How to Defuse Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean
How to Defuse Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean
Turkish seismic research vessel Oruc Reis sails in the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey, November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Yoruk Isik
Statement / Europe & Central Asia 10 minutes

How to Defuse Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean

Greece and Turkey have stepped back from the brink of military confrontation over gas exploration in disputed waters in the Mediterranean Sea. But trouble still looms. European leaders should welcome signs of conciliation from Athens and Ankara and nudge them toward talks.

A simmering dispute between Turkey and Greece over maritime rights in the eastern Mediterranean Sea came nearly to boiling point in August, as the two countries narrowly avoided a naval clash. A Turkish research vessel, the Oruç Reis, was surveying the seabed for natural gas deposits in contested waters near the Greek island of Kastellorizo off Turkey’s southern coast. Greece dispatched its own ships to shadow the naval escort of the Oruç Reis. Clumsy manoeuvres by the rival flotillas led to a collision between Greek and Turkish frigates. In a show of solidarity with its fellow EU member Greece, France deployed warships to conduct joint exercises with the Greek navy and Rafale fighter jets to Crete. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) sent four F-16s to Crete.

For the time being, European leaders’ shuttle diplomacy has yielded welcome signs of de-escalation

For the time being, European leaders’ shuttle diplomacy has yielded welcome signs of de-escalation: Turkey has recalled the Oruç Reis into port, advisers to the Greek and Turkish leaders are in contact, and military officials from both sides are meeting at NATO headquarters. But the standoff could yet spin out of control, and now is the time to ensure there is no more brinkmanship. The priority is to find space for the resumption of exploratory talks between Athens and Ankara, halted in 2016, on the demarcation of maritime zones. Greece, along with France and the Republic of Cyprus, is pushing for EU sanctions on Turkey over its prospecting for natural gas in waters claimed by Greece and the Republic of Cyprus. But punitive measures risk having the opposite effect, pushing Turkey to behave more aggressively in the eastern Mediterranean. How this dispute is handled will be critical for restoring neighbourly relations between Turkey and the EU, which is in the interests of all sides, including Greece.

Ankara and Athens should refrain from military exercises and avoid inflammatory rhetoric

Instead of wielding sticks at this stage, European leaders should urge the sides not to reverse the positive – albeit modest – steps they have taken and offer incentives that could pave the way back to the negotiating table. The two sides could themselves take a number of additional steps to minimise risks of another incident and open space for talks. For its part, Turkey should keep the Oruç Reis in port. Ankara and Athens should continue with those contacts already in place, including between officials engaged in technical military talks at NATO, refrain from military exercises and avoid inflammatory rhetoric, particularly at the UN General Assembly.

An Explosive Mix

Three ingredients make for a combustible mix in the eastern Mediterranean. First are disputes between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus and over Turkey’s maritime boundaries with the Greek islands scattered off its Aegean and southern coasts. Cyprus itself has been divided since 1974, when Ankara sent in troops following a coup on the island backed by what was at the time a military dictatorship in Athens. Four decades of talks under UN auspices have failed to reunify the island. The Greek Cypriot-led Republic of Cyprus in the south became an EU member in 2004, while only Turkey recognises the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”. In the Aegean Sea, Greece and Turkey have flexed their muscles to assert dominion over rocks, seas and skies. In 2002, they kicked off what would become 60 rounds of exploratory talks over demarcation across the Aegean Sea’s complex jigsaw puzzle of more than 2,400 islands, most of which are Greek, and high seas shipping routes that are Turkey’s economic and security lifeline. These talks broke down in 2016. 

The discovery of gas off Cyprus is the second element. Exploration by international firms ramped up from 2011 onward, against the backdrop of the foundering UN-sponsored talks. Major finds promised to turn the Cypriot economy around, enhance the island’s energy security and lower energy prices – provided that the Republic of Cyprus could clinch agreements with other littoral states to build gas export infrastructure. For its part, Ankara harbours ambitions to act as an energy hub for Europe. It is keen both to ensure Turkish Cypriots a share of future gas revenue and to wean Turkey itself off its dependence on Russian gas supplies. Excluded from plans by the Republic of Cyprus,Egypt, Israel and Greece to run a pipeline to Europe, Ankara sent its own drill ships into contested waters both north east and west of Cyprus, as well as south of Kastellorizo. Although the Oruc Reis has, for now, been brought back to port, other Turkish vessels, including the Yavuz and the Barbaros Hayrettin Paşa, continue exploring off Cyprus. In September 2020, Ankara extended navigational advisories for both ships until mid-October. 

