An increasingly fractious standoff over access to gas reserves has transformed a dispute between Turkey and Greece that was once primarily over Cyprus into one that now ensnares Libya, Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and feeds into other political issues in the Mediterranean, raising fears of a naval conflict between the two NATO allies in the Aegean Sea.
The crisis has been deepening in the past few months with French President Emmanuel Macron leading those inside the EU opposing Turkey’s increasingly confrontational foreign policy and saying that Ankara can no longer be seen as partner in the Mediterranean.
Macron has offered French military support to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, including the possible sale of 18 Rafale fighter jets.
The issue was on Thursday last week discussed at a meeting of the Med7 group of southern European leaders on the French island of Corsica and is again on the agenda at an EU council meeting on Wednesday next week, where imposing severe sanctions on the already struggling Turkish banking sector over its demand for access to large swaths of the eastern Mediterranean might be on the table.
Germany, the lead mediator between Turkey and Greece, is exploring an enhanced customs union between Turkey and the EU to calm the dispute, which has been exacerbated by vast gas discoveries over the past decade in the eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey has long sought a broader customs union with the EU, and although Greece might see any such offer as a reward for bullying, Germany believes both carrots and sticks are needed to persuade Ankara to change its strategy.
Germany is also warning Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that his unilateral strategy is a commercial dead end, since no private gas company is going to touch cooperation with Turkey if it is trying to exploit illegal claims on gas reserves.
The scale of the reserves, and Turkish ambitions, last year prompted Israel, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority to form the East Med Gas Forum to draw up a joint plan to extract and export gas from the region. France would also like to join, and the UAE, also battling the Turkish intervention in Libya, is a supporter, creating an imposing anti-Turkish web.
Turkey argues that Greece is claiming the Aegean Sea economically as purely Greek, even though Turkey has a greater length of coastline.
Some Turkish analysts, such as Cem Gurdeniz, a former Turkish Naval Forces admiral, see it as the geopolitical issue of the 21st century and a chance to challenge treaty settlements made a century ago, amid the collapse of the Ottoman empire.
“We are defending our blue homeland. It is a defensive doctrine after our continental shelf was stolen by Greece and Cyprus [and] represents the greatest geostrategic challenge of the century,” Gurdeniz said.
Macron has already increased the French naval presence in the sea, and called for the withdrawal of the Turkish reconnaissance ship Oruc Reis, which yesterday left Greek waters in the eastern Mediterranean Levantine Sea after undertaking seismic surveys.
The fear that the conflict could spiral out of control has led to an urgent search for a neutral arbitrator and an agreed agenda for talks.
An effort by NATO to start technical naval deconfliction talks was delayed after Greece objected to NATO’s involvement. Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Dendias insisted that the talks would start only when the threats stopped.
Dendias last week flew to New York to enlist the help of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Parallel mediation efforts by the EU, through German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, had started to make progress. At the request of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Erdogan paused Turkish exploration activities near Cyprus last month, resuming only when Greece announced a maritime border agreement with Egypt similar to one signed by Turkey and Libya in November last year.
Germany’s mediation is hampered by Turkish warnings that the EU must be impartial and claims that the EU is biased toward its member states, Greece and Cyprus. Turkish Ambassador to the UK Umit Yalcin insists that his country is sincere in seeking talks with Greece.
A solution is difficult, as both sides have legitimate claims and the developing law of the sea, inherently complex, is interpreted differently by Greece and Turkey, leading to both sides publishing wholly contradictory maps showing the extent of their continental shelf and hence their economic exclusion zones (EEZ).
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, signed by 167 states, but not by Turkey, sets the limits of exclusive economic zones on the basis of a country’s continental shelf.
As many as 300 similar maritime disputes have in the past few decades occurred worldwide. The convention also allows islands that are inhabited and economically viable to have exclusive economic zones.
Greece, through its ownership of numerous scattered islands, can make a substantive claim to exploration rights.
The tiny island of Kastellorizo, just 2km off the Turkish coast and about 500km east of Athens, is a Greek possession, but in the past century has been held by Turkey, Italy and Germany, and has been a British protectorate.
Turkey is threatening to send ships off the island to explore for gas reserves.
Those analysts pressing both sides to attempt arbitration, as have many countries in similar disputes, say that in practice the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, which acts as an arbitration body, might not endorse Greece’s maximalist position.
“In resolving the dispute, the primary question would be whether the islands have the same maritime area as mainlands,” said Yunus Emre Acikgonul, a former Turkish diplomat and expert in maritime law.
“Turkey wants to ignore the Greek islands from the EEZ definition, whereas Greece would like to give full weight to these islands,” Acikgonul said. “There is no clear answer to these questions. The effect to be accorded to islands has been one of the most controversial issues in the history of the law of maritime boundary definition.”
However, he says case law shows factors including the size, status and location of an island, and its distance from the mainland have to be taken into account. It is unlikely, for instance, that arbitration would find Kastellorizo justified expanding the exclusive Greek economic zone from the larger island of Rhodes another 125km farther east, depriving Turkey of 400,000km2 of water.
To lure Turkey back into the lottery of arbitration would be hard, as there is a risk that the bulk of the Aegean would remain Greek.
Turkey and Greece nearly agreed to settle their differences at the ICJ in 1978, but the plan foundered over preconditions.
The stakes are higher now. The bigger diplomatic judgement is whether the conflict is only a dispute about gas, capable of settlement by cartographers, or instead is driven by Erdogan appropriating a pan-Islamic Ottoman ideology, largely because of his domestic political weakness.
The “blue homeland” theorists claim that Turkey’s troubles stem from unfair treatment by old colonial powers, including pro-Greek former British prime minister David Lloyd George.
Erdogan’s supporters argue that at a point of historic weakness and without a navy, the Ottoman Empire was forced to sign the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, which was inadequately at the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.
This left Turkey in effect trapped as a landlocked power, the theorists say, even though it has about 8,000km of coastline.
Concern in French political classes about Turkey’s overall political direction is growing. Jacques Attali, an adviser to former French president Francois Mitterrand, said: “We have to hear what Turkey says, take it very seriously and be prepared to act by all means. If our predecessors had taken the Fuhrer’s speeches seriously from 1933 to 1936, they could have prevented this monster from the accumulating the means to do what he did.”
Former French UN ambassador Gerard Araud also put Turkey’s behavior in a historical context. Araud said: “Russia, China and Turkey are revisionist powers which don’t accept a ‘status quo’ based on a world order largely defined by the West in 1945 and 1991. They feel emboldened by a new global balance of power and by US policy. Where will they stop? What should the Europeans do?”
Macron put it bluntly at a conference in Lugano: “We have to create Pax Mediterranea because we see an imperial regional power coming back with some fantasies of its own history, and I am referring essentially to Turkey.”
Turkey accuses France of hysteria and pique. It claims France feels thwarted by the Turkish intervention in Libya early this year to protect the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli from an assault by French-supported Libyan National Army Commander Khalifa Haftar.
Turkey then exploited the GNA’s gratitude, and political vulnerability, to cajole Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj into signing a new bilateral maritime treaty. The treaty and associated maps contradict previously understood Greek and Cypriot drilling rights, in effect ignoring the existence of Crete.
Erdogan hailed the agreement as the reversal of the Treaty of Sevres and the dawn of a new order.
The next few months will decide if he is right, and whether that order is achieved through war or diplomacy.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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