The rosy future of the offshore East Mediterranean (East-Med) gas boom is in jeopardy. The current COVID-related economic downturn, combined with the dramatic drop in demand for oil and gas worldwide, has already led to several delays for major offshore gas projects in Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, and Greece. Offshore E&P budgets have been cut by all oil and gas companies, leaving no room for high-risk natural gas developments in the East Med in the coming years.
Oil Price reports in its article Turkey’s Latest Geopolitical Gamble Could Result In Catastrophe that geopolitical and military tensions between Turkey and the other players in the region, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, and even Israel is rising fast. Ankara’s unexpected but strong support for the Libyan Tripoli-based government which is fighting out a long-lasting conflict against East Libyan general Haftar’s LNA forces has not only tilted the power structure in Libya, but has also put Ankara, as a NATO member, on a collision course with Russia and the UAE.
At the same time, Turkish military moves in Libya, aiming to not only open up Africa’s largest oil reserves to Turkish companies but also to expand its sphere of influence in the East Med, have put a confrontation with Egypt and possibly France on the table. In 2020, a military confrontation between NATO members (Turkey-France) or allies of NATO (UAE, Egypt, Israel) in the Middle East is no longer unthinkable. Ankara’s approach in Libya suggests an aggressive Turkish military strategy intended to set up military bases in the region.
On July 3, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Chief of General Staff Gen. Yasar Guler have visited Libya to review the activities carried out under a memorandum of understanding between the two countries. The main focus during the visit was the expansion of the Defense Security Cooperation and Training Assistance Advisory Command, which was created within the scope of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between Turkey and Libya on November 27, 2019. In the same MOU, Turkey and Libya signed the highly contested EEZ agreement, that asserts Turkey's rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, putting Ankara on a full collision course with Cyprus, Egypt, and Greece. A military confrontation of some sort has been a distinct possibility since that moment.
Ankara’s aggressive moves, however, may have reached a point of no return in the last few days.
On June 10, Turkish navy vessels conducted radar-targeting on a French warship trying to approach a Turkish civilian ship suspected of skirting a NATO arms embargo on Libya. French government sources have reported that France’s Courbet frigate was “lit up” three times by Turkish radar. The incident has led to the end of French support for the NATO naval mission, while officially requesting a NATO investigation.
France, and indirectly other NATO countries, such as Italy and Greece, are now openly discussing supporting the Eastern Libyan general Haftar, whose forces have come under pressure after his latest military assault on the GNA ruled region around Tripoli ended in an unexpected defeat. Egypt has also now openly warned Turkey and the GNA forces not to cross the Sirte line, a key threshold in the Libyan oil sector. If Ankara and Tripoli continue their military advance, Egyptian president Sisi has warned that the Egyptian armed forces will enter Libya to support Haftar.
The current crisis within NATO (and the EU), sparked by Turkish actions is a major concern.
A military conflict within the alliance will not only weaken its position with regards to Russia’s power projections, but also puts security in the (East) Mediterranean at risk. France at present lobbying to put sanctions on Turkey. On July 13, a council of EU foreign ministers will discuss EU-Turkish relations.
While all eyes are now on Libya, Turkey’s military moves in the East Med are even more worrying. As some have indicated already, Turkey’s Libya adventure falls within the strategy of squeezing the Middle East into submission. Ankara’s military projects in Qatar, the Horn of Africa, Sudan, and now Libya, set up a circle of military power threatening Arab nations, at least in their views. East Med military moves, officially to support Turkish oil and gas companies to search for offshore reserves, are a direct threat to Greece and Cyprus. The so-called ultra-nationalist “Blue Homeland” military strategy adopted by Turkey is clear in its goals. Erdogan’s military doctrine targets the domination of the Aegean, most of the Mediterranean, and of the Black Sea. The ongoing provocations in the East Med, which doesn’t only include Greece-Cyprus but also Egypt and Israel, are the evidence.
The current chaos in NATO and the EU could hamper a joint concerted action in case of unwanted Turkish action in the region. During the last couple of years, analysts have focused on perceived U.S./Washington support for East Med economic and energy integration via the East Med Gas Forum.
The U.S. Senate and Congress have even supported some anti-Turkish moves, such as the end of military sanctions on Cyprus. Washington, especially via its thinktanks, such as Atlantic Council, has been painting a positive pro-East Med (Greece, Cyprus, Egypt-Israel) picture of economic, political, and military support. This policy, as has been stated by some, needs to be taken with a truck-load of salt, as the Trump Administration is once again opening up to Ankara.
The East Med tinder box is not only a threat to its offshore gas future. A military conflict in the region, involving Turkey, will threaten several major commodity and trade chokepoints. A confrontation could lead to a major blockade of the Dardanelles (Istanbul), the Suez Canal (Egypt), and the route between Libya and the southern Italian islands. Ankara’s regional power play is not only of concern to the littoral states of the East Med, but also to GCC oil and gas exporters and EU-Asian trade. Erdogan’s regional gamble could end up being a major catastrophe.