The 21st Century Turkish Maritime Geopolitical Landscape in the Eastern Mediterranean
Admiral (Ret.) Cem Gürdeniz
The humanity is entering a new phase of history. Everything surrounding us is in a constant state of change. This is the new normal. The Cold War ended when the Berlin Wall fell down. The collapse and the demise of the Soviet Union created huge geopolitical and economic tsunamis as well as power vacuums in the geopolitical arena. That collapse gave way to American power the elevated status to claim uncontested, unipolar world leadership after a long-lasting bipolar world order following World War II, between 1945-1989.
The new paradigm came with the victory of neoliberal capitalist and democratic order. Based on the proclamation of Washington Consensus, some academics and technocrats went even further to claim that this is the end of the history. But the new paradigm bankrupted after pervasive destructive effects of pre-emptive intervention that humanity has suffered in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Syria since the early 2000s as well as inevitable collapse of the world financial order after 2008.
After 2010, the rise of China and an increasingly assertive Russia in its periphery began to shift the global balance of power from the Euro-Atlantic bloc to the Pacific. China’s ambitious transformation program coincided with Russian reinstatement of military power and culminated in the Asian resurrection after almost 300 years. Thus, the global order is being reshaped with tectonic social, economic, and political changes in which a key challenge is the emergence of an alternative Beijing Consensus against the incumbent Washington Consensus.
These changes affect geopolitical framing, too. Today we are faced with the necessity to take into consideration new factors that shape our global future. The rise of China, India, and Russia in many fronts, some of which were previously non-existent, paves new conditions to expedite the change of world order from unipolar status to multipolar status. China’s population, economic might, and technological leaps combined with Russia’s natural resources forms an increasingly assertive axis of growth and influence under the umbrella of Shanghai Cooperation Council. This change has ramifications everywhere.
Barbaros Hayreddin Paşa, the Chief Admiral of the Ottoman Navy at the height of its power in the 16th century, famously said “He who controls seas, controls the world”. In todays globalized maritime trade environment, this phrase may be revised as “He who controls the oceans, controls the trade and energy”. The oceans and seas are home to rich resources of wealth and arteries of global trade. Nearly 70% of the world is covered with water and there is no doubt that maritime geopolitics will be more important than ever in the 21st century.
From this perspective, hegemony at sea is a necessary pre-condition to become a world power. Every 150 years, hegemonic power shifts from the incumbent, dominant player to the rising power, the challenger. Venetians, Ottomans, Spanish-Habsburg Empire, British Empire, and the U.S. are prime examples of great powers that ruled seas at the climax of their reign. Critical sea lanes of communications and choke points around the world provide contenders with a duty to compete for assertion of influence and keep sea-lanes open for national security and economic prosperity. Control of maritime choke points, such as the Turkish Straits, Bab al-Mandab, Hormuz, Suez, Cape of Good Hope, Malacca, and Panama Canal, is a key component of the maritime security paradigm that strategists put special emphasis on.
Moreover, capitalistic growth is fueled by resources and undoubtedly seas enable not only transport of hydrocarbons efficiently but open up new avenues of exploration to tap into potential natural reserves in the water column and the seabed. Today, 30% of oil and 50% of the natural gas extraction globally is done in offshore fields. As mainland resources are depleted, world population increases, and economic demand rises, the quest for access to sustainable offshore hydrocarbons will only grow larger. Fishing should be added to this equation. Sea-power states that contend to maintain hegemony therefore put it as a central pillar of their national security agenda to access and control sea-borne energy resources.
3. Oceans and the Mediterranean
Among world oceans and seas, the Mediterranean Sea, situated at the intersection of ancient maritime routes, civilizations, and resources, is in fact a small water column with only 1% share of the global ocean space. Its geopolitical significance, by contrast, is enormous. Of energy transportation, 20% of world sea-borne shipping passes through the Mediterranean, as do 30% of world’s total shipping, 60% of Russian trade, and a whopping 80% of Turkey’s foreign trade. It is a landmark passage route that bears an unproportionally high focus of attention from local to regional and global actors for exertion of influence and power.
Cyprus, an island striding amidst the Suez Canal, Southern Europe, and Turkish Straits, is located right at the intersection of three major hot spots in the Eastern Mediterranean: Anatolia, Egypt, and the Levant. It has been attributed a significant geopolitical role for centuries to control Mediterranean trade routes, energy flows, and to achieve military supremacy. It is an undoubted fact that he who controls Cyprus, controls the Middle East, and he who controls the Middle East gains a tremendous leverage to dominate the Eurasian heartland. During the Cold War, the region was a battleground of clashing ideologies, spy networks, and armies. Dramatic events witnessed during the second half of the 20th century were Greek Cypriot attacks on Turks between 1963-1974, Arab-Israeli wars in 1948, 1967 and 1973, Turkish Cyprus Peace Operation in 1974 and the Lebanese Civil War between 1975-1990.
