Washington Ratchets Up Maritime Disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean 

Conor here: Washington is reportedly pushing a deal with Ankara that would see the US sell Türkiye F-16s (which it has been requesting the past two years), and in exchange Türkiye would forgo any military incursion into northern Syria and would agree to the admission of Finland and Sweden to NATO.

It’s unlikely this will meet Türkiye’s price as Ankara has demanded that Sweden stop supporting what Türkiye deems to be Kurdish terrorists and made specific requests, including extraditions. Sweden has said it will not meet these demands, and the Quran-burning protests against Türkiye in Stockholm on Saturday almost certainly made it politically untenable for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to agree to any deal ahead of what’s expected to be a tight election on May 14.

Additionally, any deal would likely need to include promises from Washington to scale back its military support for Greece, such as its planned F-35 sale. As the following post illustrates, Washington is also using contested waters in the eastern Mediterranean as another pressure point and is likely to escalate there if Erdogan doesn’t relent on Sweden’s NATO bid and back off in Syria.

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The race to drill and bring to market natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean Sea has taken on additional importance ever since Europe decided to cut itself off from its main supplier in Russia. The rush for underwater natural gas comes at a time when the US is heavily arming Greece and Cyprus in an effort to pressure Türkiye into falling in line on Washington-led policies on Russia and NATO.

Disagreements over waters and exploratory rights have brought Greece and Türkiye to the brink of conflict recently, and as more gas fields are discovered and the US inserts itself on the side of Athens, conflict is becoming increasingly likely.

The following is a rundown of Greek, Turkish, and Cypriot competing claims and the current situation in the race for eastern Mediterranean gas.

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Last year saw new gas discoveries off Cyprus, including an estimated 70 billion cubic meters (bcm) field and a 57-84 bcm field. The finds raise the possibility of the island country finally becoming a gas exporter; it also raises the possibility of conflict as Türkiye, Greece, and Cyprus have wide-ranging disagreements over maritime boundaries.

Greece argues that its islands in the Aegean sea can generate their own Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) which would allow Greece to explore more than 200 nautical miles. Türkiye has argued that islands can not generate their own EEZs and that Greece’s EEZ should start from its mainland, rather than from each of its hundreds of islands.

Under the UN’s Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), every state has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles. Türkiye, however, is not a signatory to UNCLOS and does not agree with the rights of the Aegean islands to such a distance. Ankara has threatened Athens with military action should it extend its waters. Both Greece and Türkiye currently claim six nautical miles off of their territory in Aegean and 12 nautical miles off their other shores.

While the EEZ governed by UNCLOS allows trading ships to pass freely, the passage of military naval ships is highly contested and Türkiye is threatened by the possibility of having to ask Greece permission for military navigation. Should Greece extend its EEZ to 12 nautical miles off its Aegean islands, it would make a drastic difference:

Six nautical miles have been in force since 1936. Tensions over the 12 nautical mile question ran highest between the two countries in the 1990s when UNCLOS was coming into force. In 1995, the Turkish Parliament officially declared that unilateral action by Greece to extend the Aegean islands to 12 nautical miles would constitute a casus belli, a position Ankara maintains today.

Well now Greece says that in March it’s going to extend its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles off of the island of Crete, which also happens to host a US naval base at Souda Bay. The US and Greece are also upgrading and expanding the facility with the goal to transform it into a permanent base for part of the Hellenic Navy, in order to facilitate faster and more direct access to the Eastern Mediterranean.

The move is reportedly being driven by ExxonMobil efforts to drill for natural gas and oil to the west and southwest of Crete. The Greek daily Kathimerini reported last week that ExxonMobil, in partnership with Greece’s HELLENiQ Energy, will push ahead with its search for natural gas and oil to the west and southwest of Crete despite Turkish opposition, fueling further suspicion in Ankara that the US is trying to punish the NATO member for its refusal to join the bloc’s aggressive approach against Russia.

US Arms Add Fuel to Fire

For decades the US acted as an impartial mediator between Greece, Türkiye, and Cyprus. Greece and Türkiye came close to military conflict in 1987, 1996 and in 2020, the last of which was over an accident when a Greek and a Turkish warship were involved in a minor collision during a standoff in the eastern Mediterranean. NATO stepped in in 1987 and in 1996 to help both sides cool off, and in 2020, Germany, which had the rotating presidency of the EU, took on the role of mediator.

