Regional and international actors have anxiously and cautiously followed Turkey’s increasing activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. More recently, the Greek Administration of Southern Cyprus is particularly disturbed by the recent actions of Turkey in the region. Nicosia has made strong criticism towards Turkey and has threatened Ankara with freezing funds from the European Union. The Greek side has also called for regional and international alliances to put pressure on Turkey in order for the country to stop its activities in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The comments came after Turkey’s first oil-drilling vessel, Fatih, launched its deep-sea operations in the Eastern Mediterranean earlier this week. The Greek Administration of Southern Cyprus harshly criticized the move. The Greek Cypriot foreign ministry argued that Turkey’s drilling actions have been taking place in waters where Nicosia claims to have exclusive economic rights. The Greek Cypriot side also claims that Turkey’s activities are undermining the sovereignty of the country under international law. However, Turkey stresses that it has the right to search for natural gas in this area, as Turkey’s rights in these waters was accepted by a UN resolution. Turkey also argues that all its activities have been taking place in its exclusive economic zone.
Following the launch of Turkey’s drilling vessel activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Greek Cypriot administration tried to increase pressure by threatening to arrest the crew of Turkey’s drillship, Fatih. In response to the Greek Cypriot claims, the Turkish foreign ministry stated, "We will continue to protect our own rights and interests within our continental shelf, as well as those of the Turkish Cypriots.” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also stated, "We have already finished exploration activities and now Fatih will start drilling operations. We will soon send our second ship to the region.” These announcements prove that Turkey’s right in the Eastern Mediterranean is a red-line for Ankara and that the Turkish government will not retreat from its planned activities in the region, despite pressure from regional and international actors.
Turkey’s right in the Eastern Mediterranean is a red-line for Ankara and the Turkish government will not retreat from its planned activities in the region.
There are four main reasons why the Eastern Mediterranean is vital for Turkey. First of all, Turkey is a giant energy importer state and is dependent on other countries such as Russia and Iran in order to fulfill its energy needs. Ankara’s hydrocarbon imports reached to 45 billion USD in 2018, which is a serious pressure on the budget, as the Lira has weakened in comparison to last year. For this reason, it is crucial for Turkey to find its own natural resources in order to reduce dependency on foreign markets. With its huge proven reserves by other countries, the Eastern Mediterranean is a vital area for Turkey to explore oil and natural gas resources. Any discovery of these resources by Turkey will significantly contribute to Ankara’s future development plans. As the Turkish economy will continue to grow, the need for energy will also increase. Therefore, natural gas and oil resources in the Eastern Mediterranean are vital for Turkey’s growing population and energy demands.
The second reason amounts to Turkey’s aspiration to become a major hub for energy transfer from the East to the West. With a number of completed projects in this sector, Turkey serves as a key transit route for hydrocarbon resources from the Middle Eastern and Asian markets to Europe. Most analysts argue that Turkey is the best option to transport oil and gas resources from the Eastern Mediterranean to European markets. However, geopolitical rivals such as Egypt, Israel, and Greece, are trying to undermine Turkey’s role in this sector. Therefore, it is Ankara’s aim to become the major actor for transporting energy resources from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe. While such developments will increase Turkey’s geo-strategic importance, it will also contribute to the growth of the Turkish economy.
Another reason why the Eastern Mediterranean is of significant importance to Turkey is related to its regional political rivals. Turkey’s policies in the Middle East have been facing confrontation from two significant actors in the region, namely Israel and Egypt. Both countries have been in competition with Turkey in various policy fields. The Eastern Mediterranean is among such venues where Turkey and its regional competitors have differing strategic calculations. Egypt and Israel, together with Greece and the Greek Administration of Southern Cyprus, have been trying to isolate Turkey from political and economic developments in the Eastern Mediterranean by forming alliances and establishing formal institutions. In response to these activities, Turkey has been defiantly continuing its efforts to take part in the Eastern Mediterranean power struggle. While criticizing regional rivals diplomatically and emphasizing its determination to energy politics in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey is also engaging actively in exploration and military activities in the region.
Turkey is considering the Eastern Mediterranean not only in terms of hydrocarbon resources, but also as a strategic area, which can serve Ankara’s national security needs.
Finally, the Eastern Mediterranean is a region vitally important for Turkey in terms of national security. It has been the scene of military activities of many countries in the past years, particularly military exercises led by Egypt supported by countries such as Greece, the Greek Administration of Southern Cyprus and Israel. On the other hand, it is observed that global political actors such as the U.S., France, Russia and China have increased their presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, Turkey is not only considering the E. Mediterranean in terms of hydrocarbon resources, but as a strategic area, which can serve Ankara’s national security needs. Turkey’s military activities in the Eastern Mediterranean is another proof of Ankara’s consideration of the region as a line of defense in the face of threats that may come from the south.
Turkey places strategic importance on the Eastern Mediterranean and considers the region as a red line in its foreign policy. Therefore, Ankara will not deter from its activities because of the threats and calls from the Greek Administration of Southern Cyprus. Ankara will continue its exploration and drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean while fighting against regional and international actors that would hinder its interests in the region. Regional and international actors must remember the fact that the Eastern Mediterranean has been a Turkish inland sea for centuries and this historical fact will be at the center of Ankara’s future strategies towards the region.