Geopolitical tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean region are growing day by day
On June 9, Italy and Greece signed a maritime deal for the demarcation of their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). The main issue that is being resolved out of this agreement has to do with a fishing dispute, added on top of 40-years-old abeyance, between the two countries.
Yet, this development, which caused diplomatic upheaval, is at the tip of the iceberg. Of course, the Mediterranean Sea is not only concerned with fishing and tourist issues. It is a vital region of international and regional competition that was brought forcefully into the foreground in the past years.
In particular, the Eastern Mediterranean encompasses all these necessary aspects for geopolitical tensions: strategical maritime routes and natural resources at the meeting point of three continents (Europe, Africa and Asia). Throughout history, countless conflicts aroused in the region, and some of them exist up until now, although with a more contemporary essence.
The maritime dimension
The maritime deal between Italy and Greece is considered to be a counter-action on the part of the latter side against Turkey. Greece and Turkey have been involved in a variety of disputes around maritime issues, especially in the Aegean Sea. Turkey questions international law provisions regarding sovereignty rights in the sea both in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean side, which is not, by any means, a new situation.
However, since 2018, the situation is intensified. Cyprus has been engaged with drilling activities for gas exploration in its EEZ, a move that angered Turkey. Turkey considers the 2003 demarcation of EEZ between Cyprus and Egypt illegal, as Ankara does not recognize Nicosia the legitimacy to govern the island. Since the 1974 Turkish occupation, Cyprus remains divided. The Greek Cypriot side holds international legitimacy, while the Turkish Cypriot side does not. Any exercise of sovereignty from Cyprus is potentially harmful to Turkish interests, let alone when it has to do with natural resources
The involvement of ExxonMobil, Eni and Total companies internationalized the gas dispute. Vessels from the companies that tried to operate drilling activities were stopped by Turkey, while Turkey sent its drilling ships into the Cypriot EEZ. In June 2019, the EU expressed intentions on sanctioning Turkey concerning this matter. At the same time, the US Congress espoused a series of pro-Greek and pro-Cypriot measures. France even went to the point of deploying Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to the region in February 2020.
Due to this situation, maritime militarization has been stressfully enhanced. There are many actors involved in pursuing mutually exclusive interests in a critical region. At the end of the tunnel, there is still a frozen Cyprus question that poses as a hindrance to peace and lasting resolution of regional affairs.
Libya interconnected via Turkey
Although Libya is not considered a part of the Eastern Mediterranean region, the growing developments are entangling the country in the broader geopolitical field. After all, regions are being formulated more by politics and less by actual geography.
In November 2019, Turkey signed with the internationally recognized Libyan government of Fayez al-Sarraj a memorandum of understanding to demarcate their EEZs. This is the biggest reaction by Turkey against Cyprus and Greece up until now. The deal between Turkey and Sarraj includes maritime areas that obstruct the sovereign rights of Cyprus and Greece, all according to Turkish special claims about maritime borders.
The involvement of Turkey in the Libyan civil war, in support of the UN-backed government, connects the Libyan issue with the maritime disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Libyan civil conflict had already gained international attention by the involvement of Russia, France and UAE in favor of Khalifa Haftar’s LNA.
Apart from these developments, Greece, Egypt and Israel remained in a close partnership monitoring Turkey. The proposed EastMed pipeline, which will connect Israel, Cyprus and Greece, has now an official agreement since the early days of 2020. The acceleration of this process is a result of the Turkish-Libyan memorandum. The maritime deal of Italy and Greece is also a reaction to this memorandum.
Right now, the Libyan front is even more relevant. Sarraj’s GNA has successfully managed to stop LNA’s offensive towards Tripoli with the help of Turkey, regaining much of the lost territory. At the same time, Egypt reiterated its support for Haftar. In the past days, international pressure for a peace agreement was renewed and much more progress is expected.
Longstanding Levantine turbulence
Besides, the traditional issues of the Eastern Mediterranean region have not vanished. The Arab-Israeli conflict remains active as long as Hamas fires rockets into Israel and international actors behave irresponsibly. Lebanon continues to be in economic and political disarray and the Syrian civil war is alive and kicking.
The latest US effort to resolve the Palestinian question cannot be considered fruitful. The conflict in Gaza fuels a steady instability and the annexation plans of Israel in the West Bank are being pursued unhindered. Hezbollah continues to pose as an existential threat to Israel and a return to old hostilities remains as a danger. The recent disequilibrium in Lebanon not only blocks any possible efforts for regional stability but also exacerbates the situation.
An even deeper complexity is being added by the expanding Iranian influence. As long as Iran comes in proximity to Israel, fears for an impending destructive conflict are higher. The involvement of the Islamic Republic in Syria, in support of Assad, and the ongoing airstrikes of Israel inside the Syrian warzone against Shiite targets are bringing the two arch-rivals into dangerous paths. The latest developments in Idlib are also clarifying that there are a lot of issues left to be resolved in the worn-torn country.
In the past decade, the geopolitical scene in the Eastern Mediterranean region is not only afflicted by conventional clashes. The refugee/migrant crisis and terrorism have also flourished by the problems of the region. Despite that these issues are borderless, they do not act as a trigger for an enhanced peaceful approach by the countries involved. The geopolitical complexity carries on with more intensity, following the rich history of the Eastern Mediterranean region.