• Isaac Gibson

Turkish Cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean: A Zero-Sum Game?

The eastern Mediterranean basin is a vital intersection of economic trade and security, a geostrategic link between Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Natural gas discoveries in recent decades catalysed unconventional partnerships while deepening old rivalries in the region.

The Turkish drilling vessel Kanuni at Haydarpasa Port in Istanbul. Credit: Chris McGrath
The Turkish drilling vessel Kanuni at Haydarpasa Port in Istanbul. Credit: Chris McGrath

As European and eastern Mediterranean countries strengthen cooperation on energy and security, Turkey has instead opted for brinkmanship and gunboat diplomacy to secure its regional energy interests and broader strategic autonomy. Previously a democratising force for western allies in the region, Turkey and NATO’s relationship now sits at a nadir. However, given the U.S.’s shifting security footprint in the Middle East and the growing impetus for western energy independence since the Russo-Ukrainian war, Turkey is well-positioned to benefit from regional cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean.


Regional Energy Framework

In 2009, the discoveries of Israel's Tamar and Leviathan fields sparked regional gas exploration, further escalating with discoveries of Cyprus and Egypt’s gas reserves, the Aphrodite and Zohr fields. These discoveries offered the chance to meet domestic energy demand and become regional exporters while meeting reduced carbon emission goals. The potential for exploitable commodities and future exploration activity in the eastern Mediterranean quickly drew the attention of global energy markets.

A map of the Eastern Mediterranean, showing the Zohr, Aphrodite, Leviathan, and Tamar gas fields.

Given Egypt’s existing export infrastructure and a burgeoning European market, the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) was formed in December 2019. Established as a framework for structured policy dialogue and cooperation, current members of the organization include Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, Israel, France, Italy, Jordan, and Palestine. The EMGF supports the region’s gas producer, consumer, and transit countries to develop a sustainable regional gas market through pipeline projects and LNG shipping.


Serving as a primary conduit for the EMGF, the Arish-Ashkelon Pipeline, also known as the 'Peace Gas Pipeline', delivers around 12 million cubic meters of Israeli gas to liquefaction centers in Egypt every day. Last year alone, Egypt exported 8.9 billion cubic meters of gas by LNG carrier ships to Europe and Asia. That figure is expected to grow after Egypt and Cyprus agreed to the construction of a similar pipeline in 2018 linking the Aphrodite field to Cairo, which is set to begin production in 2026.


While some experts question the commercial viability and output of natural gas projects in the region, the EMGF has yielded substantial diplomacy, facilitating energy and security cooperation in a historically troubled area. Additional agreements in green hydrogen, ammonia, and electricity are expected to materialize among EMGF partners in the coming years, indicating that regional cooperation may not just be a flash in the pan, but rather a sustained framework for years to come. Moreover, observers speculate that the organization could draw involvement from countries such as Lebanon, Algeria, Syria, and Spain in the future.

"While some experts question the commercial viability and output of natural gas projects in the region, the EMGF has yielded substantial diplomacy, facilitating energy and security cooperation in a historically troubled area."

Multilateral cooperation that was previously thought to be impossible across the region has made significant progress in recent years. The formation of the EMGF and subsequent signing of the Abraham Accords foster greater Arab-Israeli normalisation and enhance regional cooperation in energy development. That same year, instances of cross-regional defence cooperation among eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf states began to occur; in 2020, Greece signed a military agreement with the UAE, and later loaned Patriot missile units to Saudi Arabia in 2021. In stark contrast to the usual polarization of U.S. and U.K. arms deals in the Middle East, these security agreements largely flew under the radar of European press. Most recently, France and the UAE signed an agreement supporting each other's energy sectors, further strengthening prospects for long-term multilateral cooperation. Security and energy cooperation are increasing in anticipation of a reduced U.S. footprint, signaling a potential change in the region’s wider balance of power. However, as one of the region’s leading security actors, Turkey remains isolated from the EMGF.


Turkish Exclusion

The last few years have seen Ankara fighting wars in Libya, expanding influence into Central Asia, and the indiscriminate proliferation of its Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones. Moreover, Ankara's feelings of exclusion are well founded, as many analysts believe the EMGF to be a collective response to Turkey’s aggressive maritime posture in the region. Turkey has maintained a recalcitrant position on EU mediation in the Mediterranean, believing its role to be impartial in delineating maritime borders with Cyprus and Greece. In addition to contested gas exploration in Cypriot waters, territorial claims, and brinkmanship with Greece, Turkey signed a security and maritime delimitation agreement with Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) a month before the EMGF’s founding, sparking regional condemnation. The move was seen as a defiant rejection of international maritime boundaries by Ankara and an opportunity for Turkey to cement its position in the Mediterranean.


