The Eastern Mediterranean is quickly becoming a crowded place. Can Turkey cope?
We are entering a period of intense competition in a variety of aquatic environments. Most readers are likely aware of the ongoing tensions in the Persian Gulf and the escalating war of words and provocative actions between Iran and the U.S. There is also, of course, the Black Sea, where Russia is again exerting its influence while its former Soviet-era satellites try to push back. But for Turkey, the sea that really matters is the Mediterranean. And, in many ways, it is more crucial than the other two. Clearly, the Persian Gulf is strategically important for one primary reason: oil. The Mediterranean, however, is a key commercial and strategic military waterway as well as now becoming a source of precious natural gas. Turkey, with its extensive Mediterranean littoral, has begun to make claims on that resource. Cyprus is pushing back. Russia has reestablished its naval base in Tartus, Syria, its new foothold in the Mediterranean. Iran is seeking to lease part of a port in Latakia, a hundred or so kilometers to the south. U.S. and NATO warships are patrolling the sea. The Eastern Mediterranean has become a crowded geopolitical space. With so much traffic comes increasing risk of accidents escalating into conflict. This week, we look at the dynamics at play and where Turkey stands as an Eastern Mediterranean power.
►Adnan R. Khan: So lots going on in the Eastern Mediterranean. Can you give a brief over view of the various issues?
Ilter Turan: There are several distinct competitive relationships that have emerged in the Eastern Mediterranean. Before the discovery of natural gas, which has added a significant complication to the situation, Russia was trying to make a comeback as a global power and the region where it could assert itself most readily was the Eastern Mediterranean. The developments in Syria only facilitated the realization of Russian aspirations. Intense competition has emerged between the U.S. and Russia as to who shall have the upper hand on these waters. The next question is the discovery of natural gas in the area. Here there are all kinds of competitive relationships. First of all, the sea is not big enough to offer an economic exploitation zone, or even in some instances a sufficiently big enough continental shelf, for all the littoral countries. This promotes a lot of jockeying for position. Turkey must contend with competition from Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, Lebanon, and Syria. The burning question at the moment is who can lay claim to the natural gas in the area. In the past, Turkey did not allow some exploratory vessels to operate in contested areas; now Turkey is conducting its own explorations while others raise questions as to whether the areas in which Turkey is exploring are that legally belong to it. Personally, I believe Turkey is, but obviously others disagree.
►Adnan R. Khan: What we’re talking about here is basically Turkey’s backyard. One would expect it to have a dominant voice in what happens in the Eastern Mediterranean and yet, it seems to be finding it difficult to get its way. Why?
Ilter Turan: The problem is, in terms of drilling, Turkey is a latecomer. In the old days, when Turkey’s relations with Eastern Mediterranean littoral countries were better, it did not try to delineate the economic zones in part because it has not signed the Law of the Sea Treaty under which this process is implemented. That activity has now been carried out without including Turkey. This is of course an invitation for trouble. I consider it irresponsible behavior on the part of Turkey’s Mediterranean neighbors.
Unfortunately, other actors are not helping the situation. In these developments France perceives an opportunity to display its own military prowess which adds further provocation. The need for reaching an accommodation may, unfortunately, become all too evident only after a major incident occurs.
►Adnan R. Khan: When you have such a crowded space, the potential for something accidentally going wrong and then escalating increases. As of now, is there any international forum in which these incidents can be de-escalated?
Ilter Turan: No, there is no particular forum because the actors involved are all part of different and often conflicting alliances and organizations. They all have different geopolitical orientations, different regime types and some are at war. There is no common frame. In the old days, the U.S. used to assume the top role in leading regional peace efforts. But currently it has abandoned that position. In fact, the policies of the Trump administration have made the U.S. a party to the disputes rather than a country that can lead the efforts to develop solutions and preserve the peace. The EU has no such capabilities. When you have an organization that operates on the consent of all its members, ineffectiveness is the result. Moreover, the EU is behaving in an extremely problematical way in the Eastern Mediterranean vis a vis the Greek Cypriots, who are threatening to sabotage other activities in the EU if its preferences in the Eastern Mediterranean are not accommodated.
In conclusion, at the moment, we are lacking the mechanisms or even the will to resolve conflicting claims. The situation is very fluid. Everyone thinks they have a chance get more out of this unsettled situation than what they would if relationships were stable and cooperative. I think this will go on until we get into a situation where the costs of not cooperating go up to such a level that they outweigh the benefits of selfishness.
►Adnan R. Khan: But Turkey could play a more constructive role. Why isn’t it?
Ilter Turan: Up to 2007 or even later, Turkey’s foreign policy was such that the Eastern Mediterranean littoral states trusted it and would accept Turkey’s efforts to bring about solutions to regional problems. They believed that Turkey was equidistant to all and would deliver on the commitments it had undertaken. But after changes in its foreign policy, particularly after the Arab Spring, Turkey has become, like the U.S., a party to the disputes rather than a regional power that is able to manage them. From that perspective, currently Turkey is not in a position to offer leadership. Its leadership would not be accepted by none of the others. But if Turkey changes its politics – if it makes peace in Syria, if it gets back on good terms with Egypt, if it develops a more balanced relationship with Israel - then reaching a regional accommodation on the exploitation of natural resources might be easier.
►Adnan R. Khan: Those are very
Ilter Turan: Indeed. And there seems to be no particular indicator on the horizon that the Turkish policymakers are currently entertaining such big shifts.