For several months now, the Eastern Mediterranean has been tormented by a geopolitical confrontation between Greece and Turkey. The two protagonists have a long history of conflict that includes border and territorial water delineation.
The two parties do not agree in either substance nor process on the issue of conflict resolution.
When it comes to delineating territorial waters as well as rights to extract deep-sea resources (oil and gas) Greece evokes the Montego Bay Convention (international maritime law) to which Turkey is not a signatory.
Another looming sore point is the Republic of Cyprus, an EU member state. The island’s north was occupied in 1974 by Turkey, establishing the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a regime recognised only by Ankara.
While these underlying geopolitical cleavages have driven geopolitical competition for decades, the exploration of oil and gas resources off the coast of Lebanon, Israel and Cyprus and, later, across the Aegean Archipelago have raised the stakes. Turkey is seeking not only a share of the resources but also a lion’s share in the ensuing lucrative geopolitical game of exploration and distribution.
The cleavage between the two EU member states (Greece and Cyprus) and Turkey is threatening to deepen the rift within NATO and trigger a wider geopolitical renegotiation of a status quo that has endured for just under five decades.
Officially, the crisis started the 22 of July, 2020, when the Turkish President, Reccep Tayyip Erdogan dispatched the research vessel Oruç Reis in an oil and gas exploration mission off the coast of the Greek island of Kastellorizo. The choice of the island was meant to force Greece into a bilateral negotiation of both territorial waters and seabed frontiers. The ship would then head for the area South of Crete and all the way to Cyprus, thereby forcefully asserting Turkish claims over the region. In issuing successive ship alerts (Navtex), Ankara left Greece with two choices: to react militarily or be drawn into a diplomatic negotiation framed by Turkey.
Turkey has already led a number of similar exploratory missions in the vicinity of Cyprus. But in 2019 Turkey widened its geopolitical reach by reaching an agreement with the internationally recognised government of Libya in Tripoli for deep-sea exploration South of Crete and north of the non-recognised TRNC regime. In response, Greece moved swiftly to delineate its seabed frontier with Egypt.
The internationalisation of the conflict has created a crisis within NATO, which started with the maritime mission Sea Guardian in the Eastern Mediterranean, with the participation of France and Turkey The exercise tested scenarios of protecting commercial ships, assuming political instability in Libya, a country under a UN arms embargo that has been repeatedly violated by a number of EU member states as well as Turkey. In Libya, Turkey supports the Tripoli-based internationally recognised regime of President Faiz Sarraj, while Paris has provided military assistance to Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
Tensions between France and Turkey rose on June 10, 2020 when French President, Emmanuel Macron accused his Turkish counterpart of risking maritime combat as a French Courbet-class ship was targeted by the Turkish vessel Oruç Reis. At the time, the French Minister of Defense, Florence Parly, raised the issue in NATO, accusing President Erdogan of exhibiting “historically criminal responsibility” while repeatedly violating the Libyan arms embargo. The confrontation is no longer bilateral and not exclusively about the Aegean. Between Paris and Ankara, there is now a confrontation consisting of two visions of the Eastern Mediterranean.
For much of the French press, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in fact addressing a domestic audience, seeking to bolster his political influence amidst a profound economic crisis. Turkish elections are not due before 2023 but polling suggests that his AKP is losing ground.
Meanwhile, NATO’s Secretary General is trying to support Turkey and mediate vis-à-vis Greece and France, preventing Ankara from continuing a trajectory of disengagement from the Alliance as the country is strategically drawn close to Russia. This stance has aggravated France, which has withdrawn from the See Guardian maritime exercises dismissing the Euro-Atlantic Alliance as “brain dead.” Like Turkey, France faces its own critics within the Alliance, both due to its rapprochement with Russia and because of its support for the Haftar regime in Libya.
Cementing a deeper rift between Ankara and Paris, France has dispatched to the Eastern Mediterranean a force of amphibious helicopters, Tonnere, Rafale fighter jets, and the Lafayette frigate. France also seeks to play a role in the scramble for deep-sea exploration of oil and gas in Cyprus, off the coast of Lebanon and in Greece. Therefore, President Macron is building a multifaceted narrative of legitimate engagement in the Eastern Mediterranean that contradicts Turkish interests directly, from the Aegean to the Libyan Sea. In this confrontation, NATO appears unable to play a substantial role in ameliorating the tension between France, Greece, Cyprus and Turkey.
One open point of debate is the role of Russia, which is also building itself as a legitimate stakeholder in the region, given its closer cooperation in Turkey and an entrenched naval base in Syria. Since Catharine II, Russia has sought access to the Mediterranean that Britain and the United States have sought to contain. Russia also seeks to consolidate its dominance over the Black Sea, the soft underbelly of Europe and a key region for control over large swathes of the Middle East. With Ankara’s consent, President Vladimir Putin is closer to attaining these objectives. It is not as yet clear what the French position is vis-à-vis Russia, given that France generally favours a less confrontational relationship with Moscow but wants to keep a firm grip over Turkish regional ambitions.