Eastern Mediterranean: too small of a bathtub for two swimmers

Eastern Mediterranean: too small of a bathtub for two swimmers

Whilst the two protagonists Greece and Turkey are currently in dispute over economic rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, other stakeholders within the region continue to complicate their strained relationship. As this issue develops, wider implications emerge well beyond the region, creating both opportunities and hazards

Greece and Turkey are on the outs over hydrocarbon exploration rights, but these skirmishes are multifaceted. In order to assess related risks and opportunities, multiple dimensions have to be considered. Firstly, underlying historical enmities continue to greatly impact competing interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. Secondly, the American retreat from engagement in the region makes it more difficult to gain clarity on unfolding events. Finally, mutually exclusive aims of numerous neighbouring States obfuscate the increasing friction between Greece and Turkey. Notwithstanding that, the CoViD-19 pandemic has had a catalytic effect on the two states’ competition over energy sources.

Begrudging allies

NATO members Greece and Turkey are two “unfriendly allies”. The relationship between the two countries could best be termed a conflict of existential interests. The belief that “the Greek-Turkish conflict is perennial, almost primordial” is “one of the most enduring”, with origins dating back to the Middle Ages.

For instance, the “Christian enthusiasm against Islam” in Greek foreign policy is a derivative of the myth built around the independence war and more recent reasons for hostility. Their enduring rivalry is further aggravated through sustained provocations, not least the pogroms sponsored by the Turkish government in 1955 and Greek residents’ expulsion from Istanbul. 

Modifications foreseen by the Treaty of Sevres, © Swanston Map Archive Ltd.

Meanwhile, the Turkish side reciprocates this “hate”. It describes Greeks as having rebelled “for no real reason” before attempting to occupy parts of Anatolia in 1920 as provided by the Treaty of Sevres (see Image 1). The invasion was stopped by modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk. Hostilities were revived by the Greek junta’s 1974 coup in Cyprus and competing economic interests in the Aegean.

When the cat’s away …

The USA’s withdrawal from regional affairs is a key variable to consider. Since 2016, President Trump has signaled his will to end America’s leadership. He withdrew from Libya, almost left Syria, and prepares to abandon Iraq.

As US diplomats are hard at work, they are sending contradictory messages. In August, Secretary of State Pompeo met his Greek counterpart to ease tensions. Congress has tried to sanction Turkey before, yet it failed due to Trump’s alleged “soft spot” for Erdogan.

In September, Pompeo declared that “the US is deeply concerned by Turkey”. Then, the US announced they “will waive restrictions on the sale of non-lethal defense articles and services to the Republic of Cyprus.” Finally, on September 15, Pompeo announced he will seek a “diplomatic and peaceful” solution.

Meanwhile, President Trump has been critical of the continued American commitment to NATO, which has weakened the alliance. To the point that Greek diplomatic sources felt free to say that Stoltenberg’s announcement of upcoming talks “does not correspond to reality.” A second-level government spokesman declassed NATO’s efforts to mere “technical interest” adding that they are a “far cry from being described as an agreement to resume talks.” East-Med tensions are effectively marginalizing NATO further.

… the mice play

The lack of US leadership has opened wide glimmers for other States.

In Europe, France has taken the lead siding with Greece and Cyprus. Paris believes that diplomacy will be “impossible” without the firmness of their stance. President Macron confirmed the “complete agreement” with Athens, nurturing rumors of two frigates being lent to Greece. France’s availability to “help Greece in case of war” is expected to figure in Greece’s upcoming defense program. Because of their entanglements with Turkey, Germany and Italy do not want to “align themselves with the others in open hostility towards Turkey.” They tried to act as a mediator, keeping the EU’s position nuanced.

Political relations around the Eastern Mediterranean by Fabio A. Telarico

Overall, however, Turkey is “isolated”. Erdogan’s overreach in the region (e.g. Syria) and beyond (see Libya) stuck him in a potential alliance with embargoed Qatar and “pariah” Iran and a reluctant Russia. Egypt signed an agreement with Greece delimiting their respective rights and Israel also sided against Turkey. After recognizing Israel as a potential anti-Turkish safeguard, the UAE has sent some F-16s to Cyprus. The East-Med crisis is becoming a smokescreen for the ongoing confrontation between States with conflicting geopolitical aims in the MENA.

Enters the pandemic

Despite all historical grievances, the crisis is fundamentally about access to natural resources. While meaningful at a regional level, reserves of natural gas in the East Medcan only maximize their commercial potential if combined. To this end, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, and Israel created the EastMed Gas Forum, in order to route Israeli, Cypriot, and perhaps Egyptian natural gas to Europe through the projected EastMed pipeline.

The planned EastMed Pipeline.
© Steven Bernard via Financial Times

CoViD-19 has made the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean more complicated than it originally was. The pandemic led to a ruinous fall in global energy prices to the point these projects are not profitable anymore. The pandemic has also enabled an escalation in economic and public-health concerns, redirecting the respective populations from ongoing tensions in the region. 


Coveted issue linkages make forecasting the outcome of this crisis risky. In the short term, all parties seem to want to de-escalate tensions. But rivalries and opposing alliances will remain. Leaders continue to redirect attention away from issues of import in their constituencies, towards what they want their constituents to be concerned about.

When the effects of anti-pandemic measures wane, decision-makers will be less fearful of their own constituencies’ concerns. Thus, in the mid-term, chances are, some sort of ‘final’ agreement could be reached. Since the Germans have already failed and France is too partisan, the US remains the only credible mediator. A decreasing grip on the region, however, makes the unfolding situation harder for Secretary Pompeo to resolve. However, these negotiations are unlikely to solve the Greek-Turkish differences. If the mediation translates into direct talks, both parties will have to renounce their more radical economic and territorial claims in the Aegean. But that could open the door to many new opportunities or the development of the hydrocarbon industry in the East-Med.

Finally, the peculiar nature of the Turkish regime may push Erdogan to keep capitalizing on foreign-policy successes. An uncooperative Turkey may want to part ways with its Western allies, pushing his claims to the extremes and resort to even more muscular means of confrontation. However, this scenario remains unlikely unless there are unpredictable breakthroughs changing Turkish domestic politics and Erdogan’s hold on power.

About Author

Fabio Telarico

Fabio A. Telarico was born in Naples, Southern Italy. He is fluent in Italian, English and Bulgarian. Between 2015 and 2017 he won several prizes in nation-wide literary contests. Since 2018 he has been publishing on websites and magazines about the culture, society and politics of South Eastern Europe and the former USSR. He also participates regularly to international conferences on the same topic.