Due to its strategic location and the geo-political and economic competition going on in the region, the Eastern Mediterranean Sea has become a region of conflict rather than cooperation among a number of actors. In fact, the fate of this region changed when oil and gas was found in the Middle East at the beginning of 20th century. The Eastern Mediterranean Sea has been an area of much dispute between the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), the Republic of Cyprus (RoC), Turkey and Greece since 1974, after the division of the island of Cyprus into two separate parts as a result of the Turkish military intervention. This conflict caught fire once again in 2002, because of the delimitation of the maritime boundaries in the East Mediterranean, which made Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) more relevant, due to the rich oil and natural-gas reserves in the region. The dispute over the delimitation of the continental shelf between Turkey and the RoC dates back to the 1970s, because before the 1974 intervention the Cypriot government had allowed some multinational companies to explore and carry out drilling activities, as well as claimed that the oil found in the region would belong to the RoC.
Despite attempts made by both sides to solve the Cyprus dispute, certain actions taken by the RoC led to several clashes with Turkey. The first clash occurred in 2002, when the RoC wanted to declare its own EEZ and give permission to a multinational corporation to carry out research on hydrocarbon resources in the area, as well as signing an agreement with Egypt in 2003 delimiting maritime jurisdiction areas. In 2004, the RoC defined its EEZ, so that the drilling activity in the region could be legal; this measure was widely supported in the international arena. In 2007, a similar agreement was signed with Lebanon, ‘declaring 13 new oil exploration zones’ with the support of Greece. The problem here is that these areas are also located in the TRNC’s share of the continental shelf, but all of these oil research activities and agreements signed with Egypt and Lebanon were made without consulting Turkey or the TRNC. In 2008, Turkey allowed the Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) to conduct research in the area for oil, further escalating the tense relations between Turkey and Greece. It is because of the geo-political and geo-strategic location of the region that Greece, the RoC, the TRNC and Turkey are falling into conflict. It is important to note that both sides of the island have equal rights in terms of hydrocarbon resources by law.
Turkey’s general disagreement is about the claims of the RoC in the Southeast and West of the island, asserting that the agreements signed with different states by the RoC are “null and void” for many reasons. First of all, neither the RoC, nor its EEZ are recognised by Turkey. Second, in the eyes of Turkey, the Greek Cypriot government does not represent the Turkish Cypriots. Turkey is also claiming that these actions taken by the RoC are damaging the reunification process and that the Republic of Cyprus should stop the exploration actions until a settlement is reached. The major problem is on the Western part of the island, because certain parts of the drilling section are falling into the continental shelf of Turkey. The unilateral actions of the RoC, disregarding Turkish Cypriots’ legitimate rights in the region, led to the natural objection by Turkey to protect its legal rights in the maritime jurisdiction areas. When in 2011, the RoC and Israel signed an agreement for gas exploration, Turkey and the TRNC also signed an agreement for drilling activities, claiming that they have equal rights and they will defend it by keeping a constant eye on the actions of the RoC, because it claims they are the only representatives of the whole island. In the eyes of Turkey, the RoC tries to negatively affect the relations between Turkey and Middle Eastern nations through the agreements and declaration of the EEZ, as well as damaging the international image of Turkey by taking the issue to the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN) claiming that the existence of Turkish ships in the region are ‘provocative’ because it is within their territorial waters. However, Turkey’s drilling activities are carried out in accordance with its sovereign rights and according to the international law – only Turkish ships are allowed to research in the region. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Article 74 and 83, Turkey is carrying out these actions in a fully legitimate fashion. However, Greece and the RoC are trying to apply Article 121 of the UNCLOS, which Turkey is not a signatory to. For Turkey, there are equal sovereign rights for both South and North, so the natural resources found belong to both sides equally. The energy resources that are found in the area should have an equal share between the actors so that there would not be an unfair treatment of neither the South nor the North.
Also, both as a protection for itself and the TRNC, Turkey modernised its navy to protect its rights in the region not only diplomatically but also militarily. Turkey is also not expected to trust the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), since it is giving support to the East Med pipeline project, which, if realised, will bypass Turkey. This is as well another reason which justifies why Turkey wants to increase their military capabilities in the region. Turkey claims that these problems are happening due to the long-lasting Cyprus issue and states that the TRNC is a legal political entity whose status and rights are to be internationally recognised. Although this is being continuously disregarded, Turkey will do anything in its power to protect these rights and the unilateral actions of the Greek Cypriots will not be tolerated. Although the RoC is internationally recognised, representing both parts of the island, Turkey does not recognise it and claims that it cannot conduct any exploration in the Southern part of the island without the consent of the TRNC. Although both Turkey and the TRNC are trying to find a solution to the problems, several attempts taken by the Turkish side have been disregarded by Greece and the RoC. This, in turn, affects the relations between EU and Turkey in terms of its membership, since Cyprus is holding the EU presidency.
