Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Equation

It is time for the U.S. to remember its commitment to Turkey within the framework of the NATO partnership and launch a more productive way of dialogue between Turkey and other relevant states in the eastern Mediterranean, including Israel.

Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Equation
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It has not been easy to exploit regions across the globe with copious amounts of hydrocarbon resources without conflict and war. The world has witnessed and is witnessing this very fact in Africa and in the Middle East. With protracted conflicts, the eastern Mediterranean is also no exception. So many states, a good deal of estimated resources, but no concrete and fair action to yield benefit for regional countries.

More than 40 years of political conflict in Cyprus, an eight-year war in nearby Syria, which has led to global powers ramping up military capacity in the region, the possibility of attacks by various terrorist organizations, and the involvement of global powers, have left regional states crippled, unable to commercialize a gas reserve estimated to be around one-third of U.S. reserves and one-tenth of what Russian fields are predicted to contain. To put it briefly, the geopolitics of energy has not been hope for resolution and cooperation, but a cause to exacerbate existing tensions.

While gas producers elsewhere in the world, especially in Africa and America, are already capitalizing on exports, the players in the eastern Mediterranean that announced multiple discoveries in the last decade and which began modest production, are still yet to join the club of gas producers across the world.

The geopolitics of energy has not been hope for resolution and cooperation, but a cause to exacerbate existing tensions.

When American energy company Noble announced the first commercially viable amount of gas discovery in Israel’s Tamar field in 2009, with an estimated reserve of 280 billion cubic meters, regional countries relished the idea that they could also have gas in their respective exclusive economic zones (EEZ). The discovery of Leviathan in 2010 by the same company also encouraged other countries and administrations to enter the game. After unilaterally announcing its own EEZ, disregarding the rights of Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), the Greek Cypriot administration commissioned the Noble-Delek duo in drilling block 12 in the administration’s putative EEZ. The duo announced the discovery of the Aphrodite field estimated to harbor 128 billion cubic meters of gas in 2011. Moreover, in late February, a consortium of ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum also stated that they discovered 142 to 227 billion cubic meters of gas in so-called Block 10 located in the southwest of the island.

The Greek Cypriots have not yet monetized the resources in the Aphrodite field for eight years due to inadequate investments to launch the production. As a matter of fact, any investment project to carry gas is not possible without the inclusion of the Turkish people on the island and Turkey as a guarantor power.

Turkey and the TRNC oppose the unilateral claims of the Greek Cypriot administration and do not recognize the maritime border delimitation agreements it signed with Egypt, Lebanon, and Israel. The Turkish side views the waters on which the Greek Cypriots lay claim as disputed because they overlap with the continental shelf of the Turkish Republic while violating the rights of Turkish Cypriots to an equitable share in resources.

Any investment to carry gas from the eastern Mediterranean is not possible without the inclusion of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Turkey as a guarantor power. 

Blocks 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7, on which the Greek Cypriot administration has commissioned international energy companies like the Italian ENI and French Total for explorations, violates the country’s 200-mile continental shelf as well as the 14-mile territorial waters of the Turkish Cypriots under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which Turkey is not a party.

Turkey so far has proved its commitment to protecting its own rights and the rights of the Turkish Cypriots in the region without allowing any unilateral exploration and production activity let alone any pipeline project that trespasses its EEZ. One of the most decisive action was seen in February 2018 when Turkish frigates blocked ENI’s drilling vessel from moving to Block 3 as the Greek Cypriot administration had ordered.

Later on, Turkey accelerated its efforts to launch drilling operations when it sent its first drillship, Fatih, to the Mediterranean in October. As part of a deal made with the Turkish Cypriot government in 2011, Turkey’s seismic vessel Barbaros Hayreddin had been conducting surveys in the region since 2013.

In November 2018, reports emerged claiming that ENI and Total jointly applied to the Greek Cypriot administration for an exploration license despite Turkey’s warnings.

A camp without Turkey is impossible to succeed

In January, a new “alliance” under the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum was formed in Cairo between Greece, Italy, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, excluding two regional states, Turkey and Lebanon. While Israel announced that it will export gas to Egypt, Cairo agreed to resume its gas exports to Amman.

In March, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, President of the Greek Cypriot administration Nicos Anastasiades, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came together in Jerusalem to discuss Eastern Mediterranean politics and gas trade. They were also joined by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. His presence was the crystal-clear explanation of U.S. concerns over Russian involvement in the region and its close ties with the Israeli government.

“Eastern Mediterranean is an important strategic border. The U.S. is working to strengthen our relations with stable democracies and democratic allies there. Allies like Greece and Cyprus and Israel,” Pompeo said in his speech, underscoring the importance of safeguarding U.S. interests. This came at a time when Russia is conducting energy deals with Israel, boosting its military capacity in the region with military ships and as S-400 installations near Latakia are taking place. More so, Russia has taken command of the naval base at the port of Tartus.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to leave the Mediterranean until May 2013, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a 16-ship Mediterranean task force to operate in the waters around Syria. During the same year, Putin signed a 25-year agreement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to explore the country’s Block 2.

The escalating war in Syria finally opened a gateway for Russia into the eastern Mediterranean, ramping up its military capacity. In 2015, Moscow installed an S-400 SAM battery near Latakia, expanding its ability to monitor airspace over the eastern Mediterranean.

