The Fuse

A Mediterranean Scramble: Unraveling the Turkish Fight for Natural Gas

by Gregory Brew | August 26, 2020

There’s a battle underway in the eastern Mediterranean. At stake are trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.

But what appears to be a scramble for natural resources is actually a new round in a long-running dispute between Turkey and its neighbors — and a new sign that Ankara is the odd-man-out in regional politics.

The eastern Mediterranean emerged as an oil and gas hotspot around a decade ago, with the discovery of the Leviathan natural gas field approximately 130 kilometers west of the Israeli coast. It was a colossal discovery. Together with the neighboring Tamar field, Leviathan holds enough natural gas to meet Israel’s domestic needs for the next forty years, and will likely turn Israel into a natural gas exporter in the near future.

The discovery of Leviathan triggered a gold rush.

The discovery of Leviathan triggered a gold rush. Over the next decade, fields of varying sizes were found scattered across the eastern Mediterranean. In 2011, the Aphrodite field was found off the coast of Cyprus, holding 6 trillion cubic feet. In August 2015, the Italian company  ENI discovered the Zohr field within a concession block offered by the Egyptian government. The field is roughly twice the size of Leviathan and holds 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, effectively doubling Egypt’s natural gas reserves.

Given the size and location of these fields, local states have chosen to cooperate to exploit them more efficiently. Israel, Cyprus, and Greece formed the Energy Triangle in 2010. In January 2019, Israel and Egypt, together with Cyprus, Greece, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority, established the East Mediterranean Gas Forum. The effort was meant to create a dialogue around sharing the region’s bounty, establishing a regional gas market and an export hub for Europe.

The European Union is interested in tapping nearby natural gas reserves, in order to reduce its dependence on Russia, which supplies about one-third of the European Union’s crude oil and 39% of natural gas imports. In January 2020, France asked to join the forum, with the United States coming on board as a permanent observer. That same month Greece, Israel, and Cyprus announced plans to construct a 1,900 km undersea pipeline connecting the Mediterranean fields with Europe through Greece and Italy.

But a spoiler has arrived on the scene: Turkey.

The regional economic and military power with few energy resources of its own, Turkey has launched a campaign to expand its area of economic interest, in the hope of discovering its own giant natural gas reserves. Its goals include redrawing the map delineating areas of sovereignty in the eastern Mediterranean, which it claims was drawn illegally and contrary to Turkish national interests. Expanding this map would open up more of the area to Turkish oil drilling and would constitute a victory for Turkish regional influence and a boost in prestige.

Turkish warships have sailed into the disputed sovereign zones, often escorting oil and gas exploration vessels.

Turkey has carried out this campaign through diplomatic overtures and displays of military power. Turkish warships have sailed into the disputed sovereign zones, often escorting oil and gas exploration vessels. In mid-August, a Greek ship collided with a Turkish warship.

Energy issues loom large in this dispute. The Israeli-Cypriot-Egyptian natural gas initiative and the Energy Triangle formed by Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, which pointedly excluded Turkey, means that Turkey’s long-standing wish to serve as an energy transit hub connecting the energy-rich Middle East to the consuming markets of Western Europe would remain unfulfilled. For a nation currently enduring a long economic downturn, missing out on the regional natural gas bonanza would constitute another economic set-back.

As the national currency, the lira, continues to tumble against foreign currencies, the government in Ankara is looking for ways to boost exports. A major natural gas find in the Mediterranean could provide welcome economic relief.

But there’s more to this story than a scramble for natural resources. Long-simmering regional issues lie at the heart of Turkey’s stand-off with its neighbors.

Turkey is increasingly the odd-man-out in regional affairs. It’s government has pursued bellicose rhetoric aimed at redrawing the regional map and reclaiming parts of the old Ottoman Empire, which broke up after World War I.  Turkey’s intervention in Syria has put it at odds with the United States, which backs Syrian Kurds that Ankara considers terrorists, and has also worsened relations with Israel. Turkey has tried to win back some regional clout by intervening to support US-backed government in Libya, though it has followed up this move by furthering efforts to securing more Libyan oil and gas for its own use.

Its move in the eastern Mediterranean is both an effort to re-establish itself at the center of regional affairs and a way to improve its standing in the regional fight over oil and gas resources. Yet other, long-simmering issues are also relevant.

A key issue in the dispute is the matter of Cyprus, the island nation which endured a civil war in the 1960s and an invasion by Turkish forces in 1974. Since then, an independent and internationally recognized Cypriot government governs the southern half of the island, while Turkish troops occupy the northern half. Turkey supports a separatist northern Cypriot government which has gone unrecognized by the international community.

As a result of this long-running dispute, tensions between Turkey and the southern Cypriot government remain high. Turkey has proposed a new map demarcating sovereign boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean, with the new lines drawn at the expense of Greece, Turkey’s historic bete noire, and Cyprus, a state which Ankara does not recognize. An adjudication of this issue in Turkey’s favor could bring new fossil fuel resources and a boost to Turkey’s regional prestige.

A military confrontation appears unlikely. France has stepped in to assist Greece in staring down Turkish military forces. The European Union has expressed its support for member states Greece and Cyprus. Turkey stands alone, as Egypt and Israel continue to cooperate on developing their own fields.

However, Turkey cannot be entirely ignored. It is an important European trading partner, a member of the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and a regional power. Its claims on the waters of the eastern Mediterranean, while legally suspect, are not entirely without merit. While no one is willing to go to war over this issue, a concession for Ankara would help to lessen tensions.

The situation emerged in part because the region’s normal referee, the United States, has partially withdrawn from local affairs. Should the United States re-enter the fray, or if member of the European Union succeed in pressuring Turkey to back down, the dispute could be settled peacefully, and work to exploit the region’s rich natural gas reserves could continue.