Rising tides of tension in the Eastern Mediterranean

Rising tides of tension in the Eastern Mediterranean

Turkey, which has been immersed in a situation of economic crisis ahead of its recent electoral race, has become surrounded on all sides in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Israel, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece, which, with the support of the United States and some European countries, have begun to explore recently discovered oil and gas fields, which has led to a significant escalation of tension in regional waters. At the same time, the US, Russia and Great Britain have also pushed to maintain and strengthen their positions in the Mediterranean Sea.


Despite the heavy competition, Turkey is also not standing by idly, and The Turkish Armed Forces (AF) have launched large-scale military exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean. The US has increased its provocations by pushing Greece and the Republic of Cyprus to the forefront of its agena. By conducting exercises in the three seas, Ankara intends to demonstrate that it can resist threats and provocations that encroach on the right of Turkey’s presence in the region.

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Despite the large variety of news-worthy events in the Mediterranean, Turkish media has mostly focused on the municipal elections. Turkish media has done very little to attract the interest of the Turkish public to the important developments taking place in the region. The smaller sources who have attempted to highlight the broader issues have been unsuccessful in getting much traction in public discourse.  One of these publications is the newspaper Karar, which has prepared detailed material about the events in the Mediterranean.


Ankara resolutely stopped the attempts of the Greek Cypriots to unilaterally explore the gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, saying that Turkey “will not allow a fait accompli to be put in front of them.” As soon as the Fatih Turkish drilling vessel sailed from the port of Antalya to conduct its first deepwater drilling operation in the Mediterranean, an “alliance of interests” began seeking to snatch its chunk of profits from billions of dollars of natural gas. The EU declared support for Cyprus. In parallel, the Cypriots issued a scandalous statement calling Turkey’s gas exploration work an attempt at an occupation.

After Turkey mirrored the actions of the Cypriots, who had unilaterally declared the coastal waters of Cyprus their exclusive economic zone and began geological exploration there, tensions in the region reached a critical point.

In response to this step, Turkey, acting as the guarantor of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, is conducting joint geological exploration work with Nicosia, while countries including the USA, the United Kingdom and Germany have joined the Cypriots. European Council President Donald Tusk said that the EU is united in their support of the Republic of Cyprus, which is experiencing a crisis in relations with Turkey because of intelligence work in the Eastern Mediterranean. Speaking at an unofficial summit of EU member states in Romania, Tusk stressed that the EU expects Turkey to show respect for the sovereign rights of a member country of the council. Representatives of the Greek community of Cyprus reported that the Fatih Turkish drilling vessel had anchored to the south-west of the island, 68 km from the city of Paphos, but was not yet drilling yet. In addition, the Cypriots say that the Fatih vessel is accompanied by several support ships and the frigate of the Turkish Navy.

During a meeting in Romania, the President of the Republic of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, informed European leaders about the events in the Eastern Mediterranean. He called Turkey’s drilling operations “an unprecedented increase in illegal activity,” and likened them to a “new occupation.” The leader of the Greek community of Cyprus called for joint action against Turkey and stated the need for the introduction of restrictive measures against the participants of the drilling operations of Turkey.

Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, answering journalists’ questions after the summit, stressed that this topic is not an internal issue of Cyprus or Turkish-Cypriot relations, but affects the interests of Europe.

In addition, Tsipras said that, if Turkey continues “provocative actions”, the first EU summit after the elections to the European Parliament, which will be held from May 23-26, will include the necessary measures on this issue. “The EU should send a clear message to Turkey,” said Tsipras.


The UK has expressed dissatisfaction with the geological exploration of Turkey on the Eastern Mediterranean shelf on behalf of Cyprus. Jeremy Hunt, the head of the British Foreign Office, said that they are concerned about Turkey’s announcement regarding the drilling. All parties must demonstrate prudence and restraint. Income from the production of hydrocarbons should belong to residents of Cyprus, in connection with which, they must support the search for a compromise solution, he indicated.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel also expressed her support for the Republic of Cyprus and announced her intention to protect the rights and interests of Cyprus. During the summit, Anastasiades spoke about the essence of the crisis with Turkey and appealed to Germany for support. “He asked us to protect the interests of Cyprus in the event that we maintain contacts with Turkey. We intend to fulfill this request, ” the Chancellor said.



