LEVANT & EASTERN MED JUNE 2019

Gas, sabre rattling and worse

On 20 June 2019, after “Fatih”, the second Turkish drill ship “Yavuz” left the Dilova port to sail into the Mediterranean Sea. According to Turkish media, Yavuz shall start from July on its petroleum and gas exploration works in the Eastern Mediterranean. While Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Fatih Dönmez celebrated the launch with the words “Now we’re also part of the game” [“Yavuz’ Akdeniz’e açılıyor”, PETROTURK, June 20, 2019], the Turkish action prompted harsh reactions from Greece, the EU and the US that see in Ankara’s “illegal” drilling action a provocation. Turkish F-16 fighter jets escorted the drill ship after the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) had issued arrest warrants for the staff of Fatih, culminating in renewed rising tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean.

One month before, the Turkish navy carried out its biggest naval exercise (Denizkurdu-Sea Wolf) so far, showing off the whole equipment of its domestic armament production operating in the three areas of the Black Sea, the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. For the first time, armed and unarmed drones were deployed together with Air Force (Türk Hava Kuvvetleri) and Army Aviation (Türk Kara Havacilik) assets. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan underlined that these forces have all the authority to employ all necessary means to deter any violation of Turkish rights and interests in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Following suit, at the EU summit in Brussels on 21 June, the EU warned Turkey over illegal drilling actions in the Eastern Mediterranean, threatening Ankara with sanctions. “The European Council endorses the invitation to the [EU] Commission and the EEAS [European External Action Service] to submit options for appropriate measures without delay, including targeted measures” the statement said [“European Council conclusions on the MFF, climate change, disinformation and hybrid threats, external relations, enlargement and the European Semester, 20 June 2019”, European Council, June 20, 2019].

Today, after the US, EU threats of sanctions reach a new level of diplomatic escalation with seemingly no signs of mediation with Turkey. Putting it more clearly, even arch-enemies Israel and Lebanon are able to negotiate over the distribution of natural resources while Turkey (NATO ally and formally still EU-accession candidate) faces a deadlock. “I absolutely don’t see rising tensions in the east Mediterranean. For the first time in history Israel and Lebanon are about to sit at the same table and discuss face to face. That is historic,” commented Joseph Paritzky, private energy broker and former Israeli Energy Minister, referring to last month’s announcement about coming talks on maritime borders [Sergio Matalucci, “EastMed gas: Paving the way for a new geopolitical era?”, Deutsche Welle, June 24, 2019].

Not even in the the long-term, there seems to be any legal or political solution to the conflict that will satisfy Turkey. The muscle flexing bears a high risk of translating into real military action since Ankara is determined to defend its national interests at any cost. Putting it with the words of Prof Athanasios Dokos, expert on international relations in Athens “If the amount of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean and its economic value is indeed as high as announced, this will either bring – including a solution over the Cyprus Conflict – all stakeholders at the negotiation table – or will lead to a great war” [Stelyo Berberakis, “Doğu Akdeniz’de doğal gaz gerilimi” Deutsche Welle Türkçe, February 28, 2019].

Nuray Atmaca– She is a political scientist and Major (res.) at the German Federal Army’s Centre for Operational Communication.