Are Greece and Turkey Locked in a Mediterranean Forever War?

Are Greece and Turkey Locked in a Mediterranean Forever War?

With all four states—Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Turkey—heading into a heated election year, preserving a fragile status quo may seem like the best bet.

On July 10, Devlet Bahceli, the leader of Turkey’s right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) was photographed receiving a framed map of the Aegean that illustrated Greek islands as far as Crete (at least 225 miles away) as Turkish, painted in the flag’s crescent and star. Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted in response: “A fever dream of extremists or Turkey’s official policy? Another provocation or the true goal?” The map was gifted by the Grey Wolves, an ultra-nationalist Turkish group affiliated with the MHP, the junior partner of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Tensions have been simmering between Greece and Turkey for decades, only compounded with the discovery of large gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean, which exacerbated the problem of areas of overlapping maritime zones. In recent months, however, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Europe’s scramble to secure alternatives to energy imports from Moscow have added urgency to tapping the region’s major offshore gas reserves.

With a 5,200-mile coastline that is longer than the U.S.-Mexico border, Turkey has consistently expressed its frustration over being encircled and excluded in the eastern Mediterranean and has not shied away from exercising its military might to defend its controversial Blue Homeland doctrine. Longstanding enmity between Athens and Ankara revolves around several protracted disputes and appear nowhere near being resolved: a political settlement over Cyprus, the maritime delimitation of mutually contested Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the eastern Mediterranean, and Ankara’s unease with the militarization of Greek islands in the Aegean in violation of international treaties.

What would it take to set off a military confrontation between the two sides? Not much, despite NATO’s deconfliction mechanism between the two alliance members. According to George Tzogopoulos, a scholar on regional energy geopolitics, Greek-Turkish relations have entered a dangerous spiral in the last two years. While not immediately likely, it is possible that a military accident could occur at any time in the eastern Mediterranean, with the potential escalation largely dependent on the capacity of the United States to protect NATO’s South-Eastern flank.

More recent months had seen Turkey and Greece give talks a chance after tensions heated up in 2019-2020 over competing sovereignty claims in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. At the time, Ankara deployed seismic research ships to waters contested by Greece and the Republic of Cyprus and signed a controversial maritime delimitation agreement with Libya that was wholly rejected by Greece and its allies.

In a recent spat, however, Erdogan said he would not meet with Mitsotakis after he urged Washington to reconsider F-16 fighter jet sales to Turkey. In April, Greece canceled Turkey’s participation in a Greece-hosted NATO air drill, saying Turkey was “neither an ally, nor a friend.” In June, Erdogan said Turkey had canceled a bilateral cooperation platform, dubbed the High-Level Strategic Council, with Greece, adding, “Don’t try to dance with Turkey. You’ll get tired and stuck on the road. We are no longer holding bilateral talks with them. This Greece will not see reason.”

Far-right antics such as Bahceli’s are a thorn in the side of Turkish policy, and prevent Turkey’s neighbors from taking Turkish interests and priorities seriously. In particular, Greece and Turkey are at loggerheads over the maritime rights of islands in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s position would ignore including Greek islands from an EEZ delimitation, whereas Greece argues that its islands—even those that hug the Turkish coastline—have maritime rights indistinguishable from, or in an equal capacity to, its mainland, including Kastellorizo, the smallest of Greece’s Dodecanese islands with a population of around 500 and only 2.1 km (1.3 miles) from Turkey’s Antalya. To be fair, the lack of clear guidance on the status of islands in delimitation law makes this a prickly subject. In 2020, legal scholar Yunus Emre Acikgonul drew up a map to show what an equitable solution in the eastern Mediterranean would look like based on previous relevant case law and tribunal decisions. The map shows that neither side would achieve its maximalist maritime projections.

Cyprus in the Middle

Looming over maritime sovereignty disputes between the two sides is the conflict over the island of Cyprus, which is divided between EU member state the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC), recognized only by Turkey. The long-held consensus among stakeholders is that without a political settlement over Cyprus, there can be no energy deal that includes Cyprus (and by extension Greece) and Turkey. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has radically changed the energy calculus for Europe. It may be time to flip the zero-sum approach and build a pipeline that connects Cypriot and Israeli gas to Turkey, which could then be transported to European markets through the existing Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) pipeline, before a comprehensive settlement is reached, not after.