US State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus stressed in a written statement made the day before the summit, saying that The United States is seriously concerned about Turkey’s intention to start drilling in the region, which the Republic of Cyprus declared its exclusive economic zone. “We urge the Turkish authorities to put an end to these works, and all parties to show restraint in their actions,” he said.


Tensions in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea were initiated by the discovery of huge hydrocarbon deposits in the region. As soon as it became known that the deposits discovered on the Cyprus shelf possess the largest reserves of natural gas in the world, energy superpowers rushed one after another into the region. At the same time, Turkey, which expressed its dissatisfaction with the unilateral actions of the Greek authorities, signed an agreement with Nicosia and began exploration and drilling in the coastal waters of Cyprus. One of the most striking events that threatened to bring tensions into open confrontation was the withdrawal of a drilling ship owned by the Italian company Eni, which was chased away by Turkish warships.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan released a statement last November saying that those who considered it possible to take steps in the Eastern Mediterranean or the Aegean Sea, contrary to the interests of Turkey will soon realize what a big mistake they had made. “As we taught terrorists in Syria, in the same way, we will not leave a single chance to the sea robbers.”



After the discovery of large hydrocarbon fields in the region, CYPRUS, starting in 2002, began to conclude an agreement on the creation of an exclusive economic zone with a number of coastal countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Israel. In turn, Turkey, being the guarantor of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, protested these agreements, having already reached an agreement on it within the UN. In response, in 2007, Cyprus signed 13 licensing agreements with major energy corporations in the United States, France, Qatar and Italy. Northern Cyprus responded to this step by signing similar agreements with Turkey.

Of the 13 sites on the Cyprus shelf for which the Greek authorities received a license, 4 sites completely and 1 site partially coincides with the zones transferred by Northern Cyprus to the Turkish oil and gas company TPAO for geological exploration.


The event, which further aggravated the situation in the region, was the beginning of exploration at the 10th station in the south of Cyprus by the American energy giant Exxon Mobil at the end of 2018. The first information about the results of work in this zone appeared in 2019. The company, leading joint activities with the Qatari Qatar Petroleum, announced the discovery in the coastal waters of Cyprus as one the largest gas fields in the world.


Recently, the Eastern Mediterranean has become a region of significantly increased military activity. Due to the Syrian crisis, countries such as Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom and France have deployed large naval units in this region. Turkey and Greece have also increased its military activity in the area. In 2019, Turkey, which is concerned about the attempts of other countries to limit its military presence, conducted large-scale naval exercises. The last intense escalation of military tension in the region occurred in early 2018 when Turkish military vessels prevented the drilling ship SAIPEM2000, owned by Italian ENI, from entering the coastal waters of Cyprus. In October 2018, Turkey declared that a Greek frigate had attempted to interfere with the work of the Turkish research vessel Barbaros Hayreddin Pasa in the area of ​​the coastal waters of Cyprus near the town of Gyuzelüurt.


Turkey’s largest and most strategically important route for the supply of oil and gas to Europe passes through Turkey. However, tensions in the coastal waters of Cyprus led to the redrawing of the energy supply map and the search for new alliances. Israel, Egypt and Cyprus, united on the basis of a plan for the extraction of hydrocarbons in the largest fields on their territory (in Israel, these are Tamar and Leviathan fields, Zohr in Egypt, Afrodite Cyprus) and their transportation through gas pipelines to the European market. With the participation of Greece, they began to form new platforms for regional cooperation.



