Turkey's pursuit of contested oil and gas reserves has ramifications 'well beyond' the region

  • Turkey and Greece, both members of NATO, are at loggerheads over competing claims to energy reserves in contested Eastern Mediterranean waters. 
  • Analysts told CNBC that Turkey's exclusion from the regional development of security and energy alliances around the Eastern Mediterranean had left Ankara feeling "increasingly boxed in."
  • "Turkey will not shy away from doubling down on its East Mediterranean strategy," Emre Peker, director for Europe at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, told CNBC via telephone.

An intensifying dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean over oil and gas exploration rights at sea has seen tensions flare between Turkey and Greece, with one regional expert describing the situation as the "most dangerous" in years.

Turkey and Greece, both members of NATO, are at loggerheads over competing claims to energy reserves in contested Eastern Mediterranean waters. 

The countries and territories of this region include Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Egypt and Libya.

Last week, Turkey sent the Oruc Reis survey vessel, escorted by warships, to conduct seismic research in territory both Ankara and Athens claim jurisdiction over. The ship is set to continue its search for potentially lucrative energy reserves through to August 23.

EU-member Greece has since pressed Turkey to stop the "illegal" activity, with the standoff even resulting in a minor collision between two frigates earlier this month. France has also stepped in to criticize Turkey's "worrying" provocations.

However, Ankara has said it will not back down from defending its "rights" and has since announced a separate drillship will search for natural gas in waters offshore Cyprus in the coming weeks.

"No matter what, Turkey will resolutely continue to protect both her and Turkish Cypriots' rights in the Eastern Mediterranean stemming from international law," Hami Aksoy, the spokesperson for Turkey's foreign ministry, said in a statement on Sunday.

"No alliance of malice will manage to prevent this. Those who think otherwise have not taken their lessons from history."

Aksoy's statement also singled out Armenia for its "conspicuous" remarks on Eastern Mediterranean tensions, shortly after the country reaffirmed its "unconditional support" for Greece and Cyprus.

In response to Turkey's announcement to ramp up its search for natural gas, the European Union said it "regrettably fuels further tensions and insecurity" in the region. The bloc called for an immediate end to Turkey's activities in disputed waters and urged Ankara to engage in a broad dialog.

An emergency summit of European Union ministers last week prompted EU High Representative Josep Borrell to warn that the "serious deterioration" in the relationship with Turkey affected the whole bloc "well beyond the Eastern Mediterranean."

'All sides are aware of the risks'

Ian Lesser, vice president at the German Marshall Fund think tank in Brussels, told CNBC via telephone that Turkey's "waning conservatism" when it comes to the use of force had fueled a more assertive regional policy in recent years.

In addition, Lesser said "paranoia" had prompted the country's political establishment to view the behavior of even traditional allies "with a sense of insecurity."

"Things can go wrong," he continued, reflecting on the risk of an escalatory dispute between Ankara and Athens. "All sides are aware of the risks, but it is clearly, I would say, the most dangerous situation we have faced between the two countries in the region for many years."

Analysts told CNBC that Turkey's exclusion from the regional development of security and energy alliances around the Eastern Mediterranean had left Ankara feeling "increasingly boxed in."

In January 2019, seven energy ministers signed a deal to set up the East Mediterranean Gas Forum. It consists of Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Italy and the Palestinian territories. Turkey was a notable absentee from the group, reportedly due to what had been described at the time as an "aggressive" campaign of gas drilling in the region.

Turkey 'will not shy away' from simmering tensions

The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 2010 that a mean of 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and a mean 3.5 trillion cubic meters of recoverable gas could be found in the Eastern Mediterranean's Levant Basin Province. The Levant Basin lies largely in Cypriot and Israeli waters in the Eastern Mediterranean.

"Turkey will not shy away from doubling down on its East Mediterranean strategy," Emre Peker, director for Europe at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, told CNBC via telephone.

"Turkey's willing to escalate because it can afford to do so with Cyprus, and it can afford to do so with Greece. At the moment, it can also afford to do so with France because it knows that France doesn't have institutional backing from the EU or Berlin to take a more hawkish stance," Peker argued.

"The reasons for those are twofold: Obviously the EU is in the throes of dealing with the Covid crisis and earlier in the year, we saw a resurgent risk of a migratory crisis with (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan threatening to unleash 3 million refugees on Europe."

Peker said the EU had responded effectively to Erdogan's comments at the time, but it was little more than a "short-term fix."

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