This agreement established an exclusive economic zone connecting Libya's northeast coast to Turkey's southern shore, directly in the path of the EMGF’s proposed EastMed pipeline. Furthermore, this allows Turkey to provide direct advisory support to the GNA military, while granting it access to the contested economic zone between Egypt and Greece. Egypt's former Assistant Foreign Minister Hussein Haridi responded to the moves by saying “Egypt will defend its sovereignty, rights, interests, and borders relentlessly and fearlessly, in case its interests in the Mediterranean Sea are jeopardized or face security and military threats.” However, while tensions continue to simmer, Russia's invasion of Ukraine dramatically changed the global energy calculus, which could prove to be the catalyst needed for rapprochement in the region. With Europe scrambling to find alternative energy sources and Turkey reasserting itself as a great power, a change in Ankara's foreign policy is possible.


A Divergence in Policy

Though it may seem like a pipedream, Turkish energy cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean is a plausible realignment that would not only benefit NATO’s security architecture but support Ankara’s inter-regional ambitions. Turkey’s inclusion into the EMGF would significantly boost the organization’s export capacity in the short term. Particularly, constructing a pipeline that connects Cypriot and Israeli gas to Turkey's existing Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) would provide a cost-effective and quicker solution for European gas delivery than the proposed deepwater EastMed pipeline. Given Turkey’s current natural gas shortages and recent efforts to expand its storage facilities, cooperating within the EMGF’s framework would allow Ankara to further diversify its energy strategy while meeting domestic consumption. As Ankara balances its relationship between Moscow and the West, long-term cooperation would help Turkey to hedge its energy investments and reduce dependence on Russian gas.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waives at Turkish drilling vessel Fatih. Credit: Turkish Presidential Press Office
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waives at Turkish drilling vessel Fatih. Credit: Turkish Presidential Press Office

Although the eastern Mediterranean’s gas sector constitutes a fraction of global gas imports, cooperation with Turkey could facilitate greater decarbonization efforts through electricity interconnection and green hydrogen production. Existing electrical interconnections between Turkey, Bulgaria, and Greece could be expanded upon to accelerate the EU's energy transition. Joint cooperation on energy projects can build trust between Turkey and its Hellenic neighbors, as the proposed 1,500-kilometer Euro-Asia interconnector project could be an opportunity for Turkish collaboration down the road given the recent normalization with Israel. Expanding Turkey's electricity trade is crucial for maintaining its role as an energy transit country and achieving its own goal of decarbonization by 2053.

"It is important to note that Turkey’s path forward for cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean is still hampered by long standing disputes and political inertia."

Furthermore, Turkey’s untapped hydrogen sector could draw investment by exporting to European markets. Turkey's South Marmara Development Agency (GMKA) announced in February its plans to establish the country's first hydrogen plant in the northwestern coastal city of Balikesir, and according to a recent report by the SHURA Energy Transition Center, Turkey is expected to produce around 3.4 million tons of green hydrogen annually until 2050. Economic growth is vital for Turkey’s long-term power projection in the region and green hydrogen could play a significant role in helping the EU transition to renewable energy.


It is important to note that Turkey’s path forward for cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean is still hampered by long standing disputes and political inertia. Challenges on immigration, border delimitation, and the unanswered Cyprus question pose serious hurdles for rapprochement between Ankara and Athens. Furthermore, while Turkey undergoes significant currency devaluation and continues to conduct security operations along its border with Syria, Erdogan’s anti-West populism may only grow as he enters an election year.


However, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest Ankara would benefit from a change in its current zero-sum policy in the region. Although Ankara isn’t alone in its pursuit of becoming a regional energy hub, multilateral cooperation with its eastern Mediterranean and European neighbours should not be viewed as a mutually exclusive divergence in strategy. Enhanced energy cooperation and confidence-building through soft power will yield greater results for Ankara. Creating mutual stakeholder interest through energy cooperation in the region can induce negotiated resolutions for maritime disputes with Greece and improve Turkey's standing with NATO. Most importantly, cooperation offers Turkey a viable path toward economic recovery and the opportunity to demonstrate regional leadership as a global power in its own right.

 

Written by Isaac Gibson.

Edited by Wade McCagh.