Eastern Mediterranean is a crossroads between continents. The complexity of the region and tensions between countries make the area a dangerous flashpoint. All kind of destabilization and maritime issues monitored seem to be linked to one actor, the president of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Where is Eastern Mediterranean?
Eastern Mediterranean is a meeting point between Southeast Europe, Western Asia and Northeast Africa. Sometimes considered as the cradle of humanity, it is now composed of several countries: Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt and Libya.
The region has been a crossroads for cultural, economic and political exchanges over millennia. Nevertheless, the geopolitical situation made this maritime region a flashpoint based on maritime issues and the disrespect of international law, agreement and convention.
A transit route for migrants and refugees
The civil war in Syria, started in 2011, has been a major change for countries relationships. The flow of refugees, crossing Turkey to Greece through the Aegean Sea led to a European Union (EU)-Turkey joint action plan in 2015. The agreement was that every person arriving irregularly to the Greek Islands would be returned to Turkey. In exchange, EU would take one Syrian refugee from Turkey for every Syrian returned from Greece. However, it became for the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan a way to conduct a hybrid warfare against EU. Turkish government threated several times the Member States to “open the gates” to migrants into Europe in case of disagreement (such as what is now observed in Belarus).
With the return of Talibans in Afghanistan, it is expected to have an increase of refugees trying to cross the sea through the Aegan route but also from Syria or Lebanon to Cyprus. The last route is getting more and more used, especially because of the strong economic and social crisis hitting Lebanon after the dramatic explosion in the port in Beirut in 2020.
Oil and gas dispute
In the early 1970s, exploration discovered oil and gas fields in south of Cyprus. But the invasion of the island by Turkey in 1974 froze the possibility of exploitation.
Then, two large natural gas fields were discovered in the region: Leviathan in 2010 in Israel Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) and Zohr in 2015 in Egypt EEZ. In 2018, tensions increased between Cyprus and Turkey when the Turkish foreign minister announced the intention to carry out gas exploration in Cyprus EEZ. Turkey sent several times exploration ship, such as RV Oruc reis, escorted by frigates creating huge concerns for EU, which Cyprus is a member States. In reaction, the European Council decided to suspend several negotiations.
Egypt, which had an agreement with Cyprus to exploit some of its gas fields, reduced also its relations with Turkey.
Arms trafficking from Turkey
The last factor of destabilization in Easter Mediterranean is the arm trafficking from Turkey to Libya.
Libya faced a civil war since 2011 and the United Nations Security Council voted the Resolution 1973 to impose an arms embargo over the country. To enforce this resolution, mainly ineffective, the European Union launch in March 2020 the operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI, using aerial, satellite and maritime assets.
In that framework, the EU linked the merchant vessel Cirkin, now re-named Guzel, to transport military material to Libya between May and June 2020. According to the press agency Reuters, the ship was escorted by three Turkish vessels, preventing all cargo inspection. In September 2020, EU imposed sanctions on the Turkish shipping company Avrasya Shipping accused of breaking the U.N. embargo on Libya. The president Erdogan never recognised to conduct this kind of operation.