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Geopolitical hotspot: trouble in the eastern Mediterranean

Geopolitical hotspot: trouble in the eastern Mediterranean
04 Aug
The creation of an Exclusive Economic Zone stretching from Turkey's southwest coast down to the northern tip of Libya has bubbled old and new conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean. Tim Marshall investigates the recent developments underpinning rising tensions in the region

Summer in the eastern Med? Sounds lovely, but this year it may be a little too hot for comfort. In June, the temperature certainly rose aboard a French navy frigate off the coast of Libya when a Turkish warship allegedly locked its missile system on to its fellow NATO member’s vessel. The incident underlined how the discovery of undersea gas fields in the region have merged old and new conflicts into a new, volatile, geopolitical front with Greece and Turkey at its heart, Cyprus in the middle, and numerous other countries involved.

As a sovereign state, Cyprus has drilling rights around its coastline, but Turkey – which following the 1974 invasion set up the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ – disagrees. It is the only country in the world which recognises this ‘Republic’ whereas the UN deems it occupied territory.

In 2019, Turkish drilling ships showed up off the northern coast, escorted by a warship. Ankara said they were in the waters of the Republic of Northern Cyprus and ‘within Turkey’s continental shelf ’. Cyprus, Greece, the EU and others disagreed strongly. Their position is based on the UN’s non recognition of the Republic and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), whereas Turkey, which is not a signatory, says maritime claims should be based on continental shelves.

Map for geopolitical hotspotT

In June, Turkey announced it intended to begin drilling off Aegean islands including Rhodes and Crete. Its ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and informed that Greece was ‘ready to respond’ if drilling took place. Turkey’s position is based on an astonishing agreement it came to with Libya in late 2019. It ‘created’ an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) stretching in a corridor across the Mediterranean from Turkey’s southwest coast down to the northern tip of Libya despite it cutting through part of the Greek EEZ. At a stroke it theoretically blocked a proposed pipeline running from Israeli and Cypriot waters to Crete, on to the Greek mainland and then into Europe’s gas network. The agreement was made with the government of Libya which is why Turkey intervened militarily in the Libyan conflict – if the Tripoli government fell, so did the agreement.

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Wars have begun over less than this high-stakes game and the next decade looks set to provide numerous flashpoints which could get out of hand. The potential for escalation has been shown several times, sometimes from unexpected quarters. In February 2020, as Turkish frigates sailed close to the Cypriot gas fields, France dispatched its aircraft carrier, the Charles De Gaulle, to shadow them. The confrontation in June happened because the French insisted a Turkish ship, suspected of carrying illegal arms to its ally in Tripoli, be searched.

Turkey has few friends in the neighbourhood. In 2019, Greece helped set up the Cairo-based East Mediterranean Gas Forum along with Egypt, the Palestinian Territories, Israel, Cyprus, Jordan and Italy. It focuses on energy but has a security component including naval cooperation and joint training exercises, a fact which helps Ankara portray it as an anti-Turkish club. Israel has fallen out with President Erdogan of Turkey, the Egyptian/ Turkish relationship was already strained over Libya, as is that between Turkey and the UAE – another country which supports Greece on the drilling issue.

Lowering the temperature will be difficult. Turkey believes that to accept it cannot drill off Cyprus and Crete is to accept the Greek position on several maritime issues. In recent years Erdogan has referred to the ‘Blue Homeland’ – the areas the newly formed Turkey under Kemal Ataturk said it would fight for after the Ottoman Empire collapsed. He’s been photographed in front of a navy map in which several Greek islands were depicted in the same colour as Turkey. Greece has the same position in reverse.

This spring saw a joint declaration by Cyprus, France, Greece, Egypt, and the UAE, urging Turkey to ‘fully respect the sovereignty and sovereign rights of all states in their maritime zones’. Ankara responded by saying the five countries constituted an ‘alliance of evil’.

That was the spring, this is the summer, and in the autumn? Then we get the US election in which a president who has long tolerated aggressive Turkish behaviour fights for a second term. Trump will be busy, and he may not win. If a different president takes office, perhaps the winter could see the cold war between Greece and Turkey return. But right now – it’s hot. 

Tim Marshall is a journalist, broadcaster and author of Prisoners of Geography and Divided: Why we're Living in an Age of Walls

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