In 2023, the prolonged political tension in the Eastern Mediterranean appears to have eased; however, the potential for new crises over resource disputes may disrupt this tranquility.
Last year was quite calm in the Eastern Mediterranean, which suddenly became the center of attention of the global energy market due to the hydrocarbon resources discovered in the early 2010s. In contrast to previous years, the crises between Türkiye and neighboring countries in the region were notably infrequent in 2023.
The primary reason for this trend is related to the fact that the countries that determine the direction of the Eastern Mediterranean seesaw show less interest in the region due to the developments in their domestic politics. For example, Türkiye experienced two major earthquakes on Feb. 6, resulting in the loss of over 50,000 lives. Subsequently, Türkiye found itself entangled in the aftermath of the earthquake and the electoral processes, with general and presidential elections in May. Consequently, the region witnessed a reduced focus on Eastern Mediterranean affairs during the initial half of the year.
Another country that had to focus on its own domestic politics in the first half of the year was the Greek Cypriot administration. Independent candidate Nikos Christodoulides, who previously served as minister of foreign affairs, won the presidential election, which was held on Feb. 12 due to the expiration of Nikos Anastasiadis’ tenure. The presidential election, before and after, forced the Greek Cypriots to distance themselves from regional politics for a while and focus on domestic politics.
In Greece, one of the countries in the political bloc trying to besiege Türkiye from the south, the country’s agenda focused on general elections in the first half of the year. First, an early general election was held on May 21, but since no party could obtain a majority in this election and the parties did not agree to a coalition, a new general election was held 35 days later. The party of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis won the general election held on June 25. Accordingly, Greece focused on developments within itself rather than the Eastern Mediterranean in the first half of 2023.
The softening of Ankara-Athens relations after the Feb. 6 earthquakes and the fact that the Greece-Greek Cypriots duo, which increased the geopolitical tension in the region, did not engage in any exploration or drilling activities that could provoke Türkiye throughout 2023, allowed the waters in the Eastern Mediterranean to calm down to some extent.
Türkiye’s normalization processes with Egypt and Israel are another important factor that effectively calmed the Eastern Mediterranean’s waters during 2023.
As known, Türkiye initiated normalization processes to open a new page in its relations with these two countries. These processes continued in 2023, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan established one-on-one contacts with his Egyptian and Israeli counterparts throughout the year. However, due to the massacres committed by Israel against Palestinians in Gaza, the rapprochement between Ankara and Tel Aviv turned into a process limited to diplomacy. The detente process between Ankara and Cairo continues, albeit slowly.
Regarding the tension that escalates from time to time in the region, it should be emphasized that Türkiye has not directly confronted Egypt and Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean so far. However, these two countries cooperate closely with Greece and Greek Cypriots within the Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline (EastMed) framework and the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMFG). For this reason, they are actually on the side opposite Türkiye in the equation in the Eastern Mediterranean. When looking at the issue from this perspective, Türkiye’s continued normalization with at least Cairo, one of the duo of Egypt and Israel that has a unique weight in Middle East politics, has a vital role in disrupting the political equation established against it in the Eastern Mediterranean.
On the other hand, Türkiye is making intense efforts to deliver more than 700 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas discovered in the Black Sea to the country market in 2020 and beyond. For this reason, Türkiye needs to use its technical personnel and equipment most efficiently. For Türkiye, undertaking a new exploration and drilling activity in the Eastern Mediterranean may cause the resources in the Black Sea to be delivered to the country’s market later. For this reason, Türkiye gives priority to the Black Sea rather than the Eastern Mediterranean for now.
The fate of the EastMed, which Greece and Greek Cypriots are trying to realize jointly with Israel, Egypt and the European Union, remains uncertain. As known, with this project, the relevant countries are interested in transporting natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe via Greek Cypriots and Greece with a 1,900-kilometer (1,180-mile) subsea pipeline bypassing Türkiye. However, at the beginning of 2022, when the United States announced that it was withdrawing its political support from the EastMed, the fate of the project literally came to an end. As a matter of fact, after the U.S. statement, EastMed’s stakeholders have not taken any concrete steps toward implementing the project.
Although the scenario of delivering Eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe via Türkiye still exists, the possibility of this scenario being realized is very low due to the Cyprus issue and structural problems between Ankara and Tel Aviv. However, on this issue, Claudio Descalzi, CEO of the Italian energy group ENI, which was blocked by the Turkish Navy while searching for natural gas in the maritime jurisdictions unilaterally declared by the Greek Cypriots in the Eastern Mediterranean in February 2018, made a remarkable statement in May 2023. In his relevant statement, Descalzi said that after Türkiye’s maritime authority agreement with Libya in 2019, the political balances in the Eastern Mediterranean have changed and that there is no possibility of EastMed being implemented without Ankara. Even this statement alone adequately summarizes the current situation of the project.
The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), which was established under the leadership of Greek Cypriots, Israel, Greece and Egypt, supposedly to increase cooperation in the field of energy among the countries adjacent to the Eastern Mediterranean, but in essence, trying to create a political bloc against Türkiye, has already become ineffective. So much so that EMGF members, far from coming together due to their problems, are moving away from each other daily. This shows how true the thesis is that every regional equation without Türkiye will be dragged into a dead end.
To summarize, the political tension, which has been high for a long time in the Eastern Mediterranean, seems to have receded as of 2023. Based on what happened in 2023, the hot waters in the Eastern Mediterranean are expected to remain calm for a while this year. However, it is impossible to say that this will be permanent or last for a very long time because the countries in the region need to extract natural resources with economic added value in the Eastern Mediterranean and make them useful for their own economies. For this reason, new crises regarding the sharing of reserves in the region seem inevitable. These will eventually lead to the re-intensification of geopolitical competition in the region.
Source: Daily Sabah