The current spout of rising tensions in the eastern Mediterranean Sea is rapidly becoming one of the most complex and dangerous international crises of the year. In truth, there are actually several different and distinct issues at play in the eastern Mediterranean that drive up the stakes and expand the number of players involved in a dispute that is fundamentally between Greece and Turkey. But, before jumping into how these issues break, it is necessary to dispel some misconceptions about what is actually going on.
First, many analysts and media outlets frame this crisis as being all about gas. And while the discovery of natural gas deposits off the coasts of Egypt and Israel has radically transformed the politics of the region, the relevant players’ thirst for gas is only one part of the issue and the stakes here are a lot higher than just who is going to get a quick payday. That being said, the gas is important and creates the primary motivator for Turkey’s involvement in two of the underlying issues in this crisis. First up is the EastMed Gas Forum and the planned EastMed pipeline. The EastMed Gas Forum is a formal agreement between Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, and the Palestinian Authority with a pending request from France to join and a pending request from the United States to be a permanent observer. The Gas Forum was formed to develop the planned EastMed pipeline which would carry gas from fields in Egyptian and Israeli waters to the world’s premier energy market: the chronically energy-starved European Union. Turkey feels unfairly excluded from the agreement and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has vowed to block the pipeline taking his first step towards doing so by signing an agreement with the UN-recognized Libyan government in which Libya agrees to recognize Turkish claims to waters crossed by the proposed pipeline. This highlights the crux of Turkey’s tensions with Greece as well as Turkey’s ambitions for exclusive rights to large swaths of the Mediterranean. Greece has several medium-sized, sparsely populated islands off the Turkish coast in the Aegean Sea—such as Lesbos and Rhodes—and according to the UN Convention on the Law of Seas (UNCLOS) —to which Greece is a signatory—these islands grant Greece the rights to a very large Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that effectively reduces Turkey’s EEZ to a slightly extended coastline. The key, though, is that Turkey is not a signatory to UNCLOS and, as such, claims exclusive rights to a much larger area of water. These claims are part of a Turkish political doctrine called Blue Homeland that has gained a lot of traction in domestic Turkish politics over the last few years. The doctrine seeks to realize a map of the region where Turkey controls large swaths of the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas as well as several of the Greek islands off her western coast. Recognition of water rights also forms the basis of Turkey’s tensions with the Republic of Cyprus. Many analysts assume that Turkey’s beef with Cyprus is the same as with the Greek islands, that is to say that Turkey does not recognize that islands can project an EEZ, but is actually not the case. While it is true that Turkey claims that islands like Lesbos and Rhodes do not have an EEZ, Turkey recognizes that the island of Cyprus can project one. The issue here stems from Turkey’s invasion of the northern half of the island in 1974 and the subsequent establishment of the internationally unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Turkey claims that the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus anchored in the island’s south does not have the authority to issue drilling rights for the island’s EEZ without the consent of Turkish Cypriots in the north. Turkey, though, has conducted drilling expeditions in both Greek and Cypriots waters in search of new natural gas deposits. The second tentpole issue in which gas is an important factor brings us back to Turkey’s dealings with the Libyan government in Tripoli. Alongside the first, aforementioned agreement, Turkey and the Tripoli government also signed an agreement that provided much needed military hardware and assistance to defend against the Benghazi-based government’s offenses in the ongoing Libyan civil war. This angered many of the region’s powers including France, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates who support the Benghazi government. For this reason, French diplomats have crossed the continent attempting to rally support within the EU for Greece against Turkey which has resulted in the four principal E.U. member states involved in this crisis—France, Italy, Greece, and Cyprus—holding military exercises in contested Greek and Cypriot waters. This, however, has stoked divisions within the European Union primarily between France and Germany. Germany sees the French as acting too belligerently and is eager to offer major concessions to Turkey in exchange for a peaceful resolution. The French, on the other hand, have argued that they are simply standing up for EU solidarity in the face of Turkish bullying, something that is supremely necessary if the EU is ever to be anything greater than a simple common market. To the Germans’ credit, though, Turkey is a valuable trade and security partner for the EU and the only thing standing in the way of a deluge of Syrian migrants sparking another migrant crisis in the Schengen area. Turkey is also a NATO ally (as is Greece) which makes a potential armed conflict even more unthinkable. However, the potential for armed conflict is there. Both Greece and Turkey have drawn red lines and stated that crossing them would be grounds for war and France has engaged Greece in talks over a potential arms sale as well. Neither side shows any sign of backing down and Turkey has assigned military escorts to its gas exploration ships and conducted military fly-overs over Greek islands. Several European countries have called on the two to submit their claims to an international arbitration body such as the International Court of Justice but, since Turkey does not recognize UNCLOS, such a resolution is unlikely. Ultimately, the situation in the eastern Mediterranean is a highly complex and multifaceted issue without a clear solution. One does a disservice to the complexity of this issue by simply chalking it up to a dispute over gas deposits or water rights. Much bigger questions about regional hegemony and the post-pandemic EU are at play. As America recedes from the global stage, can the EU be a world power in the geopolitical affairs outside of the Schengen area or will it continue to punch far below its weight? The complexity of this situation means that the broader issues involved will likely persist for the foreseeable future, but how some of the more acute issues such as the Greco-Turkish standoff get resolved will undoubtedly have major consequences for Erdogan's regional ambitions and the future of the EU as a global superpower.