The Eastern Mediterranean region is rapidly changing. The turbulent political transition in Egypt after the Arab Spring, the war in Syria, the tensions between Israeli regime and Gaza and the never-ending dispute between Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus are -all together- reshuffling the regional geopolitical equilibrium. At the same time natural gas findings are flourishing in the offshore of Egypt, Israeli-occupied territories and Cyprus, reshaping the regional energy map and rapidly making the Eastern Mediterranean a world-class natural gas province. These geopolitical and energy pressures are rapidly converging, generating a number of new challenges and opportunities for each player in the region.
To know more insight about the issue, we have reached out to Mehmet Ogutcu, Chairman of London Energy Club.
Following is the text of our interview with him:
What is the strategic and geo-economic importance of the Mediterranean Sea for Turkey?
We like it or not, Turkey is unquestionably the regional superpower in the East Mediterranean by virtue of its economy, military, human capital and cultural hinterland. It is also the region’s largest energy economy, which can purchase the pipeline or LNG gas from the recent discoveries and can provide transit facilities from the region to high demand and value European markets through its reliable gas infrastructure already in place. It is also the bridge for Russian, Caspian and Black Sea crude oil, chemicals, coal and nuclear fuels to reach the international markets via the Bosphorus and Mediterranean.
Historically, Turkey has been the chief advocate and champion of free trade, freedom of movement and cultural exchanges in the Mediterranean and can still serve this purpose if a soft, but assertive power strategy can be re-engineered as in early 2000s without having to resort to what some analysts call “gunboat” diplomacy.
However, due to some miscalculations and self-imposed distancing itself from Egypt, Israel and Syria (as well as a new axis of Saudi Arabia and some other Persian Gulf nations formed against Turkey in the Middle East and North Africa, coupled with an alliance of Egypt, Greece, Israel and South Cyprus), there are strong efforts to exclude Turkey from the regional game over the past decade.
I do not believe that, without Turkey – the most important power and source of certain disagreements in the region – it is possible to bring lasting peace and prosperity to the East Mediterranean and the newly created 7-country East Mediterranean Natural Gas Forum will function. It is, in a nutshell, a must to engage Turkey constructively in the Mediterranean and seek “win-win” solutions rather than even talking about isolating it.
For Ankara, having free maritime access to the Mediterranean all the way from the Bosphorus down the Aegean Sea to Gibraltar and Suez are of critical strategic importance. In my view, freedom of navigation is more vital for Turkey than the current natural gas related disputes. It is for this reason that Turkey is not shying away from escalating the situation in the region and most recently in Libya even though it is already under pressure on multiple fronts.
Could you please explain why Ankara argues that Turkish Cypriots have the right to exploit gas in the region? (According to Turkey’s own interpretation of international maritime law)
Although the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is recognized only by Turkey, it is an entity that represents slightly less than half of the island’s 1.2 million population and Turkish Cypriots were recognized as an equal founder of the Republic of Cyprus in the 1960s till 1974 when Turkey was forced to militarily intervene to protect the Turkish Cypriots against an Athens engineered coup attempt.
International legal considerations aside, there is a reality on the ground, which must be taken into consideration when it comes to natural gas discoveries, exploitation, and sharing of revenues. They have not been consulted or brought into decision-making processes from the outset. There were only vague statements from Nicosia that when value will be generated they will be given their fair share. This is not the way to go, offering handouts arbitrarily. Ankara as a guarantor is advocating TRNC’s right to the resources endowment in the island. This is separate from Ankara’s own assertion about violations of its own continental shelf and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the East Mediterranean.
What do EU sanctions to Turkey mean? Do they have power to stop Turkey from drilling around the Cyprus coast? Or are they rather considered symbolic? considering the EU-Turkey migration deal and cooperation in security policy and energy transport?
EU sanctions have been adopted under pressure from South Cyprus and Greece, two EU member countries, which sought assurance from other fellow members for protecting what they call “the EU territory” no matter how disputed and controversial borders and EEZs could be.
