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Situation Update - Greece and Turkey Dispute

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  • Greece and Turkey are engaged in a maritime territorial dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean driven by conflicting ambitions to exploit oceanic hydrocarbon reserves.
  • Competing interpretations of maritime demarcations define the impasse, whereby Greece argues that each of its islands spawn an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) while Turkey claims its entire continental shelf as its territory.
  • Turkey additionally claims that seldom internationally recognised Northern Cyprus is entitled to oceanic resources and specifies its maritime boundaries as stretching into the Levantine Basin.
  • The impact on travellers moving through the region is currently limited as both governments are sensitive to undermining the tourism sector which may play a critical role in any post-COVID-19 economic recovery.
  • The commercial viability of hydrocarbon extraction efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean may be impaired by low gas prices and EU decarbonisation policies that are likely to more aggressively disincentivise the use of fossil fuels in the coming years and decades.
  • Geopolitical positioning in the region is increasingly coalescing around the Greco-Turkish dispute with Turkey and its two close allies of Northern Cyprus and Libya’s Tripoli-based GNA versus a looser alignment comprised of Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, France, Israel, Egypt and Libya’s Tobruk-based LNA.

Situation

Greece and Turkey are engaged in an increasingly belligerent dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean, driven by conflicting ambitions to exploit oceanic hydrocarbon reserves in the region. The most recent manifestation of this impasse has been Turkey’s redeployment of the Oruç Reis research vessel on 12 October to conduct seismic surveying in disputed waters south of Kastellorizo, a Greek island of the Dodecanese positioned just two kilometres from Turkey’s shores. The research expedition was originally scheduled to last ten days, though on 22 October Turkey’s navy announced an extension of the mission until 27 October whereby the Oruç Reis will continue its surveying work in an area south-east of Rhodes. Such mapping preliminarily gauges the potential for oil and gas deposits and is a typical prerequisite to more invasive exploratory efforts.

Athens has since condemned the presence of the Oruç Reis on the basis of alleging an intrusion on Greek waters, whilst simultaneously Ankara has emphasised that Greece has no mandate to oppose Turkish naval activity in such proximity to its mainland. The Oruç Reis has symbolic relevance due to being the same ship that prompted Greek denouncement after it was similarly deployed to disputed waters south of Kastellorizo in August, with the vessel being withdrawn in September ahead of an EU summit that was held specifically to discuss the evolving Greco-Turkish dispute.

Competing maximalist interpretations of maritime demarcations are the defining characteristic of the contestation, borne out of the Eastern Mediterranean’s cragged geography. Athens invokes the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to argue that each of its scattered islands are entitled to a maritime perimeter which when aggregated comprise an area where Greece bears sole drilling rights. The UNCLOS stipulates that a country’s territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles out to sea whilst its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) can encompass an additional 200 nautical miles, within which the state in question has an exclusive claim to the exploitation of natural resources. Where the maritime distance between two states causes an overlap in EEZs, respective governments must reach a consensus on the position of the dividing boundary.

Unlike most states, Turkey has not signed the UNCLOS whereby acceptance would pose severe logistical restrictions on its ability to access the Levantine Basin, an area located at the extremity of the Eastern Mediterranean that has proven to hold significant hydrocarbon reserves. Turkey’s aversion to the UNCLOS also derives from security concerns associated with being westwardly beset by Greece’s archipelagic Aegean islands, whereby signing the treaty would severely undermine the ability of the Turkish navy to move between the Bosporus and the Mediterranean. Accordingly, Ankara contravenes by declaring its exclusive economic maritime claim as extending to fit the entire Turkish continental shelf and rejects the notion that Greece’s island territories can spawn EEZs.

