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Tensions between Turkey and Greece May Flare Up in the Eastern Mediterranean

The natural gas exploration activities in the East Mediterranean in the 2000s revealed that there is a great economic potential in the region. But new opportunities have come with new challenges and crises as they remain susceptible to regional conflicts arising from the fact that maritime borders between the littoral states were not demarcated before the gas discoveries were made, or from the way these borders overlap.

Gas under the seafloor of the Eastern Mediterranean was first discovered in the 1970s by Egypt but they were small discoveries close to Egypt’s shores. Israel found offshore gas reservoirs in the 1990s and early 2000s, prompting regional countries’ appetite to search more. By 2009, large pockets of gas were found in an Israeli offshore gas field named Tamar. More major discoveries followed it: the Aphrodite field near Cyprus; the Leviathan in Israeli waters; and in 2015, a supergiant field in Egyptian waters called Zohr.

In all, researchers say that Eastern Mediterranean area, known as the Levantine basin, a region between Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria and Israel, has proven reserves of more than 1.7 trillion cubic meter (60 trillion cubic feet) of gas. But a report, published by USGS-US Geological Survey in 2010, an estimated 3.45 trillion cubic meters (122 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas and 1.7 billion barrels of oil lie in the Levantine basin. That amount of gas is equivalent to about 76 years of gas consumption of the EU.

USGS also announced that approximately 1.8 billion barrels of oil, 6.3 trillion cubic meters (223 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas and 6 billion barrels of liquid natural gas reserves in the Nile Delta basin. Moreover, there is around 8 billion barrels of oil reserves around the island of Cyprus, according to experts. It is also estimated that there is a total of 3.5 trillion cubic meters (124 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas in the south and southeast area of ​​Crete, which is called “Herodotus basin”.

That means there is a lot of gas in the Eastern Mediterranean and more can be found in the near future. In this gas frenzy, Turkey has been hitting the headlines recently. It has a good reason for this as it is being cut out of a lucrative new gas horizon at its front door by other littoral states, Greece, the Greek Cypriot Administration, Israel and Egypt.

Despite having one of the longest coastlines in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey’s maritime claims are hemmed in by numerous Greek islands that abut right up to Turkey; also, its maritime boundaries are restricted by the large island of Cyprus 72 kilometers (45 miles) off the Turkish coast. To counter being locked into a small area in the Gulf of Antalya losing at least half of its maritime territory, last November, Turkey signed an agreement with the United Nations-backed government in war-torn Libya staking out maritime rights over the sea between the two countries.

Since the agreement is signed, Turkey has been accused of its own drilling activities in the Middle East and blocking a prospective pipeline being built between Cyprus and Greece, a project also known as the East Med pipeline. Ankara, in the meantime, says that there is an attempt to prevent it from taking its share in the Eastern Mediterranean underlining that East Med Gas Forum, led by Greece, the Greek Cypriot Administration, Israel and Egypt, has become an anti-Turkey coalition aiming to isolate it from the region.

With Turkey importing about 98% of its gas and more than 90% of its petroleum, it says that it just wants to have a fair share in the Eastern Mediterranean. The only way to solve the ongoing disputes in the region and to avoid the potential ones in the future can be reached through negotiations held by all the coastal states not excluding any, Ankara states.

Tensions in the region has flared up this summer, after Turkey issued a Navigational Telex (Navtex) and sent a gas exploration vessel, the Oruc Reis, into the waters off the coast of Kastellorizo (also known as Megisti or Meis), a Greek island that is the focal point of the maritime dispute between Turkey and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean, which sites only two miles from Turkey’s southern shore, in line with its energy exploration plans in the areas indicated in the deal between Turkey and Libya. Arguing that Turkey was violating Greece’s continental shelf by sending its ships near Kastellorizo, Athens issued a counter-Navtex and placed its navy on alert, causing a war scare in the Western world. Turkey yet again rebuffed Greek’s claim based on the island of Kastellorizo, saying that the island did not have a continental shelf.

Ankara put on hold Oruc Reis’ drilling activities at the request of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Taking over the rotating presidency of the Council of European Union, Germany worked hard on to give a chance to diplomacy and resume the talks between the two NATO allies and neighbors, Greece and Turkey, and to find a solution for the revenue sharing of the hydrocarbon reserves in the East Mediterranean. The talks between Turkey and Greece was expected to be started; however, Greece and Egypt declared on August 6 that they signed a maritime delimitation agreement in the Eastern Mediterranean. Claiming that the agreement is “null and void”, Turkish sources said that Greece did not keep its promise and that the agreement between Greece and Egypt signed just a day before the announcement of the date when the talks between Greece and Turkey would begin.

As a response, Turkey on Aug. 10 issued a new Navtex saying its seismic research vessel, Oruç Reis, will continue drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean until Aug. 23. Angrily, Greece told Turkey to stay away from its waters and even threatened to fire upon Turkish vessels. Then in a brazen move against a fellow NATO member, French President Emmanuel Macron sent a French naval frigate and two fighter jets to deter further Turkish gas activity in the disputed Mediterranean waters.

On Sept 13, Oruc Reis returned to waters near the southern province of Antalya after its Navtex expired. The reason was maintenance and supplies, Ankara said. It was interpreted as a move that could ease tensions between Ankara and Athens. In less than two weeks, welcoming Merkel’s efforts for dialogue, Turkey said that it had agreed with Greece to start the exploratory talks. Greece also said that they were ready to start talks soon.

However, on Oct. 3, Greece issued two new Navtex covering a wide range of area including Turkey’s area of responsibility, triggering new tensions between the two countries. Then again on Oct. 8, Greece announced Navtex for maritime shooting drills in the Aegean Sea, including October 29, Turkey’s Republic Day. In response, Turkey issued its own Navtex for shooting drills for a day prior, Oct. 28.

And today, we are back to square one. Turkey’s Oruc Reis seismic research vessel left Antalya Port this week following the declaration of a new 10-day-long Navtex in the Eastern Mediterranean. While the exploratory talks between two countries were expected to be started, the recent Navtex declarations of Greece and Turkey carries the risk of resuming the recent tension in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Merve Şebnem Oruç is an award-winning Turkish journalist and columnist for Daily Sabah and HABER. She is on Twitter here.