In July 2020, Turkey sent out a naval alert to Greece, the RoC and the rest of the international community known as NAVTEX (“a maritime communication system that allows ships to inform other vessels about their presence in an area”),announcing that it will send out the research vessel Oruç Reis, in order to carry out drilling activities in the region that is covering the area between Crete and Cyprus. This action of Turkey was seen as a major threat by Greece, worsening the bilateral relations. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that “Everybody should accept that Turkey and the TRNC cannot be excluded from the energy equation in the region”. It is also worth mentioning that the relations between the two sides have already been turbulent for the past few months due several reasons, including the flow of migrants from Turkey to Greece by opening the gates and the decision of Turkey to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. All of these actions by Turkey were labelled as a “Neo-Ottoman” strategy by Greek foreign minister Nikos Dendias, claiming that Turkey has expansionist aims. On the Turkish side, however, it is impossible to dismiss that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is getting a huge societal support for securing lucrative energy sources in a region where they find themselves extremely isolated for many years as pointed out by many experts.
Since mid-August 2020, Turkey has announced several Navtex decisions making Greece and EU highly uncomfortable. Erdoğan stated that “Turkey won’t make any concession on what is theirs”,causing Greece to extend its maritime territories in the region by claiming that the majority of the islands in the region are located in their continental shelf and the drilling rights belong to Greece exclusively. This action of Greece was, of course, supported by EU and it even sanctioned Turkey for carrying out seismic surveys on the basis that there is an unequal and unfair interpretation of international law in terms of Turkey’s exclusive economic zones. When Greece decided to increase its EEZ from 6 nautical miles (nm) to 12 nm, Turkey claimed that its sea routes would be seriously affected. As a result, Turkey embraced a doctrine known as “Mavi Vatan” (Blue Homeland) that aims at securing its maritime areas that surround its coasts, as well as insisting that Greece, and the international community supporting Greece, should take decisions according to the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea.
A month ago, Oruç Reis was withdrawn from the region, so that relations can ease diplomatically during the European Union Summit in October 2, 2020. However, when the EU stated that it would sanction Turkey if she continues such operations in the region, Turkey sent out the vessels once again in October 12, showing a firm response against Greece and the EU. Although Greece claimed this action to be illegal, Turkey stated that the vessel is going to continue its exploration activities until November 4, 2020. Although both are NATO members, Turkey and Greece cannot come to a solution based on the extent of their continental shelf and their conflicting claims of hydrocarbon resources in the Eastern Mediterranean region.
One of the main reasons for Greece’s such attitude can be linked to the decades old Cyprus conflict. Despite the fact that they do try to work out peaceful relations, the Greeks still long for their ultimate goal of “Enosis” and the annexation of all the Greek lands, including the whole of Cyprus, under the Greek control. It is, indeed, for this reason that Greece is unwilling to sit at the table with Turkey and diplomatically find a solution to the Eastern Mediterranean conflict.
In the light of these explanations, it seems to be clear that energy considerations will continue have an important effect in terms of political economy. It is quite unlikely that the RoC will give up its exploration activities in the region and Turkey and TRNC will not stop to protect their legal rights and will continue to increase her naval power. It is apparent that, unless the Cyprus issue is resolved, exploitation of the region will continue to be the major source of conflict and an obstacle to reach an agreement on the EEZs claimed by both sides in the West and Southeast of the Cypriot island, because this also requires the resolution of maritime delimitation disputes in the Aegean Sea. The most peaceful solution could be the division of hydrocarbon resources equally between the two parts of the island. In this dispute, Turkey and the TRNC that are in a weak position politically, because the RoC and Greece’s position is strengthened by their EU membership, but despite of this Turkey is determined to protect both its own and the TRNC’s rights and sovereignty in the Eastern Mediterranean. There is generally a need to look beyond this nationalistic point of view, it can be said that maybe concentrating on economic interests could act as a sense of motivation and as a tool for overcoming the differences and establishing a peaceful environment for solving the disputes and creating interdependencies.