In 2012 Turkey formally laid claim to the northern section of the Eastern Mediterranean. It was the year that several maps depicting sea areas west of Cyprus and south of the eastern Aegean islands of Rhodes and Kastellorizo were published in the Turkish government gazette.
The Turkish government was ceding research and development rights of these areas to state energy company TPAO. The timing was directly linked to political developments in Greece. The maps were published on April 27, 2012, 10 days ahead of parliamentary elections in Greece on May 6.
It would be a mistake to treat the concession as an isolated gesture aimed simply at taking stock of Turkey’s territorial claims in the region ahead of a political changeover in Greece. It was part of a larger plan to claim the biggest part of the Eastern Mediterranean continental shelf. Similar concessions to TPAO in 1973-74 marked the beginning of the problem in delineating the Aegean continental shelf.
There has been no change since then. The timing of those claims was linked to political conditions in Greece during election time. Turkey knows that when Greece is in pre-election mode (particularly double elections, like those coming up in May), reactions tend to come with a delay.
Greece went on to lodge the usual complaints with the United Nations, while issuing vague condemnations of Turkey’s actions. Seven years have passed since then. Everyone knows what Turkey’s exact claims are in the area. Greece has still not come up with a clear definition of what it considers the precise boundaries of its continental shelf in the Eastern Mediterranean. It merely protests Turkey’s actions.
All that is pointed out for the following three reasons: First, in the coming weeks all eyes will be set on the statements by ExxonMobil Corp regarding offshore exploration in Block 10. The company is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and its shareholders need to know if the big investment in Eastern Mediterranean oil and gas drilling has paid off. A lot will depend on the answer. The size of the deposit will decide the sustainability of the EastMed pipeline, incentives for future drills in the area, fresh talks to settle the Cyprus problem (under the same adverse conditions), and, ultimately, the strategic imprint of Greece and Cyprus on the new Eastern Mediterranean equilibrium.
The second point is related to Turkey’s anxious moves to exit the Eastern Mediterranean deadlock. At first it tried to stop research in blocks of Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Recent signals, most prominent a statement by US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell, who said that America “would not take a friendly view in any kind of harassment in Cyprus waters, especially when US ships are involved,” have been clear.
Turkey was quick to turn to the more familiar area of the Aegean. Differences here are of a bilateral nature, between Greece and Turkey. As a result, they are easier to handle than the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, where many different international players are involved. But this did not last for long. In a directive to seafarers (navigational telex, or navtex) on January 3, Turkey announced that its research vessel Barbaros Hayreddin Pasa will conduct seismic surveys within a large chunk of the Greek continental shelf and the Cypriot EEZ in the Eastern Mediterranean.
These are the areas claimed by Turkey in 2012. Until now, the Barbaros used to conduct illegal surveys in parts of the Cypriot EEZ. It had for years stayed clear of the Kastellorizo and Rhodes continental shelves. This marks a shift in Turkish policy that must be taken note of. Turkey’s activity near Kastellorizo does not impact on American interests. Furthermore, the sea area in question is officially claimed by Ankara.
The third, and most worrying, point is that 2019 is an election year in Greece. We are unofficially already in pre-election mode. Political polarization will be in full throttle. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will seek to exploit the vacuum, as he did in 2012. Any reactions to Ankara’s moves cannot possibly be dictated by whim or serve the political ends of Greece’s junior coalition partner as it seeks to renew its representation in the House.
Instead, Greece’s Turkey policy must be based on a broader plan that will take into consideration two things: 1) At stake is the unobstructed completion of Cyprus’s energy program, and 2) Turkey will center its attention on the Kastellorizo area as it considers it to be the Achilles’ heel of Greece’s maritime claims.
Angelos Syrigos is an associate professor of international law and foreign policy at Athens’s Panteion University.