Turkey’s Mediterranean Gas Game

In yet another sign of Turkey’s increasingly fractious relationship with Europe, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan signed a series of agreements late last month on economic and military cooperation with Fayez al-Serraj, the chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and prime minister of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord. One of these agreements establishes a maritime border between the two Mediterranean nations which, on its face, dramatically alters the legal underpinnings of the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) declared by various nations regarding the development of offshore oil and gas deposits around the Eastern Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus. The deal escalates the confrontation over the development of gas off Cyprus. It puts Turkey on a collision course with the European Union, which has rejected the agreement as an illegal infringement on the rights of other nations, including Greece and Cyprus, upon whose behalf the EU is acting. What is Turkey trying to achieve?

Cyprus is a member of the EU, which recognizes the island as a singular political entity. But the reality of the situation is far different — the northern half of Cyprus has been occupied by Turkey since 1974, and in 1983 the Turkish population of Northern Cyprus declared itself to be an independent state. However, only Turkey has recognized the independence of Northern Cyprus. When Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, it did so as a divided state, with Northern Cyprus isolated and embargoed by the EU. While Turkey has been working with the UN to end this embargoed status, such moves have been opposed by Greece, which fears a political compromise that could give Turkey legal claims over the territorial waters off Cyprus.

Turkey has long claimed that the Turkish population of Northern Cyprus must be permitted to benefit from oil and gas deposits within the territorial waters of Cyprus, and has used the threat of force to assert this claim. The discovery of the Leviathan gas field off Israel and then the Zohr gas field find in Egyptian waters in 2015 have created a gas exploration race in the Eastern Mediterranean that has turned Cyprus into a critical player. While Cyprus and Egypt had established a delineated maritime boundary in 2003, Turkish diplomatic efforts kept Egypt from entering into any agreement with Cyprus regarding oil and gas exploration. But following the fall of the Morsi government in Egypt in 2013, Turkish-Egyptian relations soured. By the end of 2013, Egypt and Cyprus had finalized an agreement of joint exploration which, in the aftermath of the Zohr discovery, took on significant geopolitical and economic consequence.

Cyprus has divided its offshore EEZ into 13 blocks. The Cypriot claim is based on its contention that its EEZ rights extend 200 nautical miles under the terms of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Turkey, which is not a signatory to the UNCLOS agreement, rejects this, noting that the Cypriot claims infringe on Turkish rights afforded by Turkey’s continental shelf, which Cyprus, as an island, cannot infringe upon. This is a uniquely Turkish argument, derived from its ongoing territorial dispute with Greece in the Aegean Sea, and is not recognized by UNCLOS. Moreover, Turkey has declared that the Cypriot EEZ delineation has denied the Turkish citizens of Northern Cyprus their share of the resources in the territorial waters of Cyprus. Turkey has made its own claims to parts of Blocks 1, 3, 4, 6 and 7 of the Cypriot EEZ.

Gunboat Diplomacy

Turkey has aggressively asserted its sovereignty over the waters it claims. In February 2018, the Turkish navy intercepted a drillship chartered by Italy’s Eni that was seeking to drill for gas in Block 3 of the Cypriot EEZ, forcing Eni to abandon that effort. Since then, Turkey has conducted a series of massive naval exercises in the waters off Cyprus to assert its physical control. Undeterred, the government of Cyprus, in July 2019, approved licenses for Eni and Total to explore Block 7 of its EEZ. In response, Turkey dispatched its own drilling ship into Block 7, escorted by a pair of Turkish warships. Both Eni and Total have indicated that they will not attempt to explore Block 7 so long as Turkish military vessels are in the area. France dispatched a frigate into the waters of Block 7 as part of a joint naval exercise with Cyprus intended to send a signal to Turkey not to interfere with the Eni-Total drilling operations. Turkey responded by dispatching armed military drones to Northern Cyprus. In a further indication that it would not be deterred, on Dec. 15 the Turkish navy intercepted an Israeli ship in Cypriot waters. The vessel was conducting research in coordination with the government of Cyprus and was escorted out of the area by the Turkish navy.