A third element, Turkey’s Middle East policy, has helped draw other powers into the maritime skirmishes. With the 2011 Arab uprisings, Ankara expanded its activism across the region and backed attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power. In 2013, it severed diplomatic ties with Cairo over the coup that deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a Brotherhood leader. Turkey’s support for the Islamists angered not only the new Egyptian government but also the UAE, itself implacably opposed to political Islam. Then, in December 2019, Turkey signed a maritime delimitation deal with Libya’s UN-recognised government, based in Tripoli and partly composed of figures linked to the Brotherhood. It also sent military advisers to aid the Tripoli-based government in its fight with adversaries in eastern Libya backed by Egypt and the UAE. The delimitation agreement led Greece to conclude its own overlapping deal with Egypt; events in Libya spurred the UAE to also side with Athens. Meanwhile, Israel – at loggerheads with Turkey over a host of issues – has also lined up behind Greece. Italy, whose energy major ENI has one of the largest stakes in the region, is trying to balance support for fellow EU members Greek and Cyprus and good relations with Cairo, with whom ENI has oil and gas exploration agreements in Egyptian waters, with a position in Libya that is quite close to Turkey’s. The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, which aims to develop the region’s gas market, includes the Republic of Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and Palestine, but excludes Turkey. 

France, whose energy companies are also interested in the region, is a late addition to the mix. Paris has asked to join the forum. Relations between Paris and Ankara have soured over Libya and French disquiet at Turkey’s policy in Syria and its arms purchases from Russia. In June, a French warship attempted to inspect a Turkish vessel as part of a UN arms embargo on Libya. Recent weeks have seen French President Emmanuel Macron and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan exchange ever sharper barbs

Turkey feels ganged up on and increasingly hemmed in by the hundreds of Greek islands dotting the seas around its coast. It fears being cut off from most of the Aegean and therefore key maritime routes should Greece unilaterally extend its territorial waters and establish new maritime jurisdiction zones. Erdoğan has responded by taking a more assertive line and adopting more aggressive rhetoric linking all of Turkey’s regional policies, which are broadly popular at home. Turkish diplomats tell Crisis Group that their government wants “a fair share” of the eastern Mediterranean gas riches. As long as the “exploratory talks” on their maritime disputes remain on hold, and Greece and the Republic of Cyprus keep prospecting or drilling, they say that Ankara will too. For their part, Greek officials argue that Turkey’s new forward-leaning policy is what reignited the dispute and soured Ankara’s relations with its neighbours. Greeks increasingly worry about the safety of hundreds of islands that are much closer to Turkey than to their mainland.

A role for Europe 

The 2020 flare-up is taking place at a time when American leadership is lacking. In the past, Washington has stepped in to dampen Greek-Turkish tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. In 1996, the United States refused to back either side in their dispute over a pair of uninhabited islands, known as Imnia in Greek and Kardak in Turkish, and its mediation led Turkey to withdraw its troops from the rocks. This time around, Washington has appeared less concerned about neutrality. Drawing Ankara’s ire, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travelled to Cyprus on 12 September and U.S. President Donald Trump lifted a three-decade embargo on arms sales to the Greek Cypriot government on 15 September. Despite the timing, the Trump administration insisted the move was months in the making and unrelated to the maritime quarrel. 

Russia has tried to move in but without success. Spotting an opportunity to exert influence where Washington’s is waning, Russia’s foreign minister told the Republic of Cyprus president, with whom Moscow has friendly ties, that it was ready to help mediate talks with Turkey over energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. Ankara, however, gently rebuffed the offer.

The European Council meeting on 24-25 September will be a major test of the EU’s approach toward Turkey