The escalating war in Syria finally opened a gateway for Russia into the eastern Mediterranean, ramping up its military capacity.

Despite endless efforts of the European Union and the U.S. to limit Russian energy dominance in the European market, which they see as a political tool for Russian President Putin, and to undermine its presence in one of the most strategic regions in the world by orchestrating gas pipeline projects, no concrete step has been taken so far other than numerous meetings and memoranda of understanding.

First proposed in 2012, the Eastern Mediterranean pipeline, dubbed EastMed, aimed to deliver gas in the region to southeast Europe via Greece, passing through the islands of Cyprus and Crete. The 2,220-kilometer-long pipeline passes through the islands of Cyprus and Crete and connecting Europe in Greece. Although Israel, the Greek Cypriot administration and Greece signed a $7 billion deal, hopes to realize this project are getting dimmer because of the high cost. More, all actors are aware that Turkey will not allow any such project that violates its own maritime borders and those of the TRNC.

The last turnout of events showed that Egypt might have hesitations about the “eastern Mediterranean” alliance designed by the U.S. and spearheaded by Israel as the North African country is preoccupied with promoting its own interest. While it seeks to produce regional gas at its own liquefied natural gas facilities, Idlu and Damietta voices its objection to the EastMed pipeline.

The last turnout of events showed that Egypt might have hesitations about the “eastern Mediterranean” alliance designed by the U.S. and spearheaded by Israel as the North African country is preoccupied with promoting its own interest.

Intensifying efforts to boost its own interest in the region and become an important gas player, Egypt is already working on different pipeline projects with Israel and the Greek Cypriot administration, bypassing the years-long EastMed dream. Without a doubt, Egypt’s opposition to the EastMed is not welcomed by the Greek Cypriot administration.

Egypt’s shift away from an Israel-led regional policy culminated in its decision to decline the attendance in the meeting of the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), an Arab NATO, held on April 7 in Riyadh. The project mainly aims to safeguard Israeli interests in the region and form an anti-Iran alliance.

On Tuesday, April 9 – a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Moscow – a bipartisan bill was introduced by Republican Marc Rubio and Democrat Robert Menendez. The bill titled “Eastern Mediterranean Security and Partnership Act” suggests that the arms embargo on the Greek Cypriot administration be lifted. While increasing military program funding and reintroducing Foreign Military Assistance for Greece, the bill also proposes for the U.S. to align itself with Israel, Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration in the region by engaging in active energy diplomacy to utilize the discovered reserves. Ultimately, it also recommends the halt of F-35 deliveries to Turkey and monitoring of Russian activity in the region.

Intensifying efforts to boost its own interest in the region and become an important gas player, Egypt is already working on different pipeline projects with Israel and the Greek Cypriot administration, bypassing the years-long EastMed dream.

It is evident that the bill is only another example portraying the core philosophy of the U.S. policy in the region. The U.S. and its “new partners” in the region keep forgetting that Turkey has the longest continental coastline in the eastern Mediterranean and the country has repetitively submitted its lawful maritime borders to the United Nations. Recently, Turkey’s Permanent Representative to United Nations Feridun Sinirlioğlu again stressed in a letter that Turkey has sovereign rights in the maritime areas of the eastern Mediterranean that are west of meridian 3216’18” E. In his letter, Sinirlioğlu underscored that any activity of Turkish vessels in the region falls entirely within the limits of the Turkish continental shelf.

On numerous occasions, Turkey expressed its support for the equitable share of the regional resources and a peaceful resolution to the conflicts. In order to strongly utilize its rights in the region, Turkey should increase its regional diplomatic efforts with other NATO allies and invite international energy companies for exploration activities in its EEZ in the Mediterranean.

U.S. efforts to arm Greece and Greek Cypriots are definitely a move against Turkey, its NATO ally. But, the U.S. and its “allies” in the region should bear in the mind that Turkey is a NATO member and has the second largest army in the pact, and it will continue to protect its interests.

The U.S. and its “new" partners in the region keep forgetting that Turkey has the longest continental coastline in the eastern Mediterranean and the country has repetitively submitted its lawful maritime borders to the United Nations.

It is time for the U.S. to remember its commitment to Turkey within the framework of the NATO partnership and launch a more productive way of dialogue between Turkey and other relevant states in the eastern Mediterranean, including Israel.

Turkey’s huge natural gas market, with an annual consumption of 55 billion cubic meters, and its strong infrastructure with pipelines and LNG terminals makes the country a significant destination for gas imports. Additionally, it established a natural gas trading mechanism to ensure a daily reference pricing mechanism under its Energy Stock Exchange (EPİAŞ) in September 2018. The liberalizing gas market and its interconnectors to Europe offers Turkey and other countries in the eastern Mediterranean that want to enter the global gas market as producers a lucrative opportunity. Considering the suspending problems with the ongoing projects to exploit the eastern Mediterranean reserves and the gas infrastructure in the country, it becomes urgent to include Turkey in any project. 

The largest economy in the region with the strongest military capability, Turkey is and will remain an indispensable ally if the parties in the eastern Mediterranean and beyond see the monetization of resources as well as the institution of stability.

Elif Erşen
Elif Erşen is currently the economy editor at Daily Sabah. Her primary areas of interest include energy politics, sanctions, and defense industry. She holds a masters degree from Sabancı University and received her BA from Boğaziçi University.