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What's Behind the Turkey-Greece Battle Over Eastern Mediterranean Waters?

The squabble over who’s entitled to potentially abundant hydrocarbons lurking beneath the seabed in the east Mediterranean goes far deeper than access to natural gas

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Turkey's President Recep Erdogan waves as he attends celebrations marking the anniversary of the 1071 battle of Manzikert, during which Turkish Seljuks beat Byzantine forces, gaining entry into Anatolia, in Malazgirt, eastern Turkey, August 26, 2020.
Turkey's President Recep Erdogan waves as he attends celebrations marking the anniversary of the 1071 battle of Manzikert, during which Turkish Seljuks beat Byzantine forces, gaining entry into AnatolCredit: Turkish Presidency/AP Photo

Greek and Turkish warships are testing each other’s naval prowess while political leaders in Athens and Ankara probe each other’s resolve over a search for hydrocarbon reserves in east Mediterranean waters that each nation claims.

Despite the saber rattling, there’s doesn’t appear to be a real appetite for war. But neither nation is ready to back down and look weak.

Greece and Turkey have a jumble of air and naval assets in the Mediterranean as France, the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates take part in tit-for-tat military drills. The risks of a mishap that could spark conflict have increased exponentially. The danger was illustrated earlier this month when a Greek frigate accidentally collided with a Turkish warship in waters off Crete.

Here’s a look at what’s driving the conflict:

POWER PLAY

On the surface it appears as a squabble over who’s entitled to potentially abundant hydrocarbons lurking beneath the seabed in the east Mediterranean.

Greece says Turkey’s bid to prospect for oil and gas in waters off Crete that it says falls within its exclusive economic zone is a clear violation of its sovereign rights and of international law.

Ditto for the small, ethnically divided island nation of Cyprus, which has accused Turkey of “pirate behavior” and “gunboat diplomacy” for sending warship-escorted vessels off its shores — even in areas that were licensed out to major energy companies like France’s Total for exploration.

TURKEY’S STRATEGY

Turkey says its doing what it must to protect its own rights to energy reserves, but analysts say it goes much deeper than that.

Turkey’s assertiveness is in line with a strategic ambition to become a global player — and a leader in the Islamic world whose power and influence can shape the region according to its vision.

“So, it’s not about energy,” says Ian O. Lesser, a political analyst with the U.S. think tank the German Marshall Fund. “It’s about a broader and increasingly animated Turkish vision of its own interests in the region.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is contending with political challengers and a weakened economy. Ankara also wants to push back against what it sees as a hostile, energy-based partnership between Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt that aims to exclude Turkey, says Lisel Hintz, professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International studies.

A maritime border deal that Turkey signed with Libya earlier this year partly aimed to show that no regional energy plans could proceed without Ankara’s input.

ROCKING THE BOAT

Turkey’s aggressive military posture in the eastern Mediterranean is seen as destabilizing the region and it isn’t winning it any friends.

“You’ll find few supporters, if any, on either side of the Atlantic .. .for the Turkish posture at this time,” Lesser says.

European Union members Greece and Cyprus have repeatedly invited Turkey to join these energy partnerships as long as Ankara gives up its bullying tactics and plays by the rules.

But according to Lesser, Turkey appears to be in no mood to take part in something that they feel would hem the country in and undercut its broader claims in the region. German-led diplomacy to get the two sides to pull back their forces and start talking has had so far less than stellar results.

A RATTLED EU

The 27-nation bloc has vacillated between appeals for calm and talk of tougher sanctions against Turkey.

But it’s unclear whether EU diplomacy or entreaties from Washington, whose own credibility has waned with Ankara, will succeed in reining in Turkey.

“The relationship with Turkey right now is at such a dysfunctional level with key European partners and also across the Atlantic, it’s very hard to engage in this kind of diplomacy with Ankara,” Lesser said.

Four million Syrians living in Turkey affords Ankara powerful leverage against Europe, which doesn’t want to see a fresh migrant influx, Hintz said.

TAKE IT TO COURT

Is there a legal way out of this wrangle? All sides claim international law is on their side regarding what their maritime borders are and how much of the east Mediterranean sea they can claim as having exclusive economic rights, so a court date to settle this would seem reasonable.

But Turkey has been reluctant to go down the legal route because it doesn’t have a strong case since many of its claims “fly in the face of established international law,” according to Lesser.

“If they go a straight legal judgment route, they probably feel that they’re in a weaker position and they may be right about that,” he says.

With its latest east Mediterranean gambit, Turkey risks overstretching itself given its military presence in Libya, and Syria.

But some operational successes in both those countries may have emboldened Ankara to pursue its interests “at a manageable cost with predictable outcomes,” especially in areas such as around Greece and Cyprus where Turkish public opinion is solidly behind Erdogan, Lesser says.

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