Can Turkey Realign? The Eastern Mediterranean Test Case

By Richard Kraemer.

The question, “Where is Turkey headed?” is one that’s been asked with greater frequency in recent years. What began as this NATO member’s flirtations with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization morphed into President Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s embrace of Vladimir Putin. Many factors led to this geopolitical marriage of convenience between erstwhile enemies: Syria’s civil war, a deep mistrust of the West, and some common economic interests among others. Increasingly coming to the fore of these drivers is the role of energy politics – specifically, the transit and sale of natural gas through and to Turkey.

Natural gas is a key resource in Turkey’s energy portfolio, accounting for roughly one-third of its national usage per annum, over half of which is supplied by the Russian Federation. This overreliance on state-run Gazprom leaves Turkey vulnerable to political pressure from Moscow. Current cooperation aside, Russia demonstrated that it is willing to wield a heavy stick if displeased; this was the case with the biting sanctions that followed Turkey’s accidental downing of a Russian fighter jet in 2015.

Anakara’s exposure to gas pricing vulnerability is significant. As Turkey’s economy continues at the new norm of 2-3 percent growth, so diminishes the influence of the ruling Justice & Development Party (AKP). AKP has for well over a decade maintained its hold on Turkish politics in large part due to a robust practice of crony capitalism and job opportunities – private and public – for party members. This strategy worked at double-or-more the current growth rates. However, when natural gas price hikes become so burdensome that retail banks start offering consumer energy loans, AKP’s political grip diminishes proportionately, as witnessed with the party’s mayoral losses last year in Istanbul and Ankara.

This leaves AKP’s fortune dangerously susceptible to Russian machinations, market variations, pay-or-take contractual terms, or a combination of them. Consequently, Turkey has embarked on a strategy to diversify and develop into an energy market player. Given that Turkey’s terrain lacks substantive natural gas fields, President Erdogan is maneuvering to claim shares in deposits discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean – evermore so by force. Better for Turkish economic prosperity and security would be to seek a negotiated settlement that could help pave a way for Turkey’s affirming role in the transatlantic community.


Last year saw levels of bellicosity unseen to the seas of the Eastern Mediterranean since the Seventies. July 1974 was pivotal month for the peoples of Cyprus, when fraying tensions between Greek and Turkic populations burst into a pro-Greek coup d’etat. The takeover was met in kind by a Turkish invasion that left the country split in two. Today, the Greek-majority Republic of Cyprus is an internationally recognized EU member state. On the other hand, the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus languishes in unrealized economic potential and the state-sponsored immigration of non-Cypriot Turks aligned with AKP. This state of affairs ebbs and flows as reconciliation remains elusive. Until the discovery of abundant natural gas deposits in Eastern Mediterranean over the last decade, it was only a matter of time before the island’s contested status would come to the fore.

At stake are exploration and drilling rights for natural gas in the waters surrounding Cyprus. Contestation lies in competing claims of exclusive economic zones, as well as the limits of the continental shelf. These and other territorial delimitations are addressed in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (CLOS). The Republic of Cyprus is a signatory to CLOS; Turkey is not and with understandable reasons. For example, considering the Convention’s 12-nautical-mile limit to territorial waters, one Turkish count of hundreds of Greek isles in the Aegean Sea estimated Athens’ Aegean claims growing from 44 to 71 percent.[1]

While foregoing CLOS, Turkey is not above citing international law and custom when it suits their own interests. A glaring example is the November 2019 agreement signed on maritime boundaries between Turkey and the under-siege-yet-internationally-recognized government in Libya. While the official delineation of these newly avowed maritime claims remains unpublished, Athens and analysts scratch their heads on how these countries’ leaders effectively overlooked the intervening island of Crete, any adjacent territory under Greek sovereignty, or respect for international waters.


TRT World, Why Did Turkey Sign a Maritime Deal with Libya? (2019)

Undeterred by geography, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu nonetheless declared the agreement as “protecting Turkey’s rights under international law” while noting that Ankara is open to reaching similar accords with other Eastern Mediterranean states. Greece and Cyprus are presumedly at the top of this list of states, with Israel next in line. On January 2, those three states penned a deal to lay a pipeline from Israel’s Leviathan subsea gas field, transiting through Republic of Cyprus territory to Crete and then on to Greece in pursuit of reaching the wider European market. The Ankara-Tripoli maritime agreement is purported by Turkey to subject pipeline construction to Erdogan’s approval.

