The Eastern Mediterranean in 2023: Escalation or Resolution?

The Turkish drilling vessel Fatih waits on the shores of Istanbul's Marmara sea in Istanbul, Turkey, 9 April 2020. [Erdem Sahin/EPA/EFE]

While the world is obsessively focusing on the war in Eastern Europe, geo-economic tugging is building up in the Eastern Mediterranean over maritime borders. Pitching political and diplomatic fights may not necessarily kindle another traditional war that requires the intervention of the already strained international community, at least in the short term. Yet, they could easily replicate the military tensions that traumatized the Eastern Mediterranean and its neighboring regions in the summer of 2020. If nothing else, this could hinder the potential of the hydrocarbon-rich basin, which also enjoys a unique geo-strategic location between three continents, to participate in mitigating the consequences of the energy crisis in Europe and the food crisis in Africa. Consequently, the ongoing economic standoff between the western and eastern superpowers may escalate and magnify the costs of the global crises on vulnerable communities worldwide.

The Loop

The Eastern Mediterranean has been stuck in an infinite loop of unilateral sovereign decisions on maritime demarcations by the countries on three of its coastlines since the early discoveries of the massive hydrocarbon wealth in the seabed about two decades ago. The domestic political troubles in most Eastern Mediterranean countries, the uneven geo-political intricacies of the region, and the long-term conflicts between the neighboring countries have added extra layers of complications to the growing tensions over maritime rights.

Eastern Mediterranean

On the bright side, the geo-economic threats posed by these conflicts have generated unexpected collaborations between the southern countries of the Eastern Mediterranean. Prominent examples include the recent Israel-Lebanon maritime border deal and the five years of cooperation between Egypt and Israel on extracting, liquifying, and exporting natural gas to Europe. Yet, on the not-so-bright side, the unresolved long-term conflicts between Turkey and Greece are still setting the region on fire.

During a visit to the Navy Command of the Marmara Region in northwestern Turkey this week, the Turkish Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, reiterated a warning to Greece against unilateral demarcation decisions that may further detract from Turkey’s claimed maritime zone. “We will not allow any fait accompli to be provoked by Greece in a way that could violate our rights,” said Hulusi Akar after promising that “any misconduct by Greece will be immediately retaliated by Ankara.”

In June, Turkey’s President Erdogan celebrated Turkey’s success in producing short-range ballistic missiles by hinting that they could be used to deter Athens from militarizing its islands in the Aegean. “Turkey will not step back from using its rights if necessary and will not give up its rights in the Aegean per the international conventions,” Erdogan asserted.

Greece sees the issue as a sovereign right, but Turkey sees it as a threat to national security. Meanwhile, the related international conventions stipulate that these uninhabited islands should remain neutral, especially since they are closer to Turkey’s coastline than they are to Greece’s mainland. The Greek Island Kastellorizo, where most of the Greek military buildup has been happening since early 2022, is 600 kilometers away from Greece’s mainland, while it is only 1950 meters away from Turkey.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting of his ruling AK Party in Ankara, Turkey January 5, 2023. Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS.

The repeated threats by Turkish officials have not prevented Greece from announcing in late December its intention to unilaterally extend its maritime zone to a point twelve nautical miles southwest of Crete. The Hellenic Presidential Bureau told the local press that the demarcation is scheduled to be officially announced in March before the parliamentary elections are held. Greece’s decision has obviously angered Turkey and Libya, which will be directly affected. Yet, Greece’s unilateral move has also been frowned upon by Egypt, which has been a strong ally to Greece against Turkey, at least since the escalation between Turkish and Hellenic naval forces in 2020.

The Overlap

Greece’s unilateral move to expand its maritime zone is believed to be motivated by Egypt’s unilateral decision to demarcate its maritime border with neighboring Libya. On December 11, Egypt’s Official Gazette published a presidential decree specifying nine geographic coordinates as benchmarks to Egypt’s western maritime border with Libya in the Mediterranean. The presidential decree demarcates Egypt’s territorial waters at an area of twelve nautical miles extending upwards from node no. 8 on the northern land border between Egypt and Libya. The various Egyptian authorities explained that the demarcation is based on the legal stipulations of the UN Convention of the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) and related documents.

