Tensions are high in the Eastern Mediterranean. Against the backdrop of natural gas discoveries and the persistent disputes over drilling rights, the geopolitical landscape of the Mediterranean has been shifting for a decade now. As regional states with shared interests rebalance, and alliances are reshuffled, Turkey’s political and military footprint grows more visible across the region. From the shores of Cyprus to the walls of Tripoli, Ankara seeks to expand its influence, but why? What drives Turkey’s Eastern Mediterranean policy? Which factors besides energy security are relevant? How does the so-called “Blue Homeland” doctrine inform Ankara’s approach towards the region? Tolga Demiryol, Associate Professor and head of the Energy and Environment Center at Altınbaş University, gave a talk to the Young Professionals in International Relations network to discuss Turkey’s unfolding Mediterranean strategy.
Demiryol provided an overview of the energy landscape of the Eastern Mediterranean, and underlined that what makes the region important is not how much natural gas has already been discovered, but rather the potential. In order to monetize this gas, there are two options: either an underwater pipeline, or turning the gas into LNG and export in tankers. Both options are costly for any single reserve holder country, so Demiryol’s conclusion is that international cooperation is warranted. This is why about a decade ago, when these gas discoveries were made, there were expectations of an interdependence scenario, in which countries surrounding these parts of the Mediterranean would now have incentive to resolve their longstanding problems. But rather than bringing peace and prosperity to the region, gas discoveries exacerbated some conflicts.
For Turkey today, the dispute over the Eastern Med pipeline and other energy-related aspirations are more about a geopolitical power balance. Demiryol described Turkey’s perception of this dynamic as ‘strategic encirclement’; that is, a new threat perception that Ankara is being left out of regional arrangements and alignments. In the past two years, two developments brought a new sense of urgency to Ankara: the establishment of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum headquartered in Egypt, and the signing of the Eastern Med Pipeline Accord. Turkey, Lebanon and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus are not members of the Forum; moreover, the pipeline is slated to go through Turkey’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). These developments, continued Demiryol, made Ankara feel like it is being boxed into a small corner of the Mediterranean. Therefore, Turkey’s moves are no longer merely about energy competition, but more about national security.
Out of this perception arose the Blue Homeland Doctrine, the maritime wing of Turkey’s novel foreign and security policy of ‘forward defense’. For Turkey, controlling certain areas outside its borders (such as in Iraq and Syria) is fundamental to its national security. In the Eastern Mediterranean context, Turkey’s military involvement in Libya as well as the establishment of an EEZ are steps to secure a high seat at the table. Demiryol also noted the contrast between the once-popular Turkish foreign policy rhetoric around soft power, and how it has resorted to a comprehensive use of hard power more recently. At the discursive level there are larger themes leading to the ‘forward defense’ rationale: multipolarity, the rise of China, Eurasianism, critique of NATO, and anti-imperialism, and the significance of an indigenous defense industry are some of those themes.
An ensuing discussion with the participants explored how the dispute on the Eastern Med Pipeline would pan out, and what this would mean for Turkey-Cyprus-Greece relations. Demiryol stipulated that a standstill was more likely than either a political solution or a military standoff, meaning eastern Mediterranean gas would stay in the ground. The Greek-Cypriot side has no problem sharing the resources and the wealth; however, they are eager to continue developing those resources while a solution is being sought, whereas the Turkish-Cypriot side is keen on finding a political solution to the divided island first. Some participants voiced their concern that in this chaotic environment no actor would be willing to catalyze dialogue in the region. As Turkey’s continues to employ critical rhetoric towards NATO and the US, and emphasizes Eurasianism and anti-imperialism within the framework of its new foreign policy and security doctrine, it risks alienating important actors whose involvement would have been useful.
Another point in the discussion was the lack of environmental concerns by the Eastern Mediterranean Forum countries. Demiryol noted that regrettably there have been no environmental impact reports, and that any environmental objections there were to date or that we can expect have had or will have political motivations. Incidentally, the EU announced the European Green Deal, which means that in theory they will not fund the drilling and the developing of this gas. Also, some companies that were part of the consortia to drill are withdrawing, as the potential gas finds do not seem as lucrative as they did about a decade ago. But the situation is different for smaller economies like Israel and Cyprus; they have both economic and strategic gains from finding and owning eastern Mediterranean gas that they are not willing to give up for environmental concerns.
In conclusion, Turkey’s eastern Mediterranean policy is evolving and multifaceted. Energy plays a role, but on its own is not enough to explain Ankara’s moves, especially with regards to Libya. Turkey’s shifting threat perception and foreign policy based on hard power will determine its stance within these international debates surrounding eastern Mediterranean energy and power balances.