July 31, 2020

IntelBrief: The Eastern Mediterranean Heats Up

Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, center, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiadis, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pose for a photograph ahead of a signing ceremony in Athens, Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020. (AP Photo)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Tensions have spiked in the eastern Mediterranean as Greece, Israel, and Cyprus move ahead with the planned EastMed gas pipeline, drawing the ire of Turkey. 
  • The European Union has condemned Turkey’s drilling off the coast of unrecognized northern Cyprus and imposed sanctions in response. 
  • At the center of the energy rivalry is Libya, a country engulfed in civil war and the scene of significant intervention by a range of external states. 
  • Rising tensions further pressure NATO, as members France and Greece, on the one hand (along with non-member Cyprus), and Turkey on the other, find themselves on opposite sides of escalating tensions. 

Energy geopolitics, commercial competition, territorial disputes, and intra-NATO fissures have all coalesced in the eastern Mediterranean. Recently the Israeli government gave final approval to the EastMed pipeline deal that Greece, Israel, and Cyprus signed in January, while Israel had an interim government without the authority to finalize the deal. Israel's final ratification removes the project’s final bureaucratic hurdle and allows the parties to move forward with plans to complete it. The future pipeline is intended to carry up to 12 billion cubic meters of Israeli and Cypriot natural gas per year to southern Europe via Greece, beginning in 2025. In response, Turkey is set to conduct its own hydrocarbon exploration in waters belonging to Greece and Cyprus, antagonizing those countries and others in the region. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, echoing other European diplomats, criticized Turkey’s drilling as a ‘provocation,’ and stated that it harms Turkey-E.U. relations. 

The drilling issue reignites the much older issue of sovereignty on the island of Cyprus, divided since Turkey’s 1974 invasion. Turkey has used the supposed sovereignty of the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a statelet that only Turkey recognizes, in an attempt to legitimize its energy exploration. Ankara’s moves off the island have drawn condemnation and sanctions from the European Union, which counts internationally-recognized Cyprus and Greece among its members. To date, Turkey has used naval ships and drones to protect vessels conducting research and drilling, adding a military dimension to the energy-resource posturing. Earlier this year, France sent warships to the eastern Mediterranean, and Turkish planes routinely violate Greek airspace. 

Cyprus and Greece are not the only arenas for intensifying energy rivalry in the Mediterranean, as the escalating dispute over natural gas in the area dovetails with the grinding civil war in Libya. Last year, Turkey signed a maritime demarcation agreement with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, mapping out an exclusive economic zone running between Turkey’s southern coast and Libya’s northern shore. This move capitalizes on the divide between the GNA and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, which supports the warlord General Khalifa Haftar and does not recognize the GNA—or the accord it made with Turkey. The EastMed pipeline would have to cross the zone demarcated by Turkey and Libya, meaning it is incompatible with the Turkish-Libyan maritime demarcation agreement. In addition to the parties to the EastMed agreement, the Turkish-Libyan accord has alienated Egypt, which has called it illegal. Egypt’s parliament recently approved the deployment of its armed forces outside its borders for the purpose of fighting ‘terrorist groups’ and ‘militias,’ thinly veiled language likely meant to indicate Libya, known for vast numbers of militias. If Egypt deployed troops to Libya, Cairo would be strengthening the coalition of countries consisting of somewhat strange bedfellows—Russia (largely through the paramilitary Wagner Group), the UAE, and France supports Haftar and the Tobruk-based government. While no deployment has yet happened, such a move would mark a major escalation in the conflict, and would further militarize the already tense atmosphere in the eastern Mediterranean. 

Finally, all of these intersecting issues have troubling implications for NATO, already under strain from Russian provocations of peripheral NATO members and a U.S. administration whose posture has been mercurial at best, vacillating between aloofness and outright antagonism. France, Greece, and Cyprus on the one hand, and Turkey on the other have found themselves on opposite sides of both the natural gas drilling issue and the Libyan civil war. In June, an incident between a French frigate and a Turkish flotilla off the coast of Libya led to a dispute between the two countries at a NATO meeting, fueling tensions that remain unresolved. The United States has largely stayed clear of the disputes surrounding Libya in recent years as intra-alliance divides continue to fester. The question of how NATO will manage the competing objectives of many of its members as energy and geopolitical competition heats up and the U.S. abjures its traditional leadership role remains an open one—and one with serious implications for international security.