Turkey Turns Up the Dial in Eastern Mediterranean

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A long-simmering conflict at Europe’s doorstep is coming to a boil. In the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey is in a face-off with a coalition led by Greece, including Cyprus, Egypt and Israel, and backed by the European Union. At stake is the right to explore the off-shore hydrocarbon resources of this maritime zone. The growing tensions are threatening to spill over into the battlefields of Libya.

Since the discovery of offshore gas in the Eastern Mediterranean a decade ago, littoral states have sought to leverage these natural resources. But in pursuit of national interests, they have deployed mutually exclusive interpretations of international law.

A key requirement was the delimitation of the maritime borders between the littoral states. This would then allow a partition of the resources based on the exclusive economic zones of the respective countries. It was with this objective in mind that in years past Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel concluded a set of bilateral agreements.

But this was seen in Ankara as a predatory effort designed to foreclose these resources and to limit Turkey’s access to the undersea riches.

The source of the friction is two-fold. The first one relates to the ongoing political division of Cyprus. The agreements are concluded by the internationally recognized government in Nicosia, but don’t incorporate sufficient guarantees that the economic benefits will be fairly shared with the Turkish population of the island. As a result, with the backing of Ankara, Turkish Cypriots have refused to acknowledge the validity of these contractual arrangements.

Secondly, the agreements are based on the principle that islands impact the delimitation of maritime borders, and by extension have their own continental shelf and exclusive economic zone. This understanding, which stems from the relevant provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, allows littoral states in possession of islands to greatly expand their area of maritime sovereignty.

But as all international treaties, UNCLOS only binds its signatory parties. Turkey was not party to the convention back in 1982 when it was negotiated, essentially because it disagreed with the principle of maritime rights granted to islands under this international legal instrument. As a result, Turkey feels it is not bound to accept an arrangement that grants extensive maritime rights to the Mediterranean islands including a continental shelf and an exclusive economic zone. Ankara also contests efforts by other littoral states to carve out their own enlarged exclusive economic zone on the basis of the conglomeration of island formations.

Turkey’s non-recognition of these rights is not illegal under international law. This is a situation similar to the status of Israel and India under the Non Proliferation Treaty: it is not legally wrong for either of them to possess nuclear weapons since they are not signatories. But, for good measure, Ankara argues that even under UNCLOS, disagreements over maritime borders should be settled by negotiations, rather than parties unilaterally imposing their own interpretations about the exact contours of their maritime borders. 

The dispute is not limited to cartography and diplomacy. Turkey has sent its navy into the contested waters, to prevent international oil companies that were granted concessions by the other countries, to undertake exploration and drilling there. It also sent its own ships to undertake offshore drilling in the contested zone, leading the EU to impose sanctions.

In a new twist, Ankara has convinced the internationally-recognized government of Libya—the so-called Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli—to sign a memorandum of understanding to delimit the maritime boundaries between Libya and Turkey. The Turkish-Libyan sea map overlaps with maritime zones claimed by Greece. Athens reacted by expelling the Libyan ambassador to Greece, and complaining to the U.N.

In exchange for the GNA’s agreeing to the maritime deal, Turkey has committed to upgrade its military support for the beleaguered leadership in Tripoli. Until recently, assistance was largely limited to military assets, like drones. But now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he could send troops to Libya if the Tripoli government requests it.

Libya is a theatre for proxy wars, with Turkey-backed government forces battling the armed opposition led by General Khalifa Haftar, who in turn is supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. More recently, Russia has entered the conflict on Haftar’s side. (As in the earlier days of the conflict in Syria, Turkey and Russia finds themselves supporting opposite camps.)

Clearly, the international community needs to find a path towards deconfliction in the Eastern Mediterranean—but how? A key requirement is mature dialogue over potential maritime borders between the littoral states, and particularly between Turkey and Greece. This is an area where the incoming EU leadership should take a proactive role. It will require Brussels to revisit its stance on unconditional support to member states, instead incentivizing them to settle their differences with Turkey through negotiations.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sinan Ulgen is the executive chairman of Istanbul-based think tank EDAM and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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