The US is neutral no more. NATO’s war in Ukraine has brought long-festering issues between Ankara and Washington out into the open. The disagreements include US support of Kurds in Syria, Türkiye blocking Sweden’s NATO bid, Ankara’s refusal to open the Dardanelles to NATO warships, US sanctions and threat of sanctions, Washington’s refusal to extradite a cleric Türkiye blames for a 2016 coup attempt, Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems, Türkiye’s refusal to apply sanctions on Russia, and Ankara’s overall unwillingness to follow orders from Washington.

The US is now providing strong backing for Greece, which is clearly meant to send a message to Erdogan – at least that’s the belief inside Türkiye. Hasan Koni, a scholar on strategic studies at Istanbul Kultur University, told Türkiye’s Anadolu Agency::

The American security apparatus has also recognized that the balance of power in the region is shifting toward Türkiye and needs to be “checked by empowering Greece,” he said, adding that Washington’s push for more Greek bases is aimed at “containing Türkiye.”

The US has backed Greece despite the risk of a full break with Türkiye – the most important member of NATO due to its control of the Dardanelles and access to the Black Sea, as well as its second largest standing army in NATO.

Last year Greece deployed US-donated armored vehicles on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, and Samos, which is in violation of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty. Ankara is also enraged about Greece’s militarization of islands within sight of Türkiye’s western coast, such as the Dodecanese chain that includes Rhodes.

There have been reports of Greek military exercises involving tanks, artillery and attack helicopters being held on Rhodes and Lesbos. Ankara has issued protests through diplomatic channels to both Athens and Washington and sent letters of complaint to the UN, all to no avail.

The US is also proposing to the Greek armed forces to replace all Russian-made military equipment including air defense systems with new military equipment produced by the US, including US Patriot missiles, which is a slap in Türkiye’s face.

Beginning during the Gulf War, Türkiye asked NATO multiple times to deploy early warning systems and Patriot missiles to Türkiye, but was always turned down. US security experts Jim Townsend and Rachel Ellehus explained it like this:

Long suspicious that NATO did not appreciate Türkiye’s vulnerability in such a dangerous neighborhood, Ankara came to view its missile defense requests as a litmus test for how much NATO really cared about Türkiye.

Ankara didn’t like the answer to that litmus test. Türkiye felt ignored by its western partners as its EU membership was all but dead, and it wasn’t getting the military hardware it requested. In 2017 Türkiye turned to Russia. It purchased Russian S-400 missile defense systems, which only further strained ties with NATO.

In December, a consortium of Italy’s Eni and France’s TotalEnergies found more natural gas off Cyprus. The Greek Cypriot administration’s exploration program is also disputed by Türkiye, which claims overlapping jurisdictions either on its own continental shelf or in the waters of the Republic of Northern Cyprus. Cyprus is split between the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus in the south and the Turkish Republic of Cyprus in the north, which is recognized only by Ankara.

The US, wanting to keep the peace in NATO between Greece and Türkiye, had a decades-old policy of favoring negotiations on divided Cyprus and often acted as a mediator between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots.

But In September the Biden administration lifted the 35-year-old ban on the sale of US arms to the Republic of Cyprus. Congress restricted the sale of U.S. arms to Cyprus in 1987, hoping it would incentivize a diplomatic settlement to the island’s conflict.

Cyprus was required to block Russian naval vessels from accessing its ports in order to get the US arms sale ban lifted. Türkiye already has about 40,000 troops on the island, and Erdogan recently declared plans to reinforce them with land, naval and aerial weapons, ammunition and vehicles.

The decades’ old and UN-sanctioned principle of a bizonal, bicommunal federation on Cyprus has now broken down in favor of a two-state solution.

Despite the mad rush for Mediterranean gas in the wake of Europe and Russia schism, it still will not come close to replacing the amount that was piped in from Russia and requires rapid expansion of liquefaction capabilities, the connection of Israeli and Cypriot gas fields to such facilities, and/or implement pipelines, all of which will take years.

The EastMed Pipeline

The Trump administration backed a gas pipeline that would connect Israeli and Cypriot offshore gas fields to Greece and Italy. From there it would be shipped to the rest of Europe. The EastMed pipeline would have been the world’s longest (1,900 kilometers) and deepest underwater pipeline, initially providing 9-12 billion cubic meters annually.

