom she has close defense pacts, and with USA's consent on account of strong American naval and air presence on Crete, the game for Turkey could take a turn for the worse as she will find herself cornered. However, given the high appeal that such moves have on President Erdogan's wide electoral base and the rich takes that offshore hydrocarbon deposits promise, many in Ankara believe that the risk is worth taking.

* Costis Stambolis is the Chairman and Executive Director of the Institute of Energy for SE Europe (IENE)

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of IENE


 

 


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