Sailing in choppy waters

Given the long standing emnity between Greece and Turkey, which goes as far back in history as theold, now defunct Ottoman empire, it is no surprise that the tensions between the former master and subject have been spilling over in the waters of the Eastern Mediteranean Sea in the recent weeks and months. This time round, the pretext for the animosity is the race to find natural resources in the seas which surround both countries.

In recent times, Turkey has followed an aggressive effort in the sphere of gas exploration, with its research vessel closely protected by warships of their national Navy. There have even been encounters with rival Greek ships and their Nato colleagues, France, have also got in on the act, this time weighing anchor on the side of the Greeks.

And recently it’s was announced that a small contingent of F-16 warplanes from the Arab state of the United Arab Emirates was in the process of deploying their forces to an air base on the island of Crete for military exercises with their counterparts from Greece. This is said to be a routine deployment. It is clear though that what we see happening is dangerous, complex and has the potential to heighten existing cold battle lines in the region.

Attached on to this, there are also the regional or geo-strategic rivalries that have the potential too to entice the launch of a much more confident Turkey against many other players. The field of battle for his competitive match stretches from Libya over the seas of the Eastern Mediterranean to coast of Syria and a lot further.

These tensions which we are laying witness to at the moment are actual and are on the increase. There is a concern that other states could join forces in their opposition to Turkey and the ambitions that they have in the region and that this might make Turkey feel ever more isolated. This policy runs the risk of the country becoming ever more confident in its approach to Greece.

There is also a further shift in the region, which has been underlined by the Eastern Mediterranean tensions, and that is the apparent demise of US might or, maybe to put it better, the demise of the Trump government’s strategic interest in what is happening in the area.

It could be said that it is all about gas. Quite a few states in the neighborhood have either discovered important gas fields or are in fact looking to find them. This fact can have very different results. It could be said that it fires up already existing national rivalries, with continuous confrontations about the delineation of coastal boundaries, who is the owner of which part of undersea territory and the likes.

Honestly, agreements to recognise the rights of respective countries have in fact just accentuated tension. In just 2019, Turkey put pen to paper on a maritime accord with the administration in Libya of a National Accord and started to resume renewed gas exploration in the regions that their neighbours Greece feel are its own backyard and its own economic zone.

There was friction as a result. Recently, Greece, and their counterparts across the sea Egypt, signed a so-called maritime boundary agreement, inciting anger in Ankara, a renewed effort to find gas and even some naval deployments in the Eastern Mediteranean Sea.

It is interesting to note that while energy exploration a lot of the time just has the result of heightening friction and rivalry and in the longer term could also ignite an aviation and naval arms race in the area, a huge effort is going to be needed if the countries are to get the most out of the gas economically.

For further exploration to take place, pipelines and other vulnerable infrastructure have to be put in place. These have to cross several countries’ submarine “territory” if they are to in the end make landfall, for vital markets in Europe.

A fledgling international infrastructure is being established for the potential energy producers of the Mediterranean basin and this could ultimately help to reduce tensions, maybe even offering a path to the resolution of the long-standing Cyprus problem as well. 

On the other hand, small pretext has to be given for the tension to erupt again, so only time will tell whether this current spate of bad feeling will die down. The whole region holds its breath.