Maritime tensions

The Eastern Mediterran­ean is quickly becoming a crowded place. Can Turkey cope?

Dünya Executive - - COVER PAGE - Ilter TURAN Columnist INTERVIEW: ADNAN R. KHAN

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

big ifs.

Ilter Turan: Indeed. And there seems to be no particular indicator on the horizon that the Turkish policymake­rs are currently entertaini­ng such big shifts.

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