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Wednesday, October 28, 2020, 14:46 (GMT+7)
Turkey's calculations make waves in the Eastern Mediterranean

In 2011, when the “Arab Spring wave” swept the Middle East and North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean region was “eyed” by many countries. Since then, this sea has become more volatile and increasingly hotter when Turkey revealed its intentions.

Nearly half a century of hidden waves in the region of disputed sovereignty

Although not on the list of flashpoints, such as: Syria, Palestine - Israel or Eastern Ukraine, since 1973 to date, the Aegean Sea (the sea in the Eastern Mediterranean) has been disputed by Greece and Turkey over the continental shelf and sovereignty of some islands. Greece claims that many of its islands in the Aegean Sea are maritime zones under international law, but Turkey has repeatedly rejected this view.

Tensions between the two countries began on November 1, 1973, when Ankara allowed several companies to exploit oil in 27 areas in the Aegean continental shelf between Turkish and Greek waters. Following this, the two countries continuously exchanged notes expressing their stances and views on the issue. While Greece did not stop claiming sovereignty, Turkey also asserted that those areas are its continental shelf and the two sides continued to bring oil exploration and exploitation equipment to the disputed area.

It is noteworthy that, in March 1987, when Greece conducted oil drilling in the vicinity of Thasos island, Turkey quickly dispatched its RV MTA Sismik 1 survey ship escorted by warships to the area. Tensions escalated and both sides put their armed forces on alert, ready to sink ships of each other. But thanks to the mediation of the then NATO’s Secretary General, Peter Carington, the two countries eased the tension and agreed not to deploy their ships to the East Mediterranean Sea. Although the leaders of Turkey and Greece both affirmed that they would settle the dispute through dialogue, the spark of instability still persists. When no effective solution has been found to resolve the dispute over maritime boundaries, the two countries continue to have sovereignty claims over small uninhabited islands in this area. Fighters of the two countries also frequently appear in the airspace of the Aegean Sea.

Turkey’s ambition of changing the game

Despite its over 8,000 kilometers of coastline, Turkey, for decades, hasn’t benefited from the oil and gas boom in the Mediterranean Sea (where 3.5 trillion cubic meters of gas and about 1.7 billion barrels of crude oil are estimated). In contrast, Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, Egypt and Israel all rushed to explore and had some initial successes: locating a number of oil and gas reserves along the their coasts. After Israel discovered two gas fields in 1999, this country soon reached an agreement with Greece, the Republic of Cyprus and Egypt to delineate exclusive economic zones and began oil and gas exploration with multinational companies. Recently, Greece, the Republic of Cyprus and Israel also agreed to provide energy supply to Europe via a 2,000-km pipeline from the Eastern Mediterranean. This allows these countries not only benefit from undersea resources, but also improve their energy independence. Realising that, Turkey also invested heavily in searching for resources in the region. Its geological survey ships and deep-sea exploration have cost a huge budget of more than one billion US dollar in the past decade, but still no oil or gas fields have been discovered. Meanwhile, 80% - 90% of Turkish gas consumption is imported from Russia.

Not accepting the fact, at the end of 2019, Turkey signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) to delimit maritime zones between the two sides, paving the way for oil and gas exploration activities later. The incident will not be worth discussing if the boundary corridor established by these two countries is not close to Crete Island under Greek sovereignty. Greek leaders said that the Libyan and Turkish agreements violated international law, ignoring the presence of the island of Crete.

However, Turkey claims that the east coast of Crete and a half of the Aegean Sea of nearly 46,000 square km are under its sovereignty. This is part of the concept of “Blue Homeland” that the Neo-Ottomanists under the Justice and Development Party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan frequently refer to. This concept was first mentioned in 2006 by Cem Gurdeniz, formerly Chief of the Turkish Naval Plans and Policies Division, who called for the redemarcation of Turkish sea boundary and the use of force if necessary to protect its economic and political interests. The reason Ankara did not take this proposal seriously is that Turkey was applying for a membership of the European Union (EU).

In 2016, when Turkey-EU relations became strained for many reasons, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reconsidered Cem Gurdeniz's plan, making the East Mediterranean a central point in an effort to create greater geopolitical power for Turkey. The President, Foreign Minister and many far-right party members in the ruling coalition all openly talked about the “Blue Homeland” Plan and said that Turkey was treated unfairly in present demarcation of territorial sea.

Small contact, big impact

The escalation of tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean continued since August 10, 2020, when Turkey launched a gas exploration campaign in the disputed area with their survey ships escorted by their naval vessels. Turkey has released a message on the Navigational Telex (NAVTEX), which stated that the Oruc Reis scientific research vessel would conduct geological operations in the area off the coast of Meis Island (which is called Kastellorizo by Greece) during the period from 10 to 23 August 2020. On 12 August 2020, the Greek destroyer Limnos approached Oruc Reis and collided with the escort ship of the Turkish Navy. According to Athens, this was a slight collision between the two ships and the Limnos was not damaged. However, Ankara said that this was a provocation. Turkey's decision to send the Oruc Reis survey vessel to the Eastern Mediterranean came just a few days after a maritime agreement between Egypt and Greece was signed, aiming to establish an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) between two countries. The deal is seen as Greece's direct response to a similar agreement between Turkey and the Libyan government, giving Ankara the freedom to explore oil and gas in the waters of Libya in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Not only with Greece, Turkish move to explore and exploit gas in the Eastern Mediterranean also met with strong reactions from other countries in the EU. To resolve the crisis, at an emergency conference convened by the EU's High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, 27 EU member foreign ministers agreed to prepare sanctions on Turkey in response to Ankara's naval operations in the Eastern Mediterranean region. According to analysts, the EU support of Greece is completely understandable because Turkish recent naval deployment has not only led to more serious opposition and suspicion between the two countries but also could lead to far-reaching strategic consequences for the EU as a whole. Specifically, the current disputes will not serve the security interests of the EU as well as Turkey itself, because the relationship between the two sides has always been the pillar to maintain security and stability in the East Mediterranean in the face of threats from pro-terrorist and extremist policies.

Many argue that Turkey is choosing to rise in the East Mediterranean in the direction of rift, not hiding its intentions in an attempt to intervene in Libya and Syria. For the West, the “boldness” of this NATO member is a major challenge, especially given the deep internal division of the planet's largest military alliance. This is reflected in the two exercises that took place at the end of August 2020 in the Eastern Mediterranean, one by the Turkish Navy and the United States, the other by Greece and France, Italy and the Republic of Cyprus in the area near Crete.

In face of the situation, many questions are raised with the US when coordinating exercises with Turkey in the context of sensitive relations between NATO members. In particular, the purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia - a former rival of NATO during the Cold War, is seen as an act of “disrespectful stroke” for Washington. As explained by many strategic analysts, at present, the US still has a binding interest with Turkey, including the Incirlik air base, so it cannot ignore the possibility of Incirlik being closed in the event of worsening bilateral relations. At that time, American weapons and military equipment in Turkish territory will risk being approached and exploited by Russia. In addition, the presence of US warships in the Mediterranean Sea will also help cooling the “hot heads” of NATO members, namely: Turkey, France and Greece.

However, if Turkey continues to hold a tough stance aimed at changing the balance of power with regional powers and asserting its influence, their upcoming negotiations with Greece are much likely to be broken. Such move of Ankara will push the tensions in the region to new danger, while at the same time dragging stakeholders into a larger-scale dispute. This can turn the East Mediterranean sea into the world's new flashpoint.

LAM PHUONG

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