Complicating matters further, Turkey was excluded from the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), formed following a meeting of the energy ministers of Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and Palestine in Cairo on Jan. 14, 2019. Turkey has declared the EMGF and its activities to be unlawful since the agreements reached between them regarding EEZ delineation infringe on Turkish territorial claims. The Turkish protestations, however, have fallen on deaf ears. Moreover, the EU, responding to Cypriot complaints about Turkey’s ongoing infringement on its declared EEZ, has passed a series of economic sanctions. The combination of the creation of the EMGF and EU sanctions appears to be the impetus behind the Turkish-Libyan maritime border deal.

The Turkish-Libyan Maritime Border

The border deal struck between Erdogan and al-Serraj dramatically alters the issue of EEZ and continental shelf zone boundary delineation within the Eastern Mediterranean. In one fell swoop, Turkey and Libya, by claiming a joint maritime boundary, have penetrated the EEZ map that serves as the basis of the EMGF. This seemingly invalidates the joint exploration agreements between Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, which Turkey now claims must be renegotiated with full Turkish participation. The legal foundation of the Turkish-Libyan deal is based on a novel interpretation of the continental shelf delineation principles in UNCLOS. Turkey and Libya, by drawing a diagonal line across the Mediterranean Sea, identified a juncture between their respective continental shelves. They contend this forms a legal maritime boundary. Greece immediately declared the boundary an invalid violation of international law. Turkey’s claim has likewise been rejected by the EU.

While presented as a joint initiative, the maritime boundary is purely a Turkish endeavor. Libya’s participation was locked in through Turkish security guarantees designed to prop up the government of al-Serraj, which is under pressure from rebel forces. From the Turkish perspective, the Turkish-Libyan maritime border has less to do with the actual economics of oil and gas, and more to do with a resolution of the Cyprus conflict. While the legal sustainability of the Turkish-Libyan maritime border is questionable, the claim makes it an issue that will ultimately be decided in the courtroom, delaying EEZ delineation for years.

The Turkish-Libyan maritime border agreement is not a final, immutable position, but rather the opening gambit to break the impasse over the status of Northern Cyprus and its Turkish population. For Cyprus and the other EMGF members, the economic benefits of Eastern Mediterranean gas serves as an inducement to get Greece to yield on a final resolution that would be acceptable to the Turks. That Turkey is willing to push the EU to the brink of diplomatic and potential military confrontation is a clear sign that the Turks are serious about resolving this issue in their favor.

Turkey’s hand is stronger than it looks. It provides a critical physical and political buffer between Europe and the chaos of the Middle East. It also serves as a bulwark against the expansion of Russian interests in the Mediterranean. While Turkish policies have frustrated and even angered many in the West, it is exerting itself as a force for regional stability, not chaos, when seen in the context of its geopolitical reality. Turkey does not want to be a simple extension of the EU. Rather by exploiting its position between east and west, Turkey seeks to project its influence by taking advantage of the friction created by the inherent incompatibilities between Nato and Russia, and between Europe and the Middle East.

Turkey’s inconsistent attitude toward Europe frustrates its erstwhile allies. But Turkey has absorbed the consequences of European and US policy failures in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria. Turkey’s relationship with Russia likewise serves a useful role in terms of positive diplomatic engagement at a time when Nato-Russian relations are worsening. So, as disruptive as the Turkish-Libyan maritime border agreement may be to the EU and nations of the Eastern Mediterranean, it makes complete sense from the broader Turkish geopolitical perspective. Turkey should be seen as neither a compliant junior partner nor an intractable foe. Instead, it will press to have its voice heard and its interests recognized when it comes to the issue of allocating regional oil and gas rights — whether the West finds it convenient or not.


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