Post-Cold War era in the 1990s and early 2000s brought more turmoil, terror, civil strife, refugee flows and outright hostility instead of stability to the Greater Middle East and North Africa. Of notable events to mention were The Desert Shield, Desert Storm, and Enduring Freedom operations in Iraq, U.S.-Allied intervention in Afghanistan, Israel’s unilateral intervention in Lebanon and Unified Protector Operation in Libya. Syrian Civil War strained the social fabric, human capital, and mechanisms of co-existence in the region to an unbearable extent. Moreover, external intervention by global hegemons created an unfavorable geopolitical crisis belt for both Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
While the region descended into an uneasy standoff, recent discovery of off-shore hydrocarbons around Cyprus has exacerbated existing tensions and gave rise to new challenges. Countries vying to become energy self-sufficient, to reduce their reliance on deficit financing at times of economic turmoil, and to tame social unrest found a hope in off-shore discoveries to attract investment and shore up their fiscal budgets. In addition, long-standing, intractable disputes in the region intertwined with those in the maritime domain over delineation of economic zones and exploitation of sub-sea energy reserves, resulting in a chaotic neighborhood with even less prospect for reconciliation than before.
This complex geopolitical environment began to develop in 1990s when Israel, Egypt, and Greek Cypriots demonstrated interest to explore, extract, and exploit gas deposits in the Levant and Nile basins. As the problem on Cyprus dragged on, conflict fatigue set in and endless efforts to reconcile the two communities on the island bore no fruit. Countries began to declare maritime zones and plan exploration bidding rounds, while Turkey and Turkish Cypriots were sidelined from international negotiations to distribute the new-found hydrocarbon wealth of the region.
Furthermore, the rise of asymmetric warfare in the Syrian theater caused a paradigm shift and created power vacuums drawing in various state actors and non-state armed groups. Combined with aforementioned issues on Cyprus and hydrocarbon wealth, the new geopolitical reality presented security challenges for Turkey on three main dimensions: Turkish Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Eastern Mediterranean, potentiality of the so-called independent Kurdistan with access to the sea in Northern Syria, and the future of TRNC (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) with implications on Turkey in terms of the Treaty of Guarantee of 1960.
The challenge on delimitation of maritime jurisdiction zones emanates from a certain sense of disagreement among littoral states on the course of boundaries between national maritime jurisdiction zones for exploitation of living and non-living resources in the water column and the sea-bed. The European Union (EU) took the first step in proclaiming its self-declared EEZ by imposing a map of the Eastern Mediterranean prepared originally the University of Seville. Over time, every EU agency web site and official EU document referred to this map as a definitive guide to govern the union’s EEZ. Greek Cypriots declared their EEZ on 2nd April 2004 as effective from 21st March 2003. The key issue was that they concluded a delimitation agreement with Egypt on 17th February 2003. The key issue both in the Seville map as well as Greek Cypriots EEZ is its ignorance of Turkish rights in the region, as though it does not exist with a small enclave in the Bay of Antalya. Unilateral, over-sized claims by Greek and Greek Cypriots for EEZs carve out roughly 150,000 km2 of sea area from Turkey’s “Bluehomeland”. With support from the EU, Greece appropriates 50,000 km2 of EEZ to the tiny island of Meis (Kastellorizo), with 9 km coastline versus 1600 km Anatolian Mediterranean coast, located only a mile off the Turkish coast, in an attempt to con-join Greek and Cypriot EEZs in a contiguous belt across the Eastern Mediterranean.
In response to fait accompli maneuvers of the Greek-Greek Cypriot block, Turkey issued diplomatic notes to the UN General Secretary re-affirming its ipso facto and ab initio rights to a continental shelf, which is the first step to declare a co-extensive EEZ in the region. Additionally, Turkey increased naval activity to demonstrate deterrence and fend off illegal Greek Cypriot moves; signed an EEZ delimitation agreement with TRNC (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) in the northern adjacent sea area; launched, albeit belatedly, efforts to conduct seismic research and exploration in Turkish and Turkish Cypriot continental shelves; and announced plans to establish a permanent naval base on the east coast of Cyprus. The last move came on 27th November 2019 with delimitation MoU with Libya’s Government of National Accord, (GNA).
