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Turkey doubles down on upstream adventurism

Ankara extends timeframes of controversial activities off the Greek and Cypriot coasts, upping the chances of military confrontation

Three Turkish survey vessels that have drawn Cypriot and Greek ire for operating in their internationally recognised waters have had the tenures of their operations extended, following the failure of an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers in mid-August to agree a ­common response.

Turkey’s Yavuz drillship, in place southwest of Cyprus since April, will remain in the area through to September, while research vessels Oruc Reis and Barbaros Hayrettin will continue seismic surveys throughout ­August.

Particular attention is focused on the Oruc Reis, which is surveying an area between Crete and Cyprus claimed by Greece. It is being escorted by Turkish naval vessels and shadowed by Greek and French ships.

In August, as rival navies jostled for position around the ship, a Greek frigate slammed into the stern of a Turkish warship—causing no casualties but further ratcheting-up the tension. France has deployed strike planes to Cyprus to support Greece, while Turkish and Greek planes engage in mock dog fights over the ­Aegean.

One significant obstacle to a diplomatic solution is the lack of an obvious legal avenue to solve competing demands over who has the right to explore for gas.

At issue are Turkish demands for a share of the gas bounty discovered in the region in the past decade by Cyprus, Israel and Egypt. And one significant obstacle to a diplomatic solution is the lack of an obvious legal avenue to solve competing demands over who has the right to explore for gas.

Turkey has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which gives states a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around their coasts. Ankara has long argued that UNCLOS leaves it hemmed-in by a chain of Greek islands that girdle its southern coast.

Instead, Turkey lays claim to a chunk of sea, its so-called Blue Homeland, which overlaps the EEZs of Cyprus and Greece. Turkey’s refusal to sign UNCLOS leaves no obvious path to mediation. While its activities inside Greek and Cypriot EEZs are illegal under EU law, they are permissible under Turkish law. Mediation through a body such as the UN’s International Court of Justice in The Hague is impossible unless all sides agree to a common set of rules.

Scattergun approach

In the absence of common ground, confusion abounds—both at sea and in diplomatic channels. In February, the EU imposed travel bans and asset freezes on two officials from Turkish state-owned oil firm TPAO.

But, in July, EU foreign ministers decided to delay calls by Greece for deeper sanctions, hoping to trigger mediation. Instead, Turkey deployed the Oruc Reis. The August emergency meeting saw renewed calls by France and Greece for deeper penalties against TPAO assets in Europe, but they were rebuffed by Germany, which holds the rotating EU ­presidency.

Germany has good reason to hold fire on sanctions. Berlin fears that upping the ante on gas exploration will see the crumbling of an already fraying agreement with Turkey on refugees, which are crossing into Greece in increasing numbers.

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists his aggressive gas exploration will continue, saying he will ignore “the language of sanctions and threats”. But Erdogan’s hand may be weaker than it ­appears.

His belligerence hides growing unpopularity at home. Since the 2018 debt crisis, the value of the lira has nearly halved, and popular discontent has seen opposition parties win control of Ankara and Istanbul. Erdogan faces elections in 2023 and has few levers to turn things around.

He is also making enemies abroad. In the East Med he is opposed by a coalition—albeit a not entirely cohesive one—of Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel and the UAE. Turkish military operations in Libya and Syria are opposed by Russia, and antipathy towards him is one of the few issues both US president Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden agree on.

Some EU diplomats thus favour a softly-softly approach to the Turkish leader, hoping that elections in two years’ time will allow bridge-building with a new administration in Ankara. It remains to be seen if this may prove wishful thinking. For now, naval brinkmanship in the East Med continues.

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