Two important diplomatic events occurred last Thursday. One (for those who have only now woken up from a coma and may not have heard) was Israel and the United Arab Emirates agreeing to establish diplomatic relations. The other was a visit to Israel by Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias.
The visit was almost entirely ignored and the extent to which it got any media coverage was over the minor issue of Greece allowing a handful of Israeli tourists to enter the country. But there was something much, much bigger at stake, and that is the growing danger Turkey poses to the natural gas resources of the Eastern Mediterranean.
The problem has been building up for close to a decade, starting when Turkey first challenged the Republic of Cyprus’ right to explore for gas and oil in what is universally acknowledged as its exclusive economic zone. Sending a drill ship with a naval escort into Cyprus’ EEZ set the stage for Turkey’s dual strategy of gunboat diplomacy and outrageous maritime claims, that has become increasingly aggressive in recent months.
Turkey has never ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which it seems to regard as a carte blanche to stake whatever maritime claims it likes. Its EEZ appetite is huge.
By claiming that islands don’t really count for EEZ claims, Ankara has unilaterally declared that Cyprus and Greece’s EEZs are limited to a mere 12 nautical miles and while it can claim an EEZ of 200 miles that stretches to an area to the south of Cyprus. Last November it took its claims even further, reaching an agreement with the rump Libyan government under which the two countries’ maritime EEZs actually touch each other. In effect, they built an EEZ wall across the Mediterranean.
None of this would really mean much, since Ankara’s claims have been dismissed by everyone, including the European Union – except that Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s campaign isn’t being conducted solely by lawyers and diplomats but by drillers and the navy.
Turkey has repeatedly sent its drill ships into waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece, accompanied by warships to see off any challengers, most recently last week. On at least one occasion used its navy to chase off a boat drilling off the Cyprus shore by the Italian company Eni.
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Israel has no direct stake in this because Turkey’s outsized claims don’t include Israel’s EEZ. But we do have a big indirect interest. For its gas sector to develop, Israel needs export markets and the way to achieve that is by collaborating with its neighbors, mainly Cyprus and Egypt, to jointly exploit their reserves. Ultimately, the three would like to build a pipeline to Europe, if the costs and technological barriers can be overcome.
Erdogan is erecting barriers to all of that. Cyprus can’t proceed with exploration and development of its gas if Turkish warships are hounding the energy companies. The pipeline will never be built if two hostile countries (Turkey and Libya) have cut the Mediterranean in half with their EEZ agreement. Greece can’t look for gas either, which is why Dendias was in Israel last week.
Turkish exploration is as fake as its EEZ claims. Turkish Petroleum, the state-owned company that is undertaking the drilling work, doesn’t have the expertise to analyze the seismographic data it’s collecting. It certainly doesn’t have the capital to bring any gas it finds into production, and it’s a long shot that any major oil company that does have the money and resources would become an equity partner in a reservoir in dispute.
Some experts say that the Turks aren’t really doing any exploratory drilling at all and that it’s all for show. That wouldn’t be surprising because Turkey’s drilling activity isn’t designed to find oil and gas. It’s designed to stir up trouble and compel the rest of the East Mediterranean to bow to its leadership on energy.
Erdogan sees Turkey as a regional superpower. It doesn’t want to join groups like the East Mediterranean Gas Forum as a leading, much less an equal, member. It’s a country that dictates terms to others.
Turkey may not be quite the great power Erdogan fantasizes it to be, but unfortunately it does have leverage. It’s the ideal transit point for natural gas going from the East Mediterranean to Europe, which alone should give it considerable bargaining power, if Erdogan believed in diplomacy. But he evidently believes more in raw power, of which he holds considerable assets, too, including a powerful armed force and membership in NATO. Over Europe, he holds the threat of letting loose refugees to cross over the border into the EU.
France has been making a show of military muscle in the region, but no one honestly thinks France (or the EU) is ready to take Turkey on. Erdogan probably isn’t ready to risk a military confrontation either, but the hypernationalism of his so-called “Blue Homeland” policy is quite popular at home. He has no reason to back down.
On paper, Dendias got something useful from Israel in the form of a strong declaration of support for its claims. Erdogan has succeeded in driving such disparate parties as Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, Greece and the EU together. That is a powerful combination, but no one is ready to exploit it even as Turkey becomes more aggressive. It spells a deadlock for the East Mediterranean gas, which only benefits Erdogan.