Despite the overlap, it is not expected that Egypt and Greece would clash over these uncoordinated demarcations. However, such moves may overturn or completely invalidate their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) agreement, which they signed in August 2020 to rescind the maritime agreement signed between Turkey and the former Libyan interim Government of National Accord (GNA) in December 2019. In other words, this is not serving Greece’s goal to curb Turkey’s advances to use the Libyan maritime zone to conduct seismic research for hydrocarbon resources. That is particularly true in light of the improvement of Turkey-Egypt relations following a historic handshake between the Egyptian and Turkish presidents in Doha in early December. It does not seem that Egypt is planning to end its EEZ agreement with Greece, but it reserves the right to sign similar agreements with Turkey in the future.

The Turkish flag flies over an inlet in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. (Flickr/Clive Rogers)

Libya fiercely objected to Egypt’s unilateral demarcation decision as a violation of its sovereignty, although Egypt’s decision is believed to be motivated by the defense and energy memoranda that Turkey and Libya signed two months earlier. In early October, a delegation of senior Turkish officials flew to Tripoli to celebrate the signing of two new bilateral agreements. One agreement allows Libya’s interim Government of National Unity (GNU) to receive advanced weapons, including drones, from Turkey. The other memorandum admits Turkey to the Libyan waters in the Mediterranean for hydrocarbon exploration purposes. In a provocative response to Greece’s and Egypt’s objection to these memoranda, the Libyan and the Turkish officials plainly said they “do not care for what third parties think about our bilateral agreements.”

Unlike Greece, Turkey did not seem to be threatened by the Egyptian unilateral demarcation of the western maritime border, although it clearly limits the scope of its newly signed agreements with Libya’s GNU. Instead, Turkey called for open negotiations with all involved parties in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the past year, Ankara led a successful campaign to mend broken ties with all its neighbors in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt, Israel, and Syria. Turkey’s renewed relations with neighboring countries, in addition to Turkey’s mediator role in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, have dramatically improved Turkey’s situation in the Eastern Mediterranean in pursuit of its lost rights.

The Trauma

Given the fact that Libya is the common factor in all of the recent chess moves in the Eastern Mediterranean basin, one may tend to conclude that Libya is the problem. However, in reality, Libya is just another victim of an unfair agreement signed over a century ago in the fog of world wars. Rather than bringing peace, the Lausanne Agreement (1922) has left the Eastern Mediterranean with a chronic conflict over a messy geographic ordeal that the successive regional leaders have failed to resolve. The agreement preserved Turkish sovereignty over Turkey’s mainland but inelegantly stripped Turkey of its rights in the seabed resources of the Mediterranean, despite being the country with the longest border (1870 km) in the hydrocarbon-rich sea.

Onlookers watch the Abdulhamid Han drill ship, the fourth built by Turkey, in Mersin on Aug. 9, 2022 before it leaves for gas exploration to an undisputed area in the Mediterranean Sea. - ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles (370 km) may be claimed by coastal countries. If the distance between the shores of two neighboring countries is less than this space, the maritime demarcation between them should be drawn exactly at the half-line distance. However, this is not the case for Turkey, which is literally cuffed to its own shores, either in the southern area towards Cyprus or the southwest zone towards Greece, because Lausanne Agreement gave all the small islands in the Aegean and Mediterranean to Greece.

At least since the early 2000s, Turkey has been trying to change the reality imposed by the Lausanne Agreement, sometimes through diplomatic negotiations with Greece and other times by employing military provocations. Up to this day, 63 rounds of negotiations have been held between the two countries, as well as an innumerable number of meetings between senior military commanders and diplomats, but all ended in vain.

Turkey’s agreements with the Libyan GNA in 2019, and recent agreements with the GNU in 2022, are only desperate attempts to reclaim these lost rights. However, each time Turkey takes action in that direction, it backfires by causing security threats to the entire region. In 2020, this chronic conflict escalated to a harsh clash following the sailing of a Turkish hydrocarbon exploration vessel into the zone claimed by a bilateral maritime agreement with Libya’s GNA. In the summer of 2020, the quiet basin of the Eastern Mediterranean witnessed an unprecedented number of military encounters disguised as joint aero-naval military exercises, wherein advanced fighter jets and navy arsenals from outside the region intervened.

In 2023, these conflicts have a high potential to be re-ignited if they are not preceded by pragmatic negotiations wherein all the concerned parties on the three shores of the Eastern Mediterranean are involved.


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