Why Greek-Turkish rivalries have expanded in the Eastern Mediterranean

Why Greek-Turkish rivalries have expanded in the Eastern Mediterranean
Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz is escorted by a Turkish Navy frigate in the Eastern Mediterranean. Source: Reuters
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Daily US Times: Over recent weeks, tensions have been rising in the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, prompted by what seems like a simple rivalry over energy resources.

Turkey has pursued an aggressive gas exploration effort the Mediterranean, its research vessel heavily protected by warships of the Navy. There have been encounters with rival Greek vessels and France, all are members of NATO, has become involved, siding with the Greeks.

France most recently announced that a small number of F-16 warplanes from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are deploying to an airbase on Crete for exercises with their Greek counterparts. Ostensibly this is a routine deployment.

So what is happening on here? Are the tensions are all about gas resources? Why are seemingly far-flung countries being drawn in? And just what risk is there of the Eastern Mediterranean turning into a worsening geo-political tinderbox?

What’s happening is complicated, dangerous and threatens to exacerbate existing fault lines in the region.

A more assertive Turkey

While gas exploration is the immediate reason, the roots of the problem lie much deeper. What you have is a long-standing conflict between Turkey and Greece being revived in a new context.

Grafted on to this, you have a geo-strategic or regional rivalry that pits a much more assertive Turkey against several other players. The battleground for this struggle extends from Libya across the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean to Syria and beyond.

The tensions are growing and real. One concern is that as countries coalesce in their opposition to Turkey’s regional ambitions, Ankara itself feels more isolated. The risks are becoming ever more assertive.

The tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean also highlight another shift in the region – the decline of US power or, perhaps more accurately, the decline of the Trump administration’s strategic interest in what goes on there.

A drilling vessel in the Bosphorus on the way to the Mediterranean to explore. Source: Reuters

After Turkey’s purchase of advanced Russian surface-to-air missiles, President Donald Trump has suspended the country from the F-35 warplane programme. But there has not been any real consistent US pressure on Ankara to match the trouble that it has been creating for US policy within Syria, Nato and elsewhere.

In the absence of clear US action, Germany has sought to mediate between Turkey and Greece, with France weighing in more explicitly on the side of the Greeks.

So let’s take the areas of tension one by one:

Energy

At one level it’s all about gas as several countries in the region have found vast amount of gas or are actively exploring to find them. This situation have very mixed consequences. The situation super-charges national rivalries, with ongoing battles over the delineation of maritime boundaries, who owns which part of undersea territory and so on.

Deals to recognise respective rights have prompted upticks in tension. Turkey signed a maritime accord with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) last year and set about renewed gas exploration in areas that Greece regards as its economic zone.

Tensions ensued when earlier this month, Egypt and Greece signed a maritime boundary agreement, prompting Ankara’s anger, a renewed exploration effort and naval deployments.

But the curious thing is that, while energy exploration almost inevitably exacerbates tension and in the longer term could well fuel a regional naval and air arms race, concerted action is going to be needed if the economic benefits of this gas are to be realised.

A Turkish seismic research vessel escorted by Turkish Navy ships this month. Source: Reuters

Pipelines and other vulnerable infrastructure must be created. These must cross several countries’ undersea “territory” if they are to make landfall, say, for crucial European markets.

Cyprus

This has been in dispute between Turkey and Greece ever since Turkish forces invaded the island in response to a Greek-backed military coup in 1974, and the subsequent unilateral declaration of a Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It builds upon a much longer history of enmity between the Turks and Greeks going back to before the modern Turkish state was founded.

Though there have been several diplomatic efforts, there were hopes that as Ankara came ever closer to European Union membership, the Cyprus issue might be easier to resolve – it has proved as intractable as ever.

Now, there is no prospect of Turkey joining the EU and the tensions over energy have added a new element to a very old dispute.

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