It is critical that European leaders get their policy right. The European Council meeting on 24-25 September will be a major test of the EU’s approach toward Turkey. Thus far, the bloc’s struggles to find the right mix of carrots and stick could, as some EU diplomats told Crisis Group, make or break relations with Ankara. The EU’s top officials are personally invested in brokering a solution in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Republic of Cyprus has been pushing for months to add more Turkish companies and individuals to the list of those subject to asset freezes and travel bans over Turkey’s hunt for hydrocarbons near the island. But such penalties have yet to gain EU members states’ full support, with many holding out hope that diplomacy can ease tensions with a strategically important partner. In turn, the Republic of Cyprus has been blocking separate efforts to impose sanctions on Belarusian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka, unless other European governments back its bid for tougher measures against Turkey. France, Greece and Austria also want a stronger line against Ankara and argue the split within the EU may embolden Erdoğan. Germany, along with the so-called Visegrad group of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, favours giving dialogue with Ankara a chance first. These countries worry in particular that Turkey could respond to sanctions by allowing migrants to cross its borders with Europe – as it did in late February – stretching Europe’s ability to cope with a new influx. Italy, Malta and Spain, whose interests are more closely aligned with Turkey in Libya, are also hesitant to back new sanctions. Like the UK – now no longer part of the EU – they are wary of alienating a NATO ally and a partner that, despite tensions, they wish to encourage in its stuttering ambitions for closer integration with the bloc. 

The EU has struggled to come up with new incentives for Turkey. In one of the more promising initiatives, European Council President Charles Michel has floated the idea of inviting Ankara to a multilateral conference that could allow regional power brokers to thrash out their disagreements in an environment of civility. According to several EU officials, the conference would aim to tackle a broad range of issues from gas revenue sharing arrangements to migration to maritime delimitation, culminating with a meeting between leaders. In private, some EU diplomats suggest such a conference could soothe Turkey’s irritation at being excluded from the regional energy forum. That said, others contend that regional rivalries, some of which spill into the Cyprus dispute, render such a format unworkable.

European leaders should allow more time for dialogue instead of opting for sanctions

What Europe Should and Should Not Do 

At the European Council meeting, European leaders should allow more time for dialogue instead of opting for sanctions. Further punitive measures are unlikely to move Ankara toward talks. Tougher options, such as banning Turkish firms from EU ports, sectoral sanctions, cutting funds allocated to ease Turkey’s putative EU accession or terminating Turkey’s EU candidacy outright, would almost certainly empower hardliners in Ankara. The Republic of Cyprus and its allies should stop linking Turkey policy to sanctions against Lukashenka. Belarus and eastern Mediterranean geopolitics are very different issues, each requiring its own approach.

At what the EU’s foreign policy chief describes as a “watershed moment” in relations with Ankara, Germany should push Ankara, on one hand, and Athens and its allies, on the other, toward further de-escalatory steps and a return to “exploratory talks”. Berlin, which holds the EU’s six-month rotating presidency through December, is arguably best positioned to engage Turkey. Chancellor Angela Merkel has constructive ties with Erdoğan and economic leverage. Germany is Turkey’s number one trade partner and its largest foreign investor

Ankara and Athens could take a series of steps to reduce risks and improve prospects for dialogue. Both sides should refrain from additional military exercises and combative rhetoric. At the UN General Assembly, they should avoid fiery words. An aggressive tone from the Turkish president in particular could backfire, helping unite EU capitals behind stronger punitive measures. Nor should Ankara overreact if the Council goes ahead with adding a few individuals to the existing sanctions list.

No matter the fate of efforts at dialogue, the two capitals should also publicly commit to technical talks at NATO

No matter the fate of efforts at dialogue, the two capitals should also publicly commit to technical talks at NATO to establish a military-to-military deconfliction mechanism. This would not address the heart of the dispute, but it could stop incidents at sea from spiralling into open conflict.

At the same time, Ankara should keep the Oruç Reis in port. Its withdrawal from waters claimed by Greece was important, but Turkish officials have said the ship will return after routine maintenance. 

A moratorium on drilling in disputed waters would also help. During the exploratory talks on delimitation between 2002 and 2016, Turkey and Greece respected such a moratorium and could restore it. Diplomats from both sides tell Crisis Group they are open to this step if progress is made in talks. It should be an easier one to take at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has crippled gas demand and energy companies around the world are under increasing pressure to go green. The viability of extracting gas from some seabed deposits was already in doubt, and Turkey has had more luck with exploration in the Black Sea. If global energy markets pick up, and tensions ease, the parties could look into the possibility of joint ventures, gas revenue sharing on Cyprus, or legal arbitration to resolve their disputes. Talks could also tackle issues beyond maritime zones to cover military over-flights and the demilitarisation of Aegean islands.  

Any conflict in the eastern Mediterranean would come at a high cost: it would disrupt energy investment, undermine transatlantic security and damage vital ties between Turkey and the EU. If the parties do not find ways to manage them, the disputes over maritime boundaries could have damaging consequences for all.

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