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The Mediterranean Cauldron

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By: Mehraj udin Bhat

In the Mediterranean Sea where bordering countries like Turkey, Greece and Egypt are engaged in a maritime dance of political posturing and escalation is likely to occur and the conflict is likely to simmer. At the centre of this geopolitical cauldron is the series of Gas Basins located around 160 kms off the shores of the island of Cyprus, here in this part of Eastern Mediterranean a single spark could light a geopolitical firestorm. The Levantine Basin that is part of the larger geopolitical contestation is located in the Eastern Mediterranean and is home to largest reserves of hydrocarbons and other resources worth billions of dollars. The large scale investments by many companies highlight its significance and this is where geopolitics comes into this and situation intensifies exponentially as the reserves lie in the area of geopolitical rivalries and contestations.

The closest entities to these Gas basins are the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus; the two have been on a contentious stalemate since 1980’s. The Republic of Cyprus has deep ties with Greece, strong relations with the West, is a member of European Union and with wider international recognition is granted an exclusive economic zone that enables it dejure control over oceanic resources. On the other hand the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is a defacto state whose sovereignty is only recognized by Turkey and has weak international standing, lacks the same level of recognition.

Turkey and Greece have long been considered the leading players in the Eastern Mediterranean and for decades the two have disputed over various areas of maritime territory, much of which stems from Greece’s control over an array of islands located just off Turkey’s shores. Under the UNCLOS these islands make up Greece’s Exclusive Economic Zones, which threatens Turkey’s own ability to access key resources such as the natural gas basins to the country’s south. Both nations used the Cyprus conflict as part of this wider political friction, where Turkey argues that Northern Cyprus is entitled to oceanic resources as much as the Republic of Cyprus and the Turks use that argument to extend their access to the Levantine basin, virtually cutting Greece off. The Greeks are not happy with this proposal so have put their own claims that would cut the former off from the wider Mediterranean. Greece and Cyprus are seeking to use international organizations like the EU to cap Turkish movements in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The dispute is not limited to the island of Cyprus but stretches to the war torn Libya where Turkey and France are involved in battle space supporting the Tripoli (Libya) based govt and Tobruk (Libya) based govt respectively. In recent past Turkish lawmakers met with key officials of the UN recognized govt of National Accord based in Tripoli and stuck a deal with them that would connect Turkey’s EEZ to Libya’s north eastern coast,  however it has sparked outrage from other states especially France that backs the Cyprus’s claim of Turkey’s intervention in the sovereign waters of Cyprus.  It is argued that the reason for the French resentment is because the Turks salvaged the Tripoli based govt in Libya where France has been supporting the forces of General Haftar of the Libyan National Army, the representative body based in Tobruk. By striking a deal with Tripoli, Turkey had capsized the whole strategy of France and French resentment was seen when it pulled out of NATO’s operation “Sea Guardian” and denounced Turkey’s claim that it had violated weapons embargo in Libya.

As tensions reignited in Libya it roused the attention of Libya’s immediate neighbor Egypt, who for many years has supported the armed forces of the Tobruk govt due to its own geopolitical compulsions.  Although located at relatively far from the Gas Basin reserves, Egypt has worked diligently to foster stronger ties with the other Mediterranean powers to access the Basin.

The Eastern Mediterranean Gas forum nicknamed as the OPEC of the Mediterranean was founded in Cairo in January 2019 that was attended by Officials from Greece, Italy, The Republic of Cyprus, Jordan, Israel, and even Palestine. The goal was to collaborate on the exploration and the production of these resources, Turkey was deliberately left out! In Jan 2020, Egypt initiated a large scale meeting with Cyprus, France, Greece and Italy to denounce Turkey’s actions in Libya. A few months later in August, Egypt signed a Maritime Boundary Deal with Greece enabling both countries to cooperate on resource exploitation but would undermine Turkey’s access to the sea. Israel located on the Eastern shore, has attempted to assert itself into a more dominant position while also garnering the support of the other nations. Much of its policy has revolved around its relationship with the Turkey which has been rocky in recent years. As Turkey has moved away from Israel which has led to an alliance between Israel, Greece and Republic of Cyprus, who signed the Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline deal that will bring Mediterranean hydrocarbons to the European markets and bypass Turkey!

The geopolitical map becomes more understandable with two sides emerging on opposite ends, Turkey with its close network of allies in Northern Cyprus and Tripoli based Libya. On the other end is a relatively loose chain of relationships including Greece, The republic of Cyprus, France, Israel, Egypt and Tobruk based Libya, though most of them have economic, military and diplomatic issues that bar them to assert more. None of the coastal states have spare assets or resources to employ and that might exactly be the most significant factor contributing to the tensions is economics.

All of the Mediterranean nations have faltering economies, monetary and financial complications, the wealth underneath the Sea bed holds promises of economic salvation that  entire region needs so desperately to restructure and reconfigure their geopolitical and economic outlooks. Political rhetoric and military posturing are tools to gain an edge in the final negotiations in the final solution.

  • The writer is student of international politics and can be reached at [email protected]

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