An additional key aspect relates to Cyprus, whereby the Greek-aligned Republic of Cyprus adheres to the aforementioned principles of maritime delimitation set out in the UNCLOS. Lacking the same degree of international recognition, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus enjoys no legal basis to claim its own internationally recognised EEZ. However, Ankara insists that Northern Cyprus is entitled to oceanic resources and specifies maritime boundaries that stretch into the Levantine Basin whereby Athens’ acceptance of the claim would prevent its access to this lucrative area. Taken together, Greek versus Turkish interpretations of maritime zones are irreconcilably in encroachment of each other.

Implications

Historically, the Eastern Mediterranean has been a popular holidaying destination with both Greek and Turkish coastal localities depending on tourism for financial sustenance. Risk to travellers moving through the region is consequently low, with both governments aware that any direct clashes impacting foreigners would undermine a sector that could play a significant role in a post-COVID-19 economic recovery. The limited scope for a Greco-Turkish conflict is further due to downward pressure associated with both states’ membership in NATO. On 1 October, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the implementation of a “bilateral military deconfliction mechanism” which includes the establishment of a hotline for Greek and Turkish senior officials in the event of confrontation.

Simultaneously, the territorialised and zero-sum aspect of the dispute places Athens and Ankara in positions whereby compromising in an attempt to de-escalate would result in the other side taking advantage of the circumstances to procure more favourable conditions to the detriment of whoever makes a concession. Accordingly, the increasingly securitised Eastern Mediterranean is likely to continue to be limited to provocative naval and aeronautical manoeuvres by either side, whereby action such as Turkey’s redeployment of the Oruç Reis to contested waters is analogous to Greek and Turkish fighter planes deliberately violating each other’s airspace in the Aegean to signify a rejection of its rival’s expression of sovereignty. Posturing and political rhetoric are therefore the tools with which Greece and Turkey can influence any final delimitations of each other’s maritime territory.

Both Athens and Ankara are understandably keen on any material promise from the discoveries of oil and gas reserves amidst economic strain associated with COVID-19, with the potential for financial salvation being especially pertinent to Greece whose economy is still recovering from its debilitating government debt crisis that ensued in the aftermath of the 2008 credit crunch. However, the commercial viability of hydrocarbon extraction in the Eastern Mediterranean is increasingly precarious.

Under pressure from investors and even before COVID-19 undermined energy demand, recent years have seen oil and gas companies impelled to reduce capital spending. Any commercially successful effort in the region will have to surmount high upfront infrastructural costs due to deep sea-beds and the need to lay down extensive piping to reach key European markets. This commercial challenge is made even more difficult owing to the EU’s environmental initiatives which disincentivise the profitability of fossil fuels to attain decarbonisation targets, policies which are likely to become increasingly aggressive by the time any hydrocarbon exporting efforts from the Eastern Mediterranean are fully operational in the late 2020s or early 2030s.

Geopolitical positioning in the region is increasingly coalescing around the Greco-Turkish dispute, with the impasse cohering the emergence of two distinct blocs. The first is united around Turkey with its close allies of Northern Cyprus and Libya’s Tripoli-based and UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), whereby the GNA has signed a bi-lateral deal with Ankara mapping out Turkish and Libyan continental shelves and accompanying EEZs west of the Levantine Basin. The second is aligned with Greece and includes the core EU allies of the Republic of Cyprus and France but also involves a looser set of relationships with Israel, Egypt and Libya’s Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (LNA).

Greece has signed its own bi-lateral agreement with Egypt marking an exclusive economic area between the two countries and crucially infringes on the maritime zone demarcated by the Turkish-GNA deal. Furthermore, in January of this year Israel, Greece and the Republic of Cyprus signed an agreement to construct the EastMed pipeline which will bring hydrocarbons from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe via Greece in an effort to bypass Turkey, presently scheduled for completion in 2025. French involvement has taken the form of President Emmanuel Macron attempting to show leadership on regional security matters by advocating for European Mediterranean states to form a “Pax Mediterranea”, explicitly citing what he describes as Ankara’s “unilateral” hydrocarbon explorative activities as the justification for doing so.