One problem with the plan, however, was that it excluded Türkiye. In response, Erdogan opted to pursue Türkiye’s self-interest in gas through aggressive offshore oil exploration in disputed waters claimed by Cyprus. Turkish war vessels accompanied its drill ships near Cyprus, resulting in standoffs with Greek and French naval fleets. Ankara also began signing agreements with the government in Tripoli. From Dr Othon Anastasakis, Director of the European Studies Centre at the University of Oxford:

In November 2019, in response to Greece’s backing of the Mediterranean Gas Forum with Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Italy and Jordan, Türkiye signed a maritime agreement with Libya that cuts a corridor across the Aegean to demarcate new maritime boundaries, with the proposed line in this accord running close to the eastern side of the island of Crete. On October 3, 2022, Ankara signed a follow up preliminary agreement with the Tripoli government to explore for oil and gas off the Libyan coast without specifying whether the surveys would take place in waters south of Greece. In effect, Libya has become an important third actor in the bilateral dispute between Greece and Türkiye and relations between the Athens and Tripoli governments have suffered a major blow as a result.

In January 2022, the Biden Administration abruptly halted American support of EastMed. Israeli and even some American officials were reportedly surprised by the sudden decision as the State Department did not appear to have adequately consulted with Cyprus, Greece, and Israel ahead of time. Additionally, Biden was a vocal supporter of the project during his time as Obama VP, and the US position was consistently that Europe needed to wean itself off of Russian natural gas.

The US government and American private sector were not directly involved in the pipeline project (the agreement was signed in January 2020 by the governments of Israel, Greece, and Cyprus), but as Henri Barkey, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the National:

American support always affects a good housekeeping seal. When you have American buy-in, it’s easier for banks to provide financing for more countries to be interested. In that sense, what the US says is important.

US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria “Fuck the EU” Nuland has taken an active role in the Eastern Mediterranean and had this to say about the pipeline:

“Frankly, we don’t have 10 years, but in 10 years from now, we want to be far, far more green and far more diverse” in energy sources, Nuland said. “So what we’re looking for within the hydrocarbon context are options that can get us more gas, more oil for this short transition period.”

That short transition period also happens to rely heavily on US exports of LNG.

In November Greece canceled the long-planned privatization for the Alexandroupolis port with Mitsotakis declaring it too precious of a resource to relinquish. Instead the US military has set up shop there, using it as an entry point to funnel weapons to Ukraine. There are also plans in the works to create a floating gas storage and regasification unit at the port, which will be serviced by American LNG supplies. A pipeline from Alexandroupolis is also planned to send that gas north to the Balkans.

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30 comments

  1. Yves Smith

    Given the US interest in maximizing the value of its LNG, particularly since shale wells have a short production life, I wonder if mixing things up in the Mediterranean is intended to delay development.

    Reply
    1. DJG, Reality Czar

      Indeed:

      To reuse Hasan Koni’s insight from above: ‘The American security apparatus has also recognized that the balance of power in the region is shifting toward Türkiye and needs to be “checked by empowering Greece,” he said, adding that Washington’s push for more Greek bases is aimed at “containing Türkiye.” ‘

      This sounds as though the Greeks are being set up to be the new Ukraine. Or is it the new Taiwan?

      Greece, population 12 million. Turchia, population 80 million.

      It seems to me that the policy in Washington is to cause serious trouble and then manage it. It’s what Americans do best, I guess: Management of murderous forever wars.

      Anyone quoting George Washington these days about foreign entanglements? Hmmmm: To quote him: “inveterate antipathies against particular Nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded.”

      Reply
        1. Mikel

          And along that point: Alot of these scenarios keep the pathways in China’s Belt and Roads dreams in a state of chaos.

          Reply
        2. Willow

          Türkiye is becoming the new energy hub for Europe which means US will work towards Türkiye being kicked out of NATO & isolated from Europe using Greece as a proxy. New US base in Greece close to Dardanelles seems to be an attempt to ‘hedge’ the strategic fallout. Same way Ukraine is now being used to isolate Russia. Wouldn’t be surprised if US is behind the anti-Türkiye protests in Sweden. Trying to provoke Türkiye to the point of being kicked out of NATO. US’ geopolitical strategy built over the last 100 years is coming apart at the seams. Singular (State Dept) focus on containing Russia is blowing everything else up. Losing the Global South. Asia, in particular India, will be very wary of getting any closer to the West.

          Reply
          1. Mikel

            “Wouldn’t be surprised if US is behind the anti-Türkiye protests in Sweden.”

            NATO’s floundering to remain relevant does appear to coincide with less political stability recently in Sweden – less than stability than the country is given credit for historically.

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        3. digi_owl

          Creative destruction, on a global scale.

          I guess they hope for a rerun of the 50s-60s, when USA was the world factory.