The question arises as to what standards would govern the substance of any such negotiations. Given that Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, and the European Union are all signatories to CLOS, entertaining any significant deviations from that Convention would be problematic for the Union’s 23 maritime members and therefore unlikely to receive any needed political support in Brussels.  Accordingly, a politically feasible starting point for negotiations between Ankara and any one of those parties would begin with the Convention’s treatment of exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and continental shelf delimitation.

The CLOS definition of an EEZ is straightforward when compared to defining the terminus of a continental shelf; namely, not beyond 200 nautical miles (nm) from baseline measurements.[2] It concerns the seabed and subsoil with respect to the following Part VI addressing the continental shelf. According to CLOS Article 76, a coastal state has rights to a continental shelf out to 200 nm, extending beyond this limit where the physical continental margin (i.e. shelf, slope, and rise) is of a greater distance.[3] Given the size and proximity of Eastern Mediterranean waters, special terms would need to be negotiated.

For example, Israel, Egypt, and Lebanon reached their own bilateral agreements with Cyprus delimiting their outward boundaries at the meridian distance between their shores and the island’s. Ankara has shown little interest in literally meeting Nicosia halfway as indicated in the above map. Absent a delimitation agreement, the median line would customarily serve as the default boundary.

Unsheathing… and?

Maritime limits unresolved, Erdogan decided to make the proverbial facts on the ground. In 2019, Turkish drilling vessels Fatih and Yavuz, accompanied by frigates and submarines, began drilling only 36.6 nm west of Cyprus (i.e. the Republic’s side) and 30 nm south of the median line between mainland Turkish and Cypriot waters. This alleged claim-jump is being challenged by Nicosia and the French and Italian companies awarded hydrocarbon exploration rights.

Protests from Brussels and elsewhere were followed with joint naval exercises between these three states; similarly, Cypriot-Egypt-Greek naval maneuvers were also undertaken last autumn. In response, Turkish leadership answered with its own rhetorical volleys, delivering armed drones to the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus and chasing Israeli exploratory vessels from waters claimed by Nicosia. Viewing this state of affairs, security analyst Craig Hooper observed that, “Outside of overwhelming physical presence by maritime forces, only the credible threat of a sharp deterrent—the sinking or seizure of a trespassing vessel—seems to work in rolling back maritime expansion via naval-backed fiat.”

The swords are slowly leaving their sheaths. For the moment, Erdogan plays an especially risky game of brinkmanship with European powers over Cyprus and Libya. But to what end? Turkey’s new LNG and storage capacity will help alleviate the country’s overreliance on poorly negotiated Gazprom contacts, as well as newer, non-Russian sources via the TANAP pipeline. Moreover, the Erdogan government would be poorly positioning itself as a reliable energy transit hub to Europe were it to physically confront EU member state naval forces over these disputed waters. Turkey and its people would only endure needless political and economic isolation in return.

Try as the Erdogan government may to realign eastward or – more accurately – inward, energy concerns provide another example of Turkey’s deep integration into European and Western structures. Its economy, security, and geography remain linked foremost to the transatlantic community whose firm show of deterrence in the Eastern Mediterranean is essential. Erdogan has shown that he’ll relent when the response is clear and forceful, as it was from Moscow in 2015.  Unlike the Kremlin, however, the transatlantic community should endeavor to resume the unequivocally daunting task of resolving Nicosia and Ankara over Cyprus’ final status. Marking a meridian line in the Mediterranean while negotiating natural gas revenues that benefit all Cypriots would be a good start.

[1] Nicole & Hugh Pope, Turkey Unveiled – A History of Modern Turkey 195 (1st ed. 1998).

[2] Convention on the Law of the Sea art. 57, Dec. 10, 1949,

[3] Ted L. McDorman, The Continental Shelf from The Oxford Handbook of The Law of The Sea 181 (2017).

967Richard Kraemer is the President of the US-Europe Alliance and a Eurasia Program fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, where his recent research is largely focused on Balkan and Turkish affairs. Previously, Richard managed the National Endowment for Democracy’s program portfolio on Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. Prior to NED, he oversaw programs in those states and the Levant at the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), during which he lived in Kabul while establishing a chamber of commerce. Richard also taught law and researched at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. He is an affiliated expert of the Public International Law and Policy Group, where he advised the governments of Georgia and Montenegro. He’s appeared in numerous international and U.S. media including Newsweek, New York Times, Al Jazeera, Agence-France Presse, El Pais, Radio Free Europe and Wiener Zeitung. A member of the New York State Bar Association, Richard holds a JD from American University and a BA from the College of William and Mary. He is professionally proficient in Polish, Farsi, and Dari.

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