NATO is caught in a combustible mix of oil, Libyan arms and longstanding grievances between Greece and Turkey.
By: James Stavridis
Whenever I’ve sailed the waters, during the Cold War and afterward, there has been intense disagreement about maritime boundaries, conflicting claims for natural resources, and other geopolitical pressures stemming from the unstable relations among Greece, Turkey, Israel, Cyprus and Syria.
Unfortunately, I’ve never seen things more volatile in the eastern Mediterranean than right now — even in periods when Israel has been in combat against its neighbors ashore. What are the factors driving this tension, and what is the role of the U.S.?
First, the current turbulence stems largely from the discovery of large deposits of oil and natural gas in the seabed. Estimates put the size of the deposits at around 2 billion barrels of oil and 4 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, and the nations of the region naturally are moving aggressively to exploit the wealth. In January 2019, a loose consortium to develop the resources was forged, consisting of Israel, Egypt, Italy, Greece, Jordan and the Palestinian territories — but not Turkey.
The Turks were understandably incensed, and have dispatched oil exploration vessels and drilling ships escorted by Turkish Navy warships. One, the exploration ship Oruc Reis, entered what Greece considers its territorial waters this summer, putting tensions at a new high. Turkey’s actions have earned the condemnation of the European Union.
Second, the eastern Mediterranean is also the transit zone for Turkish and Russian warships sending arms to opposing sides in the Libyan civil war. Turkey is supporting the United Nations-recognized government in the capital of Tripoli, while Russia (along with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab nations) is supporting the rebel forces of General Khalifa Haftar.
The EU is trying to enforce an arms embargo on the Libyan conflict (much as I did while commanding North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces during the 2011 civil war). In June, this resulted in a confrontation between French and Turkish warships, which illuminated each other with their fire-control radars, the final step before firing a missile. NATO allies coming this close to a major military incident is unheard of.
President Emmanuel Macron of France, which supports the claims of Greece and Cyprus, calls stopping Turkey’s aggressive actions a “red-line” issue. “When it comes to Mediterranean sovereignty, I have to be consistent in deeds and words,” he told reporters last week. “I can tell you that the Turks only consider and respect that.”
The third point of contention is between Greece and Turkey over Aegean territorial disagreements. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis recently proposed extending his nation’s territorial sea claims over its islands on the western, Italian side of Greece from 6 nautical miles to 12. The Turks have warned that if Greece tried extending its claims similarly eastward, in the Aegean Sea toward Turkey, it would be cause to go to war.
Turkey’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar, has called for talks. I know Akar well from NATO days, and he is a thoughtful, sensible leader who will do what he can to make peace. But there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for negotiation right now.
The entire scenario in the eastern Mediterranean is playing to Russia’s advantage. Above all, it is causing serious rifts in the NATO alliance. The Turks and Greeks have never gotten along, but rarely have things been this heated, and France lining up strongly behind the latter is a new twist. The Germans are trying to mediate, with little success.
As Turkey feels pushed away from both NATO and the EU, it strengthens the tendency of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to work with Russia (notwithstanding their disagreement over the sides in Libya). As Turkey feels more estranged from the alliance, it may be more inclined to purchase advanced weapons from Moscow — as it already has with Russia’s advanced S400 missile system.
All of this is exacerbated by a sense in Europe and the Middle East that the U.S. is trying to disengage from the wider area. Washington’s recent announcement that it plans to pull troops out of Iraq fueled this impression, as have the Trump administration’s comments about leaving Syria and Afghanistan.
Instead of ducking out, the U.S. should try to act as a mediator between Turkey and the Greece-France-Cyprus trio. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a start on Wednesday, saying, “We’re urging everyone to stand down to reduce tensions and begin to have diplomatic discussions.”
Washington should also seek a solution to the S400 problem (perhaps with a technical fix “blocking off” the Russian system from interoperating with the rest of NATO air defenses) and work behind the scenes with Turkey to resolve the lingering issues on the island of Cyprus, which is partly controlled by Turkish troops.
An incident at sea in which NATO warships end up actually shooting at each other seems an unimaginably bad outcome, but unfortunately isn’t out of the realm of possibility. The eastern Mediterranean, which has seen more than its share of combat over the centuries, is replacing the South China Sea and the Arabian Gulf as the world’s preeminent maritime hot spot.
James Stavridis is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates.
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