The Lebanon-Cyprus East Med deal is a new test for Turkey, one it is likely to fail
Every time two Mediterranean countries meet to discuss oil and gas in the eastern basin of the sea, Turkey feels boxed in. Doubly so if Cyprus, which falls under the patronage of its historical opponent Greece, is involved in the negotiations. Keeping an eye on such activities is simply not enough. Ankara wants to know more and, if necessary, retaliate in one way or another.
Last week, Lebanon’s caretaker Foreign Minister Zeina Akar visited Nicosia and held a meeting with the island’s top officials. The most important announcement was the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the two states regarding oil and gas. Though little has been announced regarding the details of the MOU, the mere fact that the two countries have adopted a rapprochement policy signals their mutual willingness to coordinate in the future.
Lebanon had previously commenced maritime demarcation negotiations with Israel under American auspices in an attempt to exploit its hidden treasures that could help it gradually depart from its accumulating economic and social crises. The indirect tripartite negotiations reached a deadlock because of varying explanations of maps by the two countries. The Americans did not exert further pressure as the outgoing Trump administration had reached its final days.
Countries and territories in the East Mediterranean include Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Egypt and Libya. The highest degrees of tension are between Greece and Turkey – Ankara has previously not hesitated to send military vessels and warships into the basin as a signal that it will not tolerate any potential violations of its resources in the Mediterranean.
Though both are NATO members, Turkey and Greece have been at odds for decades. They have their differences on almost everything: From maritime resources to the Cyprus issue, to the European Union membership, to turbulent bilateral relations.
Therefore, when Cyprus signs a MOU with Lebanon, or any other country in the Mediterranean, Ankara simply cannot turn a blind eye. The failing two-state solution in Cyprus has now gained an additional problem, from the Turkish point of view, which is the MOU of oil and gas. Turkey considers the northern part of the island, which it has occupied since 1974, as also having rights in the basin via its territorial waters. Of course, the fact that not a single country in the whole world has recognized the northern “Republic” in the past 30 years fails to discourage Ankara from this interpretation.
Turkey’s antagonism with Greece, and consequently Cyprus, has witnessed its ups and downs. Rarely has Turkey cared for the position of European countries – which normally have sided with Greece as a member state of the European Union (EU). The continued calls by the EU to resolve the accumulating disputes through dialog have actually been to Turkey’s benefit. Now Ankara knows that its European opponent is not to be feared. Differences among European states on how to tackle relations with Ankara have been varying for a long period of time. They still are. This is a point Turkey knows exactly how to exploit.
Turkey has felt excluded from all the rapprochement policies in the oil and gas sector that the Eastern Mediterranean area had witnessed. In September 2020, Greece, Italy, Israel, Cyprus, Jordan, and Egypt all signed onto a joint organization to promote regional cooperation in the development of natural gas. With Syria undergoing bloody civil strife for more than 10 years, and Lebanon falling apart amid an unprecedented economic crisis, only Turkey was left out in the cold.
Ankara needs to revisit its regional policies, not only from the perspective of oil and gas, but also from other policies that have placed it in confrontation with several regional and international players. Its relations with Europe have been traditionally complicated as Ankara considers Europe’s continued refusal to allow Turkey entry into the EU as a personal affront to the country’s national pride. Its relations with Washington have also seen a remarkable deterioration which has affected, in one way or another, its local currency. On the other front, relations with Russia and China are also failing to flourish – although Ankara has been using the threat of upping relations with Moscow as a thinly veiled attempt to court the US.
The Lebanese-Cypriot MOU is a new test for Ankara. It will fail it unless a drastic policy revision takes place. Recent history suggests that this is unlikely.