          Reply
      1. digi_owl

        I seem to recall Greece and Turkey having been having spats since pretty much forever.

        Supposedly both tried to convince Pentagon to hand over the launch codes back in the day. Codes that were more recently revealed to be all zeroes as generals didn’t trust the president to actually order a launch should the moment come.

        Reply
  2. ddt

    Yep, Vicky “fuck the EU” Nuland came and poop-canned East-Med as too expensive.

    Now, as far as the casus beli the Turks have declared for a 12 mile expansion that would make the Aegean as what they claim “a Greek lake” this is probably true and I believe Greeks are willing to negotiate that. Now why waters off Crete are also under that casus beli threat, even by looking at the maps provided is a ludicrous stance.

    The map excluded the tiny Greek island of Castelorizo to the east of Rhodes and very close to Turkey. Big bone of contention the EEZ for that island as well. Turks are probably right in that instance.

    Reply
  3. The Rev Kev

    Excellent coverage of the situation in the eastern Med. But gawd, what a mess. By the sounds of it, Greece is to be the new Ukraine of the Mediterranean and thinks that Washington will back them to the hilt. Perhaps they are thinking that if they get into a fight with Türkiye, that a long term result would be that they would end up with full control of Cyprus – along with all those lucrative off-shore fields. There should be some major negotiations between the two of them to sort of some of their differences and irritants but it looks like DC just wants to splash some gasoline around this area. Türkiye could make some sorts of agreements with DC but what would they be worth? The US is already helping Greece break both the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty. I’m pretty sure that the US would like a regime change in Türkiye which would enable them to break the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and not only have as many US warships in the Black Sea that they want but to also have the new Türkiye government block Russians ships exiting the Dardanelles out to the Mediterranean. If a firefight broke out between Greece and Türkiye in the next five years, I would not be surprised at all. And if the US backs Greece while the Russians back Türkiye, what then?

    Reply
    1. Kouros

      You might have in mind the Montreaux Treaty fromm 1936, which is outside UNCLOS. There are more signatories there and turkyie relinquishing control of the straits would be something that no right minded politician or general would do if they want to stay alive, never mind power…

      Reply
  4. square coats

    I read somewhere, probably nearly a year ago by now, that there are probably oil or natural gas reserves in the Black Sea, and there was speculation that the reserves were a factor in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. However it was unclear whether the reserves were actually realistically accessible for various reasons that I don’t at all remember by now. Does anyone know if these reserves in the Mediterranean are a similar story?

    Reply
    1. digi_owl

      I think there are also plans for a pipeline of some sort going just south of Crimea back when that was Ukrainian waters, likely hooking Ukraine up to the Georgian end of the Baku pipeline.

      Reply
    2. PlutoniumKun

      There are Black Sea reserves, but they are low grade, not geopolitically important. The big gas fields are in the eastern Mediterranean and further inland, around the Caspian.

      It has to be said though that the entire region has always promised more than its delivered. A mix of complex geology and politics has meant that its been a graveyard for investors for decades. The Gulf remains the main global producer and will remain so for decades for very good geological reasons. There are no mega fields left undiscovered.

      Also, the hype about Black Sea pipelines and Turkey as a gas hub is just that… hype. The big producers are always trying to increase security by multiplying export routes, but they are usually too smart to put all their eggs in one (Turkish) basket. Everyone wants pipelines and new hubs, but they also always want someone else to pay for them.

      Reply
  5. Synoia

    Oil and gas deposits appear to occur in the seas at the end of large rivers. It appears given that dead animal caucuses washed down rivers for millions of years and provide the source of oil and gas.

    As usual this is about control of the money from extracted hydrocarbons. As for Nuland’s utterances, they are at best partially true, however an old definition of a Diplomat is “A gentleman who lies for his Country – that is the lies for the quote applies.

    The US will embrace non-oil based energy after the Oil Giants fail to profit from fossil fuels. Everything else is just theater,

    Reply
    1. digi_owl

      As i understand it, oil and gas is far more old plant matter than dead dinos. And much of it had been deposited long before the current continental layout.

      That said, it may be that these deposits has ended up closer to the surface thanks to plate tectonics pushing them up. And may explain why Asia seem to be in short supply (pacific plate being pushed under by the advancing American and eurasian plates).

      Reply
      1. PlutoniumKun

        Thats pretty much it. Commercial oil/gas reserves need three characteristics – a bed of high organic matter which is pushed under 2000 metres to ‘cook’ up as oil, or 5000 metres to crack to methane. It also needs an overlap of something impermeable to stop it dispersing as oil/gas is less dense than water. Then, in most cases, you need some sort of a void for it to concentrate nicely under pressure for when you drill into it.

