Turkey's power play in the eastern Mediterranean threatens the stability of the region

Greece has announced that it is preparing for the possibility that Ankara will comply with its threats to start oil exploration on some Greek islands
The Turkish drilling ship Yavuz is escorted by a Turkish Navy frigate in the eastern Mediterranean Sea off Cyprus last August

PHOTO/REUTERS  -   The Turkish drilling ship Yavuz is escorted by a Turkish Navy frigate in the eastern Mediterranean Sea off Cyprus last August

Max Weber defined power as "any possibility of making one's own will prevail within a social relationship, even against resistance". The regime led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made this premise its own and has tried to expand its influence in the eastern Mediterranean, increasing tension between the different countries in the region, mainly Greece, which has announced that it is preparing for the possibility that Ankara will comply with its threats to start hydrocarbon exploration on the Greek islands of Crete or Kastellorizo. 

The Greek newspaper Ekathimerini reported on Tuesday that Athens is weighing up its diplomatic options, while trying to maintain channels of communication with Ankara, despite the contrary position of Erdogan's executive, who could start these explorations during the summer months. This announcement comes after Turkey disclosed what were supposed to be secret negotiations between senior Greek, Turkish and German officials earlier this month.  German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has travelled to Greece to analyse relations between Athens and Ankara and try to reach an understanding between the positions expressed by EU leaders on this issue and the Turkish government itself. 

Fotografía de archivo de un dragaminas de las Fuerzas Navales de Turquía
PHOTO/AFP -  Archival photograph of a minesweeper of the Turkish Naval Forces

According to the newspaper, during the summit Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis urged his European counterparts to "establish tough sanctions against Turkey" in response to Ankara's actions in the eastern Mediterranean in recent months. However, Greece also fears that the Turkish leader will intervene during the next few weeks in the eastern Mediterranean, with the aim of preventing Athens and Cairo from reaching an agreement on the delimitation of an exclusive economic zone between the two countries. 

Historically, this region has been a focus of tension. On the one hand, it is the gateway to the Red Sea through Egypt and, on the other, the entrance to Europe. Although the links between European countries and other countries in the south and east of the Mediterranean go back several centuries, the discovery of large gas deposits by Israel, Egypt and Lebanon in 2009 has opened a new wound in the area.   The beginning of the tense relationship between the two countries dates back to 2018. After discovering gas deposits in Cyprus, the Italian oil company Eni sent a boat to the region that was blocked by Turkey. Erdogan said he "would not allow any foreign company to threaten Turkey's interests" by causing the ship to withdraw.  Since then, tensions between Greece, which supports Cyprus, and Turkey have been constant. 

In recent weeks, Turkey's pro-government press has denounced the trip of the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, by helicopter through the waters of the Mediterranean as an ugly provocation'.  However, some EU countries are also accusing Ankara of behaving provocatively by trying to exploit the gas resources in this area, which are subject to claims by at least eight countries, including Libya, Egypt or Israel, according to the Financial Times. 

Egypt, Israel or Cyprus have seen these exploitations as a way of pursuing their ambitions and being able to stop depending on other resources such as coal. However, what began as a dispute between Turkey and Cyprus has ended up becoming a conflict at a regional level, at the same time as tension is rising in Libya, a country devastated by the war between Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who leads the Libyan National Army, and Fayez Sarraj, of the National Accord Government, which is internationally recognised by the UN.  During the last months Ankara has intensified its military presence in the North African nation, especially after signing an agreement with the GNA by which Erdogan would have the power to carry out oil and gas drilling on the Libyan coast. 

Dorothée Schmid, an expert on Turkey at the French Institute for International Relations, told the Financial Times that this situation has become a "major strategic problem". "Ankara is seen by some European partners as a very aggressive player who is waging war in various parts of the region and is behaving very aggressively against the humanitarian bloc," she said. 

The foreign ministers of Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, France and the United Arab Emirates denounced last May in an official statement the "continuing illegal activities" by Turkey in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Cyprus and its territorial waters. The ministers stressed the strategic importance of intensifying their political consultations in order to improve security and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean and criticized Turkey's illegal activities in the Cyprus EEZ, arguing that such acts "represent a clear violation of international law as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea". 

El portaaviones francés ‘Charles de Gaulle’ operando en el mar Mediterráneo, el 8 de febrero de 2019
AFP/VALERY HACHE  -  French aircraft carrier 'Charles de Gaulle' operating in the Mediterranean Sea, 8 February 2019

The roots of the diplomatic conflict between Cyprus and Ankara are mainly political, as for more than half a century the island has been divided between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot populations. Ankara has always positioned itself as the protector of the latter and, in fact, is the only country, which recognises this enclave as an independent state. Following the discovery of these deposits, Turkey has repeatedly tried to stop the activities of the oil companies that were drilling under licences issued by Cyprus. Several analysts consulted by the Financial Times believe that Ankara is acting in this way because of its imminent need to diversify its energy supplies. "Its heavy dependence on imported energy contributes to a persistent current account deficit and limits Ankara's policy space to manoeuvre with key suppliers such as Russia or Iran," they said. 

Disagreements over who can and cannot exploit the gas in the Mare Nostrum have put diplomatic relations between several of these countries on the line and made it difficult to resolve the Libyan conflict. The future of this region depends, to a large extent, on Turkey's movements and on the decisions of trilateral cooperation between Greece, Israel and Cyprus. However, in recent months Tel Aviv has been criticised for trying to rebuild its diplomatic relations with Ankara at the same time as strengthening its ties with its partners in the Mediterranean, namely Greece and Cyprus. In this scenario of uncertainty it is possible that tensions will continue to rise and that the geopolitical map will change completely in just a few months' time.