Turkey: A deal is possible

War and wrath – along with monsters, romances, and orgies of violence – are the stuff of classical mythology. So when the newly discovered gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean were named, one by one, after characters from Greek and biblical stories, it was not hard to predict that, eventually, a drama would follow. It did.

The eastern Mediterranean is one of the most important geopolitical hotspots on the periphery of Europe. It harbours the potential for direct military confrontation between NATO members Turkey and Greece. It is also at the intersection of European interests and the new geopolitical fault lines of the Middle East.

The competition for hydrocarbon resources is at the heart of the story. One of Turkey’s main foreign policy goals is to prevent itself from being excluded from the rich natural gas deposits in the Mediterranean. This is overlain by a strong historical memory in Turkey of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century and the weaker position this put Turkey in on the energy front.

Ankara views drilling efforts in this small corner of the Mediterranean as a symbol of a much larger alignment hostile to its broader interests – an axis that is seemingly led by Greece, Cyprus, and Israel but merges with Turkey’s larger geopolitical rivalry with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. This Turkish reflex is also the main driver of its assertive policy in Libya, and has already proved to be an irritant in ties with the European Union.

This is not how it all started. The discovery of large deposits of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean around 2009 was, at first, widely seen as a possible catalyst for greater regional cooperation between Turkey, Greece, and Israel – and even as a way of reaching a permanent solution to the decades-long conflict between the Turkish and Cypriot communities in Cyprus. Back then, a West-leaning Turkey was lobbying for a Cyprus settlement and pushing for its own membership of the EU.

Today, the picture looks very different. Turkey’s path to EU membership is effectively blocked, and relations with its Western allies are often strained over issues such as refugee flows, Russia, and Turkey’s democratic backsliding. Once-close regional partners Turkey and Israel have never fully managed to repair their ties since the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla incident – and, since the Arab uprisings, have thrown their weight behind opposing camps in the Middle East. In the eastern Mediterranean, an alliance between Greece, Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt – with the blessing of the Trump administration – has left Turkey outside the emerging energy architecture in its own backyard. Turkey feels abandoned by Europe on issues that relate to its own survival.

Ankara’s response has been to escalate. A resurgent Turkey is keen to assert its regional power in its neighbourhood. Turkish decision-makers fear that failing to flex their muscles in the face of this new alliance would leave Turkey more isolated and physically boxed in as a naval power in the Mediterranean.

Since 2017, tensions have been incrementally rising over drilling rights off the Republic of Cyprus, an EU member state. At the heart of the matter lie competing claims about the exclusive economic zone around the island: while the Republic of Cyprus claims a sovereign right to assign drilling permits to energy companies, Turkey argues that the energy resources off Cyprus, including gas from the Aphrodite field, should be shared “equitably” between the Republic of Cyprus and its internationally isolated other half, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. In protest, Turkey has blocked drilling efforts by energy giants there, including ExxonMobil, Noble, Eni, and Total. In 2019 Turkey sent its own exploration ships and naval vessels to the area, triggering sanctions from the EU.

Meanwhile, there have long been plans for a gas pipeline linking eastern Mediterranean fields – including Egypt’s Zohr, and Israel’s Leviathan and Tamar – with European markets. This pipeline would bypass Turkey altogether. In March 2019 leaders from Greece, Cyprus, and Israel – with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo at their side – signed an agreement on the proposed EastMed pipeline. And, to erase any doubt about their intentions, they crowed that they had intentionally formed this “alliance” against Turkey. Egypt has since pledged to join the planned 1,900km undersea pipeline to Europe by 2025. Most alarmingly for Ankara, in December 2019, US lawmakers passed the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act, which put Greece and Cyprus at the forefront of US policy in the region – a role historically played by Turkey – and explicitly encouraged gas exploration off the coast of Cyprus. The bill also formally banned the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey – a key component of the country’s military planning – making clear that Turkey was out of favour in Washington.

Turkey’s response came from a different corner of the Mediterranean – Libya. In late 2019, Ankara signed a security and maritime border agreement with the Libyan government, subsequently deploying Turkish troops to support the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord against the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose backers include the UAE, France, and Russia. While Turkey had long sent military aid to the UN-recognised government, its foray into the war, supplying air-defence and drone capabilities, was critical to preventing the fall of Tripoli to Haftar’s forces. Once the new maritime border agreement was in place, Turkish officials claimed that there was now a vertical line across the Mediterranean marking a Turkish-Libyan economic zone – and, crucially, disrupting plans for a pipeline there put forward by Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and Israel.

More than anything, Turkey’s entry into the Libyan conflict and posturing off the coast of Cyprus are an indication of the lengths to which Ankara is willing to go to prevent the emergence of a new order in the Mediterranean. Turkish escalation is designed to make it unprofitable – politically, diplomatically, and commercially – to attempt to ignore or exclude Turkey’s interests. While Turkish exploration ships close to Cyprus have made no significant discoveries, they have made Ankara’s intentions abundantly clear.

In Europe, Turkey’s gunboat diplomacy around Cyprus is widely seen as an act of aggression against an EU member state. But there is also an overall feeling that the EU needs a more functional partnership with Turkey – and potentially a new deal, or grand bargain, to provide any new working arrangements with a degree of legitimacy and solidity.

ExxonMobil has announced that it will pause drilling until September 2021 due to covid-19. Other energy firms are likely to follow suit. This, combined with low global energy prices, might provide an opportunity for such a new grand bargain between Turkey and the EU. In the short term, Turkey’s behaviour is unlikely to change. But, now that Turkey has strengthened its position by escalating matters, it has started signalling openness to such a deal on the eastern Mediterranean. It has recently reached out to Israel and Italy to broach alternative arrangements that could benefit Turkey economically.

Ankara knows, however, that it is ultimately the EU that holds the key to unlocking the eastern Mediterranean conundrum. With Cyprus and Greece as member states, and Turkey itself still institutionally within the EU accession framework, there is no reason for Brussels not to lead on this crisis. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a mercurial, tough-talking guy – but he is also often the most pragmatic leader in the room.

If Europe mediates a wide-ranging deal with Turkey on eastern Mediterranean matters, it will also have the chance to sort out the other problems the two sides currently have with each other. A new round of UN-led negotiations for a lasting settlement of the Cyprus conflict might prove too ambitious, but a new framework of revenue sharing on eastern Mediterranean energy resources is achievable. This would not only reset Europe’s and eastern Mediterranean states’ troubled relations with Turkey, but could also provide an important way for the EU to show off its diplomatic muscle on its own borders.

Asli Aydıntaşbaş is a senior policy fellow at ECFR. Her topics of focus include Turkish foreign policy and the external ramifications of its domestic politics. Aydintasbas joined ECFR after a lengthy career in journalism; most recently she was a columnist at Milliyet (2009-2015) and was previously a commentator on regional issues in international publications and networks.

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Design and development: Objectif.co.uk, Queo.pt, Juan Ruitiña

Editing: Adam Harrison

Cover image: picture alliance/REUTERS

May 2020. ECFR/322. ISBN 978-1-913347-22-2