On January 14, 2019, in the Egyptian capital Cairo with the participation of Israel, Italy, the Palestinian Authority, the Republic of Cyprus, Egypt, Jordan and Greece, the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum was created as a mechanism for regional cooperation. The purpose of the Forum was to ensure coordination between the member countries of the Forum for the optimal use of natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as the formation of a regional gas market that meets the interests and objectives of the participating countries. Turkey, Syria and Lebanon were left behind by the newly created Forum. However, after the negotiations between Lebanon and Israel in April, Turkey became the only one of the countries to no longer participate in the forum.


Meanwhile, from the point of view of the global energy market, the small volumes of natural gas produced in the region raise the question of how to process and sell energy. According to expert estimates, the construction of an LNG terminal by Cyprus will cost 5 billion euros, and the cost of implementing the Cyprus-Greece-Italy gas pipeline (EASTMED) will be 6 billion euros. Given the impossibility of laying a gas pipeline through Turkey for political reasons, the use of Egypt’s LNG export terminals is considered the most acceptable idea for Israel and Cyprus.


While discussions are continuing among countries on the distribution of exclusive economic zones, the Eastern Mediterranean is divided into 13 districts proclaimed unilaterally by the Greek Cypriots. The Greek authorities during the bidding sold these areas for the development of international companies. The zones located in the north are called the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd sections, respectively; the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 13th sections are located in the center. , and in the south – the 10th, 11th, and 12th sites.


A joint license for the development of the 2nd, 3rd and 9th sites is owned by the Italian company Eni and the South Korean company Kogas. At the same time, Eni owns 80 percent in the share ratio, and Kogas the remaining 20. At the 6th and 11th sites, the rights are owned by Eni and the French company Total, who have equal shares, while the 8th section is fully assigned to Eni. 35% of the 12th block consists of the shares of the American company Nobel, and the rest is divided between the British BG and the Israeli companies Delek and Avner. In the region that Turkey and Northern Cyprus are claiming to develop, only at the 10th and 11th plots, the exclusive economic zones of different countries have no overlap. The so-called development licenses on the 10th block belong to the American company Exxon Mobil and Qatari Petroleum, and the 11th block is jointly controlled by Total and Eni. Negotiations between the parties continue for the remaining 1st, 4th, 5th, 7th and 13th precincts.


Meanwhile, the military exercises of the Sea Wolf -2019 (Denizkurdu-2019), launched by the Turkish Navy as part of the annual military training program of the Turkish General Staff, are being held simultaneously in the waters of the three seas – the Black, Aegean and Mediterranean. These exercises of the Turkish Armed Forces aim to demonstrate the power and influence of Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Military exercises include the participation of 131 ships, 57 aircraft and 33 helicopters. The exercises are closely monitored by many regions of the world, in particular, the US and Greek media.

The exercises cover the Eastern Mediterranean region and aim at increasing the level of combat training among formations, ships and aircraft of the Turkish Navy. They will include practice for carrying out strikes from domestic weapons systems on high-speed surface and air drones, as well as strikes from ships to on the ground targets from multilateral howitzers, unmanned aerial vehicles using UMTAS and L-UMTAS self-projectiles and artillery attacks coordinated with aviation.

The exercise will end on May 25th.

Nurettin Kurt
Journalist, specialist in criminology, recipient of the EU Prize for Journalism and Turkish Journalists' Association’s press freedom award , and the author of “Journalist-wolf in the stressful triangle - Incident-police proceedings-lawsuit”,  Sedat Simavi Journalism Award - 2007 (Turkey) 32 yıllık gazeteci, polis ve adliye uzmanı, Sedat Simavi Gazetecilik Ödülü başta olmak üzere, 2011 ve 2017 TGC Başarı ödülü, Avrupa Birliği Araştırmacı Gazetecilik Ödülü, iki kez Çağdaş Gazeteciler Derneği haber ödülü, yedi kez Barış Selçuk Gazetecilik Ödülü ile birlikte çeşitli Sivil Toplum Kuruluşları tarafından ödüle layık görülmüştür, ‘Olay-Polis-Adliye- Gerilim Üçgeninde Kurt Gazeteci’ isimli kitabın yazarıdır

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