The ‘East Med’ is the crucible for the region’s problems

Given its strategic location, the Eastern Mediterranean has historically been a point of conflict since antiquity.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wears a protective mask while greeting members of his party in Ankara on August 13, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wears a protective mask while greeting members of his party in Ankara on August 13, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Like the sudden winds that roil the waters, conflicting strategic ambitions and competition for energy resources have turned the Eastern Mediterranean into a multiplex theater of potential conflicts along traditional fault lines, but also dividing traditional allies. On August 18, a group of current and former policy-makers, diplomats, military officials, analysts and scholars from eight countries probed the dynamics driving the current confrontations.
The meeting, which was organized by the Haifa Maritime Policy and Strategy Research Center (HMS) at the University of Haifa, brought together commentators from France, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Greece, Russia, Cyprus, the United States and Israel.
Given its strategic location, the Eastern Mediterranean has historically been a point of conflict since antiquity. Later it was the location of America’s first foreign wars against the Barbary States, as Thomas Jefferson refused to pay tribute for seized American ships and crew. It was an important theater in World War II, and of growing competition between American and Soviet naval forces during the Cold War.
Turkey’s 1974 invasion of northern Cyprus and subsequent de facto partition of the island added another layer of complexity. Since the end of the Cold War, the area has remained mostly quiet, apart from some local squabbles. That is now changing.
What makes the Eastern Mediterranean so combustible today is the nexus of a number of complex and volatile issues, including: historic ambitions, conflicting assertions of sovereignty, competition over control of the newly discovered natural gas reserves, pipeline politics, civil wars and political chaos in the littoral states, US retrenchment, Russian naval base expansion in Syria, divisions among NATO allies, and waves of migration and refugees. The issues are exhaustive.
The HMS symposium highlighted the challenge to the area’s status quo caused by the development of Turkey’s 2006 “Blue Homeland” maritime policy, or Mavi Vatan in Turkish, which argues that existing maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean are both unjust and illegal. This policy is part of a broader attempt by Turkey to reassert its leadership in the former Ottoman Empire.
Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions are manifest in the 2019 Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) agreement between Turkey and the UN-endorsed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA). While the Turkish-Libyan accord ostensibly establishes an EEZ from Libya’s northeast shore to Turkey’s southern Mediterranean coast, it runs through part of the Greek island of Crete – an island with a population of more than 600,000 – as well as other Greek islands.
Under the agreement, Turkey considers itself legitimately expanding its territorial continental shelf, ignoring the Greek islands, many of which are off the coast of Turkey. Moreover, from Turkey’s perspective, at approximately 1,700 kilometers, its Mediterranean coastline is roughly 2.5 times larger than Cyprus, yet Cyprus’ EEZ is seven times larger than Turkey’s.
INDEED TURKEY, with a population of over 80 million, has large energy requirements. According to the Financial Times, Turkey’s energy imports totaled $41 billion in 2019. Turkey is striving, moreover, to become a regional energy transit hub.
But one of the key findings of the symposium was that the presence of natural gas should not be considered the main driver for Turkey’s regional ambitions. Natural gas prices have remained at historically low levels for the past several years, and below a break-even point needed for most major integrated oil companies to engage in any large exploration or drilling projects.
While Turkish President Erdogan’s initial foreign policy sought “zero troubles with its neighbors,” symposium participants noted its more recent expansionist tendencies, most notably in Syria and Libya. Arab countries have no desire to see Turkey re-create the Ottoman Empire’s former dominance of the region.
Egypt, which has its own regional ambitions, is concerned with Turkey’s role in Libya, as well as the close relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and Erdogan’s AKP political party.
Turkey’s foreign policy adventures are occurring in spite of a deeply troubled Turkish economy – the Turkish lira recently hit an all-time low – and a deeply divided domestic political environment. In fact, some participants suggested that Turkey’s international démarches are the result of its internal weaknesses. Yet Turkey’s expansionist forays appear to reflect a genuine national policy, supported by many Turkish people, not merely an Erdogan pretension.
Several presenters commented that Turkey’s advances (and those of Russia) coincide with a vacuum created by the relative absence of America in the region, due to retrenchment, pivoting to interests elsewhere, or simply lack of any coherent policy – or any policy at all. The United States began to extricate itself from the Eastern Mediterranean following the end of the Cold War, but gained speed as America began to “pivot” to Asia and its greater focus on near peer-to-peer warfare.
In addition to Turkey, both Iran and Russia gain from America’s diminished presence in the Eastern Mediterranean; all three were once great land empires that are now reasserting historical ambitions.
The Russians continue to build their naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean (and the Mediterranean as a whole), but Russia’s involvement appears to be mainly opportunistic. Externally, Russia is more concerned with developments in Ukraine and, most recently, Belarus, and is unwilling to risk a major confrontation with the US.
One presenter thought that Russian President Vladimir Putin might offer concessions with respect to Libya in order to secure EU concessions on non-interference with its Eastern European adventures. Internally, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the accompanying economic and financial contraction, has increased opposition to Putin. As for Iran’s long-term strategic aim of extending its influence to the Mediterranean through Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut, this destination is reached by proxies only.
APART FROM the tensions created by another potential war between NATO-member countries Greece and Turkey, some interesting dynamics are created by the divergent positions within the European Union. Of all EU countries, France is the most aggressive in countering Turkey’s ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean. While the French (and Egyptians) have sided with the opposition leader Khalifa Haftar, the Italians support Libya’s GNA.
Most likely Germany, the strongest member of the EU and currently president of the Council of the European Union until December 31, 2020, will be left to sort out the conflicting EU interests. Yet Germany’s overriding objective most likely will be avoiding another refugee crisis.
According to one presenter, Israel should view open sea lines of communication in the Eastern Mediterranean as an “existential interest.” Apart from the natural gas Israel derives from the region, 98%-99% of Israel’s trade volume passes through its ports on the Eastern Mediterranean.
Since most agree that neither Russia nor America is inclined to sort out the competing interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, or are capable of doing so, some have suggested a regional coalition to counter Turkey. Turkey’s revanchist initiatives have already prompted Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and Israel to cooperate informally, with Greece and Egypt concluding their own EEZ earlier this month.
However, the four-country coalition, even if formalized, would be inherently weak, held together only by antipathy toward Turkey. In spite of the poor governmental relationship between Turkey and Israel, their annual two-way trade is valued at approximately $5 billion, which is far greater than Israeli trade with either Egypt or Greece.
With its political and economic problems, Egypt is unstable and not in a leadership position. And while the Egyptian government may support an alliance that included Israel, the Egyptian “street” would not. In pursuing its goals, according to symposium participants, Turkey is willing to play a game of brinkmanship, potentially dragging Israel into a military confrontation it does not want.
The conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean is indeed complex, and mistrust runs rampant among regional actors. Most likely a permanent solution is unreachable in the short run, though implementation of immediate confidence-building measures and de-escalation actions is imperative. Any small naval incident has the potential to start a war.
Lengthy legal proceedings will not suffice for this region. A political solution must be found. While problematic, the most likely scenario would involve collective mediation by the US, Russia and Germany, acting in its capacity as president of the European Council. With this conflict, time is not a luxury.
Adm. (ret.) Ami Ayalon serves as chairman of the HMS Executive Committee and is a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. He served as commander of the Israel Navy from 1992-1995.
Prof. Shaul Chorev is a retired Israel Navy rear admiral and director of the Haifa Research Center for Maritime Policy & Strategy and the Ezri Center in the University of Haifa.