Eastern Mediterranean Disputes, NATO and US-Turkey relations

By THO Contributor, Adinda Khaerani

The tension in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea between Turkey and Greece has escalated after the Oruc Reis seismic vessel was sent to the disputed area last summer following the pact between Athens and Cairo which overlaps the maritime zone Turkey agreed with Libya in 2019, which Greece disputed. The quarreling was followed by France stating that it would join the military exercises conducted by Greece, Cyprus, and Italy. However, the most recent development has both Greece and Turkey resuming exploratory talks after five years of hiatus, which is in line with Ankara repeatedly stating from the very beginning that it favors solving the issues through international law, negotiations, and dialogue. 

The Eastern Mediterranean Sea is as turbulent as the South China Sea, to the point of being a geopolitical flashpoint. Sitting in a geographical nexus of Europe, Asia, and Africa, it was a cauldron of conflict even before the natural gas bonanza. Although, amid the increasing need for energy, the delimitation of maritime boundaries has inevitably become the priorities for the coastal states. The pandemic that is taking place now, has also made energy exploration a viable endeavor in the near future. 

Turkey’s stance on the matter remains that some of the areas where Cyprus is exploring are either on its continental shelf or in zones where the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) has equal rights over any findings with Greek Cypriot. This has spurred condemnations from Greek Cypriot, Greece, and the EU. Turkey claims that coastal countries need to consult each other to find common ground for the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) borders based on the equity principle, and consideration of the special circumstances in the delimitation, whilst Greece and Greek Cypriot claims rely on Article 121 of the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that gives it full rights to claim the EEZ as well as the continental shelf for its islands. 

UNCLOS was adopted in 1982 in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and entered into force on 16 November 1994.  According to the 1982 UNCLOS, EEZ defines as an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea: it can extend to a maximum of 200 nautical miles from the baselines. Within the EEZ, a coastal State enjoys sovereign rights over its natural resources. It can exercise its jurisdiction over certain activities for the purpose, among others, of protecting the environment, but it is also obliged to respect the rights of other States. The EEZ is the main reason for disagreements among the States that have coast in the eastern Mediterranean. Additionally, hydrocarbon resources are known to be the contributing factor of the tension, as it is related to the EEZ declaration. 

The ongoing dispute in the Aegean Sea is the reason why Turkey is not a signatory to the UNCLOS. With Turkey being a non-signatory, it prevents the implementation of law in the case of Cyprus, since the guarantor needs to be the signatories. Ankara’s legal argument is based on the equity principle.

As a non-signatory of the treaty, Ankara may not appeal to international arbitration using the clauses that it may favor in cases such as Kastellorizo (Meis) or the EEZ of Cyprus. The dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea is the extension of the differences both have in the Aegean Sea, which includes maritime boundaries.  They are both politically and diplomatically linked, however, have a different substance. 

When Oruc Reis resumed its drilling activities in August 2020, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry shared a map showing that the offshore survey activities are within Ankara’s EEZ and continental shelf, which also had been declared to the United Nations. According to a senior Turkish official, Cagatay Erciyes, as quoted by the state-run news TRT World, "Greece claims 40,000 km2 of maritime jurisdiction area due to this tiny island and attempts to stop the Oruc Reis and block Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.”  He also added that the maximalist claim in the area from Greece has created tension. Previously, Greece, Egypt, Israel, and Greek Cypriot Administration signed a maritime agreement, excluding Turkey to determine their respective EEZ. Ankara doesn't recognize the agreements since it believes that the Greek Cypriot Administration doesn't represent all inhabitants of the island. 

Later Ankara signed a maritime deal with Tripoli. The MoU signed by Ankara and the UN–backed government Tripoli on maritime jurisdiction is seen as a significant step against the Greek's claims. Ankara secures its sovereignty, as well as economic rights in the Eastern Mediterranean. Speaking to Anadolu Agency news in December 2019, Huseyin Isiksal, an associate professor at the International Relations Department of Near East University in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) mentioned that Turkey's maritime move should not be confined to the matter of international law, and it should be backed with political and diplomatic action.

Ankara has the longest continental coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean and has rejected the maritime boundary claims of Greece and the Greek Cypriot Administration, stressing that these excessive claims violate the sovereign rights of both TRNC and Turkey. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also stated that any sanctions coming from the EU will not change Turkey’s position in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

Later, Turkey paved the way for diplomacy by withdrawing the vessels in late December last year. Many are questioning what the best approach would be to settle the disputes. Dr. Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, pointed out in an e-mail interview, "From the American perspective, the latest tensions between Turkey on the one hand, and Greece and Cyprus on the other, are problematic because they are part of a larger trendline – one in which Ankara is increasingly at odds with other members of NATO, and with the West as a whole. In Washington, the current friction in the Eastern Med has seen as emblematic of the Turkish government's increasingly assertive foreign policy and increasingly antagonistic stance toward regional neighbors."

This issue has put the United States in a difficult position, with its allies involved in the disputes on opposing sides. Concerning what implications the East Mediterranean tensions will have on US-Turkey ties and what role might the new administration play, Dr. Berman explained, “That France has been forced into a mediating rule in the dispute speaks volumes about the depths of the tensions, as well as about European worries over alliance cohesion. That’s something that’s going to be of significant concern to the new Biden administration in Washington, which has made clear that it plans to rethink the Turkey policy of the outgoing Trump team. This rethink will, by necessity, be a larger conversation about US-Turkish relations, and about Turkey’s place in the West.”

Dr. Berman continued, “However, the Eastern Med dispute – and whether Turkey can come to some sort of accommodation with the other parties – will factor into this recalibration for sure.” Washington's support for Greece due to its geostrategic importance has potentially further complicated the relations between the US and Turkey. In July 2020, US Senator Menendez stated, “Let’s be crystal clear—the only country ‘disputing’ these waters is Turkey. These waters belong to Greece, and the State Department must unequivocally and publicly recognize that Turkey alone is responsible for the tension over them.”

When asked whether such a statement represented the view in Washington on Turkey’s claim in the region, Dr. Berman mentioned, “Sen. Menendez’s comments reflect an unease in Washington that Ankara is now attempting to revise the existing status quo in the Eastern Med, with potentially destabilizing consequences. Notably, however, the Trump State Department did not make this a major issue, preferring to avoid escalating tensions with the Erdogan government. Whether that remains the case is unclear. A new State Department might be much more willing to take up the Senator’s call to push back against Turkey’s advances.” 

He also added, “Relevant, too, is that the current dispute isn’t happening in isolation. It comes amid a ramping up of “great power competition” between the U.S. and China, where Washington has attempted to thwart Beijing’s efforts to change the status quo in Asia (including territorial boundaries). Turkey’s efforts are likely to be seen the same way especially if relations between the U.S. and Turkey become more adversarial and combative under a Biden administration.”

President Biden, in a recent call with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, has reaffirmed the US commitment to the alliance's collective defense, the White House said in a statement. Hopefully, this also means that the United States is committed to improving relations with its strategic allies — in this case, Turkey.