Sanctions are important only in symbolic terms – they are not the ones that are likely to seriously hurt the already worsening Turco-EU ties. They will not stop Turkey seeking its protection of interests in the region at all – to the contrary, they have caused anger and frustration, arguing that the EU can no longer be a “honest broker” for resolving the disputes in the region. There are some deep-rooted fundamental interests of the EU that drive the relations with Turkey, which cannot in my opinion be sacrificed under any circumstances for the sake of appeasing Greece and Greek Cyprus.
Migration deal, energy security, environment, neighbourhood policy, and security collaboration are only a few areas where both sides work together. However, it is much bigger than that picture involving Turkey’s place in the new world and regional order and how the EU and Turkey can work together in a win-win fashion, irrespective of the failing accession process Turkey has been in for longer than half a century.
How could Turkey’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean alter its relation with NATO?
For NATO, Turkey is a vital ally in a region where NATO borders are surrounded by instabilities and security risks such as Russia, Syria, Iraq, Caspian and Southeast Europe. Despite difficulties with the US particularly in Syria, the East Mediterranean and Black Sea, NATO still values Turkey’s strong engagement with and contribution to the Alliance and wants to avoid the risk of a disentangled Turkey shifting towards greater military co-operation with Russia, China and Iran.
Overall, I believe that NATO will strive to keep Turkey engaged as a constructive force in the region that should not be upset and that should be somehow accommodated. It seems that Turkey will not allow South Cyprus to join the Alliance despite repeated attempts and will also remain a stumbling block to greater collaboration with Israel in the region given their not so friendly attitude towards Turkey on a score of issues in the region.
It is said that one of the reasons that pulled Turkey into crisis in Syria is the matter of energy transit. I mean Iran could transit its oil and gas to Europe via Iraq and Syria and also it is said that Turkey has territorial dispute. What do you think of this?
It is no secret that Turkey wants to become a regional energy hub for the crude oil, gas and electricity flows from Russia, Iran, the Caspian, Iraq and East Mediterranean. Despite there is a long way to go for the early materialization of this Turkish ambition, still any efforts to undercut or bypass Turkey will not be welcomed in Ankara.
We know that the wars and conflicts in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean are caused in large measure by an energy war, either over resources or control of shipping/pipeline routes to high value and secure markets. The insecurity of the Strait of Hormuz, as experienced recently, and the influence of Iran on the Persian Gulf and other Middle Eastern disputes, have led to the proposals to create several new Energy Corridor proposals, some overtly and some covertly. This corridor business will perhaps emerge as the most important conflict area of the next century. All the major players of the world are now struggling to have their share in such corridors including the linking of Iran-Iraq-Syria to the Mediterranean or connecting the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean in order to bypass the Strait of Hormuz. Turkey is particularly sensitive to the Kurdish energy corridor over Iraq and Syria and has been a fiercest opponent to such design.
What is the US stance toward disputes over the energy sources in Mediterranean Sea?
Clearly, neither the EU nor the US follow a neutral position in the East Med energy and geopolitical disputes – definitely far from Turkey’s position regarding natural gas exploration in disputed areas and exclusive economic zone assertions. ExxonMobil is already active in Cyprus for natural gas exploration. The US continues to support Israeli, Egyptian and Cypriot stances, and warns Turkey to respect sovereignty of these countries particularly as regards acreages distributed to international oil and gas companies in the disputed areas. The US has also joined the latest meeting of the East Mediterranean Natural Gas Forum as an observer. It is unlikely that Ankara will change its position no matter what pressures might come from Washington DC or Brussels. If further pushed to the corner, it will not be surprising for Turkey to bring in Russia, China and Iran to team up in the new energy corridors in this region.
Mehmet Ogutcu is Chairman of London Energy Club, and CEO for Global Resources Partnership. He was a former Turkish diplomat, advisor to the Prime Minister, senior executive of International Energy Agency, OECD and British Gas.
Interview by Zahra Mirzafarjouyan