Greek Cypriots, in turn, remain defiant to Turkish legitimate rights, warnings, and increased presence in the region. The Greek administration, emboldened by renewed interest from multinational oil companies and backing from western governments, presses ahead with bidding rounds and grants exploration rights in the so-called “12 parcels”, of which numbers 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7 overlap with Turkey’s continental shelf. Production is already underway in block 12, “Aphrodite”, with an upside potential for block 10, the recently discovered “Calypso” field. It is apparent that soft-power instruments of diplomacy and international relations based on fair sharing, equity, mutual understanding and respect to law are insufficient to achieve an acceptable solution to the dispute on exploiting energy deposits.
In essence, the addition of a maritime component to the already intractable Cyprus Issue has turned out to be a quagmire. Superseding and transforming the issue into a multi-faceted, multi-directional conflict, it transcended borders and even regions. There is a new front of contention among disputants that perpetuates the notion of a volatile, explosive neighborhood. Formerly limited to domestic problems on the island, the issue has turned into a very complex maritime sovereignty dispute among Turkey, TRNC, Greece, Greek Administration of Southern Cyprus, Egypt, Lebanon, and Israel.
Turkey re-iterated that it is unacceptable to conceive of any concession from its EEZ to neighbour countries, also bearing deep in its mind, heart and soul the pain it suffered due to loss of islands, islets, and by consequence the control over maritime areas in the Aegean Sea during the Balkan Wars and World War I in the early 20th century. Fresh in the nation’s mind is the infamous Treaty of Sèvres, a hostile and humiliating international accord to dismember the Turkish homeland among allied powers in 1920. Amidst a coalition of states that prepares, coordinates, interacts, and develops common positions against Turkey, any attempt by the Greek-Greek Cypriot extended partnership to unilaterally lay claims on Turkish maritime zones, labelled as the “Second Sèvres”, stimulates uneasy memories of the Ottoman Empire’s last days and stirs up reaction from Turkey to protect its interests at all costs. This quagmire is perceived in Ankara as a crucial struggle to maintain the integrity of Bluehomeland and the country’s very survival. Turkey suffered, after the 1974 Peace Operation on Cyprus, enormous pressure on multiple fronts, including but not limited to the U.S. arms embargo, severe economic shocks, and terrorism in the form of ASALA and PKK. Despite setbacks, it did not hesitate to speak out its righteous position on Cyprus and continues to do so till this day.
Even though the reality of Mediterranean geopolitics today constrains Turkey and TRNC’s maneuverability to a certain degree, it brings an opportunity to re-assess and shape Turkey’s 21st century foreign, defense, and security policies. Today Turkey and TRNC are challenged with almost 7 different anti-Turkish solidarity blocs. (Greek Administration of Southern Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Egypt, USA, EU, Jordan, Saudi Arabia,) The Mediterranean Gas Forum and EastMed Pipeline Consortium and the Med 7 group of EU should be added to this anti Turkish groupings. From this perspective, Turkish Peace Force troops on Northern Cyprus are indispensable for defense of the Turkish interests since their existence provides not only a tangible security for Cypriot Turks but protection of Turkish and TRNC Maritime interests in Bluehomeland through deterrence. There is greater need than ever to bring the diplomacies of Turkey, TRNC, and other non-hostile regional players closer together to form an effective, joint defense capability, and deterrence against aggression. From this perspective the recent strategic cooperation between Turkey and Russia brought considerable impetus to the regional stability. 22nd October 2019 Sochı MoU over the Syrian Conflict and Joint Turco-Russian declaration for a ceasefire in Libya during the inauguration ceremony of TurkStream pipeline became concrete success stories for the Mediterranean Region.
Turkey is an energy-hungry emerging economy with a growing, mostly young population of 82 million. As of 2018, its energy import bill was over 50 billion US$, most of which consisted of crude oil and natural gas. Maritime geopolitics is heightened in importance in Turkey’s 21st century strategic vision due to pressing requirements to maintain energy security, sustain economic growth, and keep access to trade routes with the rest of the world. This energizes the maritimization of Turkey with its people. Cyprus is at the heart of the Mediterranean geopolitics and plays a crucial role in Turkey’s security framework. There is no doubt that, standing united, Turkey and TRNC will prevail. The Bluehomeland 2019 and the consequent Sea Wolf 2019 Naval Exercises were the largest of its kind with more than 130 warships, across all seas surrounding the Turkish mainland, Ionian Sea and Cyprus, making headlines at home and internationally. It was a manifestation of Turkish Defense Industry capabilities as well as Turkey’s forward positioning to advance its foreign policy interests, a clear message to our neighborhood, and a geopolitical game-changer in the fast shifting balance of power equation in the Eastern Mediterranean. The message appears to be the dominant theme for 21st Century Turkish Maritime Geopolitics. Turkey does not and will not yield form its Bluehomeland.