        Most of the biggest oil and gas reserves are in former shallow organic rich seas that dried out, giving a nice overburden of salt (very impermeable). This is the so called ‘pre-salts’ of the Atlantic (formed when the Atlantic was like the Mediterranean, a shallow sea that went through a series of wet and dry periods). The deposits off Nigeria and those off Brazil are essentially the same formation, just pulled apart by plate tectonics. The other big deposits are usually associated with shales, sandstones, mudstones or other rocks that formed under shallow seas (often within continents) that dried out. You are right that Asia/Pacific has less as the tectonics have tended to destroy deposits, while in the Atlantic and Gulf region more recent opening up of oceans has created better conditions for oil/gas formations.

        Reply
  6. Susan the other

    Thank you for this explanation. I was wondering last year what Türkiye was doing, going full speed ahead across the Med to Libya while claiming an enormous continental shelf as its territory. I think maybe natgas will have a longer shelf life than a decade or so. It will be an established global infrastructure which can be maintained as an emergency energy fallback. Otherwise putting all this effort into it doesn’t make much sense.

    Reply
    1. Mikel

      “It will be an established global infrastructure which can be maintained as an emergency energy fallback.”

      Fallback systems maintined…
      Even now, not much of that going in this world of just in time supply chain insanity and short-term profit orientated economy .
      It makes sense to do emergency fallback, but the thick-headed neoliberals need to be gone.

      Reply
      1. digi_owl

        Yeah, their basic thinking is that product stored rather than sold are profits lost. Because they obsess over quarterly results to the detriment of long term sustainability.

        Reply
  7. scott s.

    The article I think has some technical flaw as regards navigation as “innocent passage” refers to navigation in the territorial sea, not within the EEZ. There is also in the Convention the concept of “transit passage”, with fewer sovereignty rights for coastal states, for waters deemed “international straits” that otherwise would be territorial seas. I don’t know if transit passage would apply in any of these waters.

    The US has not ratified the convention, but with respect to navigation and establishment of EEZ/Continental Shelf provisions the requirements of UNCLOS can be considered “customary international law”.

    Also, with respect to Souda Bay, the US Navy does operate Naval Support Activity Souda Bay there, within EUCOM, but that is part of a larger base which also supports Hellenic Navy and more importantly NATO Allied Maritime Command in the UK.

    Reply
  8. Lysias

    How do you transport weapons from Alexandroupolis to Ukraine? I doubt if the Turks would allow them to be shipped through the Straits.

    Reply
  9. Lex

    So the US strategy going forward will just be to destabilize as much of everything as possible. Realistically, it’s the only option left. At least since step back and become just a very important part of the multipolar world instead of being the ruler of the globe appears to be off the table.

    Reply
  10. russell1200

    FWIW, 40,000 troops is what Turkey brought to Cypress during the 1970s.

    NATO says Turkey has 30,000 in Cypress, Turkey says they have less than 20,000. Given what is listed as being stationed in Cypress, the Turkish number is very believable. The armored unit in place is listed as having M48 Patton tanks. Given that the Cypriots seem to have gotten hold of a small number of AMX-30 from the French (a latter tank, but so lightly armored that the Patton’s under gunned 90mm cannon is sufficient), I don’t see why Turkey would want to tie down lots of top line troops when it has plenty of other hot borders to worry about.

    In net, Turkey probably wins any fight on the island, but with obvious huge political ramifications.

    If there are any two countries that would help each other by burying the hatchet, it would have to be Greece and Turkey. They would both be greatly strengthened. I presume local politics prevents this happening. The expulsion from Smyrna in 1922 is roughly analogous to what the Cubans in Florida think of Castro-Cuba.

    Reply
  11. Sokratis Ioannidis

    About “which is in violation of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty”: I have seen this many times on NC lately. This is the Turkish position. People can take a look of Greek MFA’s position on this: https://www.mfa.gr/en/issues-of-greek-turkish-relations/relevant-documents/turkish-claims-regarding-the-demilitarization-of-islands-in-the-aegean-sea.html
    It’s good to be able to see all angles.
    My take on this is simple, if anyone asked. When the opposite party suddenly contests the long standing status quo (Turkey began this early 70s) and builds up a huge army right on your doormat, the right to defend your territory overrides any treaty. A treaty that describes demilitarization measures is eventually intended to protect peace, not to facilitate anyone’s aggression.

    Reply

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