So far Greece has played a masterful hand against Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean standoff. It has collected an impressive list of allies against Turkish attempts to claim a larger slice of the maritime territory and has used this tension to build up its armed forces.
It has also been extremely fortunate in its opponent. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan is extremely unpopular outside Turkey and has diplomatically isolated his country. I have found only one country, Azerbaijan, that half-heartedly supports Turkish claims over maritime sovereignty. He has not only alienated most of the European Union members but has also alienated the vast majority of Arab countries who are happy to align themselves with Greece. Erdogan was furious when the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain recognized Israel. But, as usual, he glosses over inconvenient facts. Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Israel and still has several daily flights to Tel Aviv. He has always portrayed himself as the leader of the Muslim Middle East but those claims have now drifted into fantasy land.
Even the loudly trumpeted maritime pact with the UN-recognized part of Libya remains stillborn. In order to become effective the pact had to be ratified by parliaments in both countries. The Turkish parliament quickly ratified it but so far the Libyan parliament has rejected it. Therefore that agreement has no legal standing and is just another baseless claim by Erdoğan.
Beyond these various maritime agreements Erdoğan has other problems that limit his options. Turkey is bogged down with military adventures in Syria and Libya with no end in sight. Keeping a large part of its army in Syria and supporting mercenaries in Libya is an expensive exercise – one the country really cannot afford. After years of mismanagement the Turkish economy is in tatters and the currency keeps sinking to one record low after another. Unemployment is rising and inflation is running well above the Central Bank’s benchmark interest rate. Erdoğan has a pathological hatred of interest and rebuffs every attempt by the Central Bank to counter currency weakness by increasing interest rates. According to his logic the currency is not sinking because of his own mismanagement but because of machinations by the so-called interest rate lobby, the Free Masons, George Soros (he of the infamous anti-Turkish Jewish lobby), the Knights Templar and other assorted malign foreign forces.
But beneath the bellicose language Turkey does have a point in all these discussions about maritime boundaries. The sad thing is that if the Turkish position were presented by someone other than Erdoğan people might actually pay attention and try to solve the problem intelligently. But no one is inclined to give the swaggering neighbourhood bully such consideration.
The Greek position may be within the strict letter of the law but often seems unnecessarily provocative. When you look at a map of the Aegean there is a string of islands extending along the Turkish coast from Mytilene in the north all the way down to the tiny (12 square kilometres) island of Kastellorizo in the south. Then, of course, there’s Cyprus off Turkey’s southern coast. But that’s another long, complicated story. These islands enable Greece and Cyprus (at least the internationally-recognized part of the island) to claim sovereignty over a large part of the Aegean and much of the eastern Mediterranean.
Understandably these claims infuriate Turkey, which has a long coast line of its own stretching from the northern Aegean all the way around to the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, because it feels hemmed in and denied access to potential maritime riches by a chain of relatively small islands. The various laws and treaties governing maritime rights can fill at least one very large bookcase. Suffice it to say that Greece and Turkey have conflicting views on the application of these laws and treaties. Just one example – Greece has signed the United Nations Convention On The Law Of The Seas which states that Greece is entitled to an Exclusive Economic Zone around the islands. Turkey has not signed this convention and says that convention applies only to the countries that signed it. In fact Turkey does not recognize a legal continental shelf and EEZ around the Greek islands. As far as Turkey is concerned the continental shelf should be measured from mainland Turkey and not the adjacent Greek islands.
Beyond these migraine-inducing legal arguments there is the even more fundamental question about the size of the resources under the sea. While significant gas fields have been discovered in the indisputably Israeli and Egyptian zones there is serious question about resources near Cyprus. Exploration off Cyprus has so far yielded disappointing results. And nothing has yet been found in the Aegean. But let’s say a major field is discovered. What exactly do you do with it? Some people talk grandly about an undersea pipeline extending from the waters off Cyprus to Crete or Rhodes and then somehow to the Greek mainland and onto Italy. Such a pipeline is astronomically expensive and at today’s natural gas prices completely unrealistic. Ah, you say, send it to Cyprus where it will be converted into LNG (liquified natural gas) and sent on its way in ships. Too bad no such LNG facility exists on Cyprus. And it’s doubtful anyone would build one unless a major field is discovered and gas prices increase sharply.
Looking at a map and ignoring politics for a minute the obvious solution is a pipeline through neighbouring Turkey, a country with multiple pipelines and only 40 miles from Cyprus. Logical? Perhaps. But this is the Aegean/Mediterranean region that has a much longer history of conflict than of logic and cooperation. One might hope for a breakthrough but that would require more statesmanship than is visible right now.