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[ANALYSIS] The geopolitics of East Med natural gas: implications for Turkey’s foreign policy

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Fatih Yurtsever*

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated undiscovered, technically recoverable mean natural gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean (East Med) area at 8.1 trillion cubic meters (tcm) using a geology-based assessment