Turkey Means Business in the Eastern Mediterranean

Erdogan is determined not to back down.

By: Hilal Khashan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is on a mission to remake the Eastern Mediterranean.

Within Turkish society and across the country’s fragmented political landscape, there is a consensus that the decision to cede islands in the Aegean Sea to Greece decades ago was a tremendous mistake.

Thus, in 2017, at a welcoming ceremony during the first visit to Greece by a Turkish president in 65 years, Erdogan stunned Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos by saying the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which established the borders of modern Turkey following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, needed to be revised.

It’s not hard to see why Erdogan places such stock in the region: The recent natural gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean are massive. For Turkey, gaining access to energy sources is a key foreign policy objective, and a matter of territorial sovereignty, entitlement and rectifying past injustices.

Ankara’s Demands

Much to Ankara’s chagrin, the Treaty of Lausanne essentially made the Aegean Sea a Greek lake and enabled Athens to challenge Turkey’s access to trade lanes at will. Turkey has never come to grips with the fact that, for example, the island of Kastellorizo (known as Meis in Turkish) that lies one mile from the Turkish coast and 360 miles (580 kilometers) from the Greek coast belongs to Greece.

What aggravates Turkey most is that the island, which measures 3.5 square miles, has a 15,500 square mile exclusive economic zone. Turkey did not envision this becoming an issue in 1923. But last week, the Greek government announced that it would submit a bill to expand Greek territorial waters in the Ionian Sea from six nautical miles to 12. Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said it would be a cause for war if Greece were to expand its territorial waters farther east where Turkish interests are at stake.

Turkey does not recognize maritime agreements that delineate waters around Cyprus’ coast. In 2017, it dispatched naval vessels to surveil a ship drilling on Cyprus’ behalf. A year later, it prevented another ship from prospecting in what it considers its continental shelf. Ankara lacks allies in the Eastern Mediterranean, save for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord in war-torn Libya, with which Turkey signed a maritime boundary agreement in November 2019 that drew sharp criticism from Greece and Egypt.

Turkey has used its Blue Homeland doctrine to justify expanding its jurisdiction to 177,000 square miles into the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean. It has even refused to sign the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea because it allocates EEZs to islands and islets, and thus would give jurisdiction over its expanded claims to other countries.

Anti-Turkish Coalition

The Blue Homeland doctrine is highly controversial, especially among Turkey’s neighbors. One of its main challengers in the Eastern Mediterranean is Greece, which says that Turkey’s hydrocarbon exploration operations violate its rights under the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf. Ankara, which didn’t sign the treaty, insists that it is defending its own rights. It believes that the European opposition to it stems from a European bias against Muslims.

In terms of military capabilities, Greece is no match for Turkey. It is therefore trying to secure the support of its allies. The European Union has backed Greece’s claims and threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey. The recently established seven-country EastMed Gas Forum has excluded Turkey, arguing that its EEZ – at least in the eyes of other Mediterranean nations – is small and irrelevant. Last month, Greece and Egypt signed a maritime agreement to demarcate their EEZs, several months after Turkey and the GNA agreed to a similar deal.

Greece and its allies have also held frequent naval and air exercises and threatened Turkey with war. The French, who have vociferously condemned Turkish escalation, added muscle to their rhetoric by sending naval vessels to the area.

France has a vested financial interest in the region; French oil giant Total stands to earn billions of dollars from its partnership with the EastMed Gas Forum.

Erdogan’s Determination

Erdogan has given up hope that Turkey will one day join the European Union. During his tenure, he’s visited countries like Russia, the United States and Qatar more often than European nations. Indeed, he has been anticipating trouble in the Eastern Mediterranean and preparing the Turkish navy for such a possibility through an ambitious modernization effort.

Erdogan is testing Europe and taking advantage of its indecisiveness and internal divisions. He violates Greek sovereignty in the Aegean Sea, for example, while simultaneously calling for dialogue. Meanwhile, he’s taking stock of the US. position, knowing that Washington will not let the situation escalate to war.

But if it does, Erdogan will not back down. He wants to rewrite history. Whether he succeeds is another matter. Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, drove Greek forces out of the Turkish mainland, and Erdogan wants to outdo him by making Turkey the dominant maritime power in the Eastern Mediterranean. But to do so, he must contend not only with Greece but also with France and the United Arab Emirates, both of which, he is convinced, are conspiring to limit Turkish influence.

Three weeks ago, France deployed a naval frigate and fighter jets to the Eastern Mediterranean amid tensions between Turkey and Greece. The UAE also sent warplanes recently to the Greek island of Crete for joint exercises, though it’s unclear how long they will remain there.

Indeed, the UAE has made a concerted effort to contain Turkey throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Horn of Africa, for example by using the al-Shabab Islamic movement to target its emerging ties with the Somali government.

Ankara simply can’t tolerate having UAE fighter jets flying a few miles off the Turkish coast, especially not after the UAE air force bombarded Libya’s al-Watiya air base near Tripoli and destroyed Turkish surface-to-air missile systems. Later this week, the Turkish navy is set to hold drills off the coast of Iskenderun in Hatay province near Cyprus.

The U.S. does not want war in the Eastern Mediterranean and has made it a point to avoid criticizing Turkey. Indeed, both the U.S. and Germany have stressed the need for dialogue to resolve the dispute.

But the U.S. will not turn on the Turks despite Greece's pleas to do so. In fact, the USS Winston Churchill has just completed joint exercises with the Turkish navy, illustrating Washington’s view of Turkey as an ally.

Turkey possesses military and diplomatic assets that are unmatched in the region, and should war break out, it would spell the demise of NATO. France may be capable of inflicting heavy losses on the Turks, but it cannot defeat them, and it’s a Western Mediterranean power anyway.

The French will eventually have to return to their side of the Mediterranean, but for the Turks, the Eastern Med is home.

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