by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
Notwithstanding the lingering disputes between Greece and Turkey over some Aegean islands, the Cyprus issue, and the occasional Spanish rumbling over Gibraltar, the Mediterranean has enjoyed relative tranquility in international affairs over the past few decades. That calm abruptly ended in November 2019 with the signing of a Maritime Boundary Treaty between Turkey and Libya. The agreement purports to establish a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) between the two countries, as well as 18.6 nautical miles of continental shelf, ignoring the presence of such Greek islands as Crete, Kasos, and Rhodes (see graphic below on the right side). Turkey, which has successfully supported Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in recent months against forces led by Khalifa Haftar, is already looking to capitalize on the agreement: Turkish Petroleum (TPAO) has announced plans for oil exploration off Libya’s coast by the end of the year.
Other coastal states have done more than issue condemnations of the Turkish-Libyan maritime deal, proceeding to carve up the Mediterranean Sea into their zones of influence. In June 2020, Greece and Italy signed a Maritime Boundary Treaty, establishing a joint EEZ in the Ionian Sea. Egyptian and Greek officials have also discussed the possible establishment of a joint EEZ in the near future, which would very likely overlap with the one outlined in the Turkish-Libyan deal. In March 2018, Algeria unilaterally expanded its EEZ, which Spain and Italy rejected the same year. Adding to tensions, Turkey has expressed opposition to the 1,900-kilometer-long EastMed pipeline project that would deliver Israeli natural gas to European markets via Cyprus and Greece.
These overlapping claims increase the potential for an armed confrontation between two or more Mediterranean states. For example, the European Union Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED) Operation IRINI (Greek for “peace”), launched at the end of March 2020 to enforce a United Nations arms embargo in Libya, has already had some tense encounters with Turkish forces. IRINI – which is led by the Italian Landing Platform Dock San Giorgia and has seen participation from two Greek frigates and one French frigate, as well as air assets from Germany, Luxembourg, and Poland – has been called “a joke” by Stephanie Williams, the deputy head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). However, the increasingly frequent standoffs between IRINI and the Turkish Naval Forces have been anything but amusing. On June 10, a Greek frigate attempted to check a Tanzanian-flagged cargo vessel suspected of carrying arms to Libya but was warned off by a Turkish frigate. One week later, on June 17, a French frigate attempting to intercept another suspected illegal arms shipment was harassed by multiple Turkish military vessels.
NATO has indicated that it will investigate the June 17 incident, and mediation by the Alliance could serve to ease tensions, at least as far as Operation IRINI is concerned. Evidently, a more concerted diplomatic effort is needed to restore the Mediterranean’s stability before it becomes fully entangled in conflicting sovereignty claims. NATO may seem the natural choice as a mediator, given that it could build on the momentum from disarming the Operation IRINI dispute and that many of the Mediterranean Sea states are members. However, not all of these states are members: NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue is comprised of Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia, while there is no formal cooperation between the Alliance and Libya. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) faces similar limitations: although Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain participate in the OSCE and the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation allow for some outreach to Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia, there is again no formal engagement with Libya. Perhaps the most appropriate forum would be the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), comprised of 42 member states (27 of whom are European Union members). However, Libya is only an observer, Syria suspended its membership on December 1, 2011, and the UfM was only founded in 2008, focusing much of its work on sustainable development projects in the southern and eastern Mediterranean states. Examples for such projects are the cleanup of Lake Bizerte in Tunisia and the construction of a desalination plant in Gaza. As such, the UfM may lack the credibility and resources to effectively broker the necessary compromises in the region.
There also seems to be no individual state willing to apply the diplomatic pressure that would bring most or all of the parties to the negotiating table. In June 2020, when the EU raised concerns about the Turkish-Libyan maritime deal, US policymakers responded that they have been “…considering the situation in the Mediterranean, but mainly in relation to the situation in Libya”. In short, the US is concerned that Turkish arms shipments and other support could fuel further conflict within Libya, but it has no desire to become involved in the emerging maritime disputes in the region. While China has a significant trade and investment footprint in the region, it has adopted a hedging strategy toward Libya and other conflicts, making Chinese policymakers averse to any embroilments in these maritime disputes or, for that matter, even the fight between the GNA and General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army. Russia has shown a willingness to mediate in the Mediterranean to some degree, but it favors Haftar, which will have certainly undermined any trust the GNA might have had in Russian overtures. A Russian-led effort to soothe tensions over the Turkish-Libyan maritime deal would undoubtedly be looked upon in Ankara as merely Russian envy at Turkey’s newfound access to Libyan offshore oil and gas reserves.
The outlook for the Mediterranean, then, is rather bleak. Without an effective forum to address disputes and with no regional or global power willing to lead the search for a lasting solution, it is likely that those states with the force to back up their territorial claims, like Turkey, will persist while those who lack the necessary force, like Algeria, will be made to acquiesce. Barring a radical change in American foreign policy or an effort from within the region itself, it seems likely the waters of the Mediterranean will henceforth be governed by the ancient and ugly doctrine that might makes right.