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Turbulence in the Aegean Sea

August 31, 2020 | Expert Insights

The East Mediterranean is stirring again. Turkey has declared as invalid the maritime deal between Egypt and Greece, calling it an infringement of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) agreement it signed with Libya in 2019.  The recent action of Greece and Egypt is clearly in retaliation as both see the EEZ agreement as a massive violation of their interests since the area in question significantly overlaps claimed by Greece and Egypt.  

The Eastern Mediterranean region, in the Aegean Sea, is rich in oil reserves. The latest discovery, in 2018, was by an Italian company that found oil reserves of 3.5 trillion cubic metres. Greece, Egypt, Cyprus, and Turkey, are anxious to stake their claim to this bounty.   The EU, also in a large way, depends on this region, as it seeks to cut down on its dependence on Russian gas, which accounts for 37 percent of Europe’s gas supplies.

For Turkey, the new gas finds are an economic boon during these hard times.  Heavily reliant on imports, Turkey In 2019 imported 40 percent of its fossil fuel from Russia, while 99 per cent of natural gas and 93 per cent of petroleum was also imported.

Egypt too has great expectations from these gas deposits which it hopes will make it a net exporter of energy as opposed to importing it, like it used to prior to 2016. Its conflict with Turkey, however, goes back to the 2013 military coup in Egypt, which targeted the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, who as per Cairo were supported by Ankara.

The tension has been further aggravated by the recent military successes of Turkey supported Government of National Accord (GNA) against the warlord Gen Haftar, a protégé of Egypt.  In fact, as GNA forces laid seize to Haftar’s capital at the port city of Sirte and were poised to capture it, Egypt publicly declared that it would militarily intervene.  Egypt has been backed by Russia whose “mercenaries” are reported to be back on the ground to stiffen Haftar’s resistance. 


This is a layered conflict that has been in-the-works for decades. The Cypriot divide between Greece and Turkey remains, and the UN-imposed arms embargo on the combatants in Libya lies in tatters due to flagrant violation by countries like Turkey and Egypt.

There is also disagreement on what counts as territorial waters in the Mediterranean seas. While most countries have signed with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (which gives each country a 12-nautical-miles territorial distance and 200 miles EEZ), Turkey has not, and goes by the continental shelf theory, stating that its reach in the Aegean Sea is actually wider than under the UN Convention. Turkey has called foul Greek claims of maritime jurisdiction through its island of Kastellorizo, a 10-sq-km island in the Aegean Sea that is only 2 km from the Turkish coast, saying that the case for a zone of 40,000 sq km through this minute island is "ridiculous and unfounded."

With the new Egypt-Greece pact signed, Turkey has turned more aggressive, issuing a navigational telex (Navtex) on August 10, that its vessel, Oruç Reis, would begin conducting fresh seismic research in the Eastern Mediterranean. It also stated that it would resume drilling by the Yavuz vessel, an ultra-deepwater drillship, in a maritime zone that has been delineated by Cyprus and Egypt. This is being seen as Turkey's way of holding on to the region and preventing further developments in the Egypt-Greece deal. In turn, France has rushed two Rafale fighter jets and the naval frigate 'Lafayette' to the region to increase its military presence.  


Europe has not taken well Turkey’s renewed aggressive posture and its inability/ unwillingness to rein in the flow of refugees into Europe.

Relations between the EU and Turkey were established in 1959, and Turkey has been an applicant to accede to the EU since 1987. Yet, since 2016, accession negotiations have stalled due to its record of human rights violations and deficits in the rule of law. In 2018, the EU's General Affairs Council stated that "the Council notes that Turkey has been moving further away from the European Union. Turkey's accession negotiations have therefore effectively come to a standstill, and no further chapters can be considered for opening or closing, and no further work towards the modernisation of the EU-Turkey Customs Union is foreseen". This has also resulted in stalling the pre-accession support, currently at Euro 4.5 billion allocated to Turkey per year.  EU's financial watchdog, the European Court of Auditors, has announced an investigation to review the effectiveness of the pre-accessions funds which Turkey has received since 2007 to support democracy and governance reforms. 

Russia also has reason to fret about the situation, being a gas provider to Europe, which it would hate to lose in these dire times.  It also has a stake in the military situation in Libya and Syria, both areas where Turkey has blocked its efforts.   

Ties between former NATO allies France and Turkey have also soured, with France calling NATO’s inability to curb Turkey in northern Syria as “brain death.” The eastern Mediterranean turmoil has further aggravated their differences.

Greece’s Foreign Minister also highlighted that the “illegal” behaviour of Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean was threatening NATO’s cohesion and Ankara’s relations with the EU.  


  • No doubt, the last year has seen the rise of Turkey as a formidable military entity in the region. The display of its drone delivered military hardware has been impressive and can match the best in the world.  It is clear that Turkey does not care too much now about its NATO membership or its accession with the EU.  Are we seeing the rise of a second Turkish Caliphate and the end of a secular (or moderately Islamic) Turkey?
  • If Turkey and Russia come to some kind of adjustment, it could lead to a significant power imbalance in the region and give Ankara an advantage in controlling the airspace, especially in disputed areas. NATO is definitely not very happy with these moves as this would put Turkey's NATO membership under question.
  • Turkey has been increasingly critical of India’s internal affairs especially in J&K, drawing a sharp retort from the Indian government.  As it drifts further away from secularism, as shown by its decision on the world renowned Hagia Sofia site, its close military ties with Pakistan would be a cause of concern for India.