A great deal of uncertainty reigns in the wider Eastern Mediterranean. Old political fissures, such as the Turkish-Cypriot conflict, not to mention the Israel-Lebanon (and Iran) disputes, have been exacerbated by new developments with yet to be discerned consequences. The changing geopolitics of energy, following the gas discoveries by Cyprus, Egypt and Israel, the US-Turkish discord over Syria aggravated by Ankara’s purchase of a sophisticated Russian air defense missile system, and the resumed onslaught by Syrian and Russian forces on Idlib province trapping Turkish-backed oppositionists and even some Turkish forces, are all daggers pointing to the region’s fragile state.
Both the Turks and the Russians have for different reasons been unsettled by the emergence of a Cypriot-Egyptian-Israeli arrangement to export gas to Europe, buttressed by Greece and strong American support. Russia perceives these new fields (and there may be more to come) as potential competition to its dominance of the European market, where currently its pipelines that cross Turkey or the Baltic Sea already supply 40 percent of the European Union’s and 50 percent of Turkey’s needs. With two more pipelines close to completion, the Russians are not done yet.
Turkey could have solidified its role as a transit country; the most economical way for the Eastern Mediterranean gas to reach Europe is through Turkey. Ankara, which has had poor relations with all three countries and has occupied a significant chunk of Cypriot territory since 1974, has chosen to throw roadblocks at these efforts. It has challenged Cyprus’ right to drill, sent warships to chase away Italian seismic vessels contracted by Nicosia and indicated that it would engage in drilling in others’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). While Turkey claims to be protecting Turkish Cypriots’ rights, Cyprus as an EU member has the backing of that organization, which has threatened Turkey with sanctions because of the latter’s aggressive moves.
Potential spoilers are not limited to Turkey. Lebanon which has yet to discover any gas offshore has disagreements with Israel over the boundaries of their respective EEZs. More importantly, perhaps, is the presence of Iranian-client Hezbollah, which often operates independently of the Beirut government and could at Iran’s instigation try to interfere with gas operations. Hamas has already done so once.
This witches’ brew is made worse by domestic politics, the personalities of a number of strongmen who do not like to take no for an answer, disruptive technologies, ie, drones, and the overall unsettled geopolitics of the region.
Still at the heart of the uncertainty rests Ankara. Turkey feels increasingly isolated; its conflict with the US over the purchase and delivery S-400 Russian missile-defense batteries has created a major rift with Nato’s premier power. Washington immediately sidelined Turkey from the F-35 fighter aircraft program. Turks will not be receiving these state-of-the-art fighters, but equally critical, they are being eliminated from the F-35 production process. As a member of the consortium, Turkey was responsible for a segment of the production that promised to not only provide Ankara with much-needed foreign exchange earnings but also access to know-how in the all-important defense procurement industry.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan miscalculated, expecting that President Donald Trump would protect him from Congress and the Department of Defense, which perceive the S-400 to be a grave danger to the viability of the F-35 aircraft as it is feared the Russians would acquire – albeit indirectly – critical data on the F-35’s vulnerabilities and stealth technology.
If Erdogan thought that he would earn Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s enduring gratitude owing to the unprecedented purchase by a Nato country of advanced Russian military technology, he must be disappointed. Soon after the delivery of the first S-400s, the Russians began to push back hard on Turkey and its allies in Syria in a determined effort to extend Damascus’ writ over its territory. A Turkish military convoy in Idlib was “surgically” bombed by the Syrian air force (presumably in close cooperation with its Russian patrons) and prevented from advancing. Ankara’s greatest fear, rightly so, is that this recent Syrian/Russian advance will unleash yet another wave of refugees from Syria to its territory.
Turkey is now at odds with the Russians, the Americans and the Europeans, all at once. Erdogan’s perceived strategic vulnerability explains in part his increasingly erratic behavior at home.
Still, this does not mean that a major conflagration is about to start in the Eastern Mediterranean. For all the possible reasons suggested above, the fact remains that outright conflict is unlikely. Instead, what the region will experience is continuous and simmering tension manifested in the form of taunts and threats and even occasional minor skirmishes. There are two general reasons for this. First is the long gestation period between search, discovery and actual exploitation of the gas resources. Second, it is not in the interests of any of the major protagonists to fight it out as it would drive away investors and sully everyone’s reputation in the process.
Turkey’s isolation has nonetheless proven to be a windfall for the Cyprus-Egypt-Israel coalition as it enables the three countries to consolidate their relationship and further explore the means to export their gas. They formed the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, or EMGF, in July together with Greece, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority; though nascent, the EMGF has the ability to provide a degree of legitimacy, security and momentum as the partners seek means to export the gas. A much-discussed pipeline through Greece to Italy has been deemed far too expensive – $7 billion – given the available current quantities of gas, but the search for alternative routes, including liquified forms of transportation, are being actively considered.
Henri J Barkey is the Cohen Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations. Among other roles, he previously served as a member of the US State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, working primarily on issues related to the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean and intelligence.