This is obviously controversial: a pipeline from Israel’s Leviathan field to Turkey would run through Cypriot waters, requiring Cyprus’ consent under international law. However, ad hoc commercial energy agreements between the parties and energy companies (with possible third-party guarantors) could offer a more cost-effective and quicker solution that could carry around 10-16 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year, according to Elai Rettig, a scholar at Bar-Ilan University. Collaboration on a joint energy project would serve as a confidence-building measure in real-time where all sides stand to benefit, boosting the chances that political negotiations, though tough, would open up with time.

In 2019, the TRNC proposed creating a joint committee with seats for an equal number of Greek and Turkish Cypriots, under the auspices of the United Nations, as well as the EU taking part as an observer. The proposal was promptly rejected by the Greek Cypriot government. Earlier this month, the TRNC reiterated the proposal, this time adding that the committee would also include representatives of oil companies authorized by both sides.

The other option is to pipe gas to two existing LNG terminals in Egypt’s LNG facilities in Idku and Damietta, which shipped 8.9 bcm of LNG in 2021. This is the least diplomatically complex option favored by the United States and EU currently. But without additional investments in infrastructure, Egypt is not expected to boost capacity significantly in the short term (more on this later).

Earlier this year, the United States withdrew its backing of the technically complex and uneconomic EastMed gas pipeline which planned to connect Israeli and Cypriot gas fields in the Mediterranean to Greece and Italy, from where liquified natural gas would have been shipped to European countries. This renewed optimism in Ankara. Waiting for a political settlement over Cyprus, a “frozen” conflict since the 1970s, or trying to circumvent Turkey will not deliver gas soon or fast enough.

Israel as Kingmaker

With Greece and Turkey in deadlock, Israel has emerged as kingmaker in the eastern Mediterranean. Strategic alliance building in the eastern Mediterranean accelerated along two significant axes over the last decade: Greece-Cyprus-Israel and Egypt-Israel. Israel has two operational gas fields off its Mediterranean coast with an estimated 690 bcm of natural gas reserves.

A desire to strengthen opportunities to export gas to European markets is shared by both Greece and Israel. A mutual suspicion of the AKP government is another factor, which has translated into commercial deals in the security sector. According to the Greek daily Kathimerini, Greece has recently acquired an anti-unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) system to defend its islands and other important sites across the country. Equipped with Israeli technology and like the Drone Dome, the system will interrupt the flight capacity of armed UAVs, such as the Bayraktar TB2 Turkish drone, which have been used successfully in combat operations in Ukraine’s fight against Russia in recent months. Greece is readying for a worst-case scenario and is aware that Israel would under no circumstances be involved in a Greek-Turkish standoff.

Meanwhile, trilateral energy cooperation is moving forward as well. The Euro-Asia interconnector, a 1,500-kilometer cable project costing approximately $825 million beneath the Mediterranean will link up the electricity grids of Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, and is due to be completed in 2024. In June, Israel, Egypt, and the European Union signed a deal in Cairo to boost gas exports to Europe. This builds on a $15 billion deal agreed in 2018 that allows Israel to export gas from the Tamar and Leviathan offshore gas fields to Egypt, where it is liquefied and shipped to European countries. According to industry officials, Israel is expected to double gas output to about 40 bcm a year as it expands projects and brings new fields online.

Israel is a prototypical pragmatic actor, carefully hedging its bets and balancing ties with partiers in the service of its own national interests. By serving as a fulcrum, Israel can indirectly neutralize provocation while facilitating talks on energy cooperation between Greece and Turkey, as both sides continue to try to bring Jerusalem on their side. Israel can also move to influence Cyprus to agree to a commercial energy deal in advance of a political agreement on the island’s status, conditional on a schedule of negotiations for a comprehensive settlement, and a mechanism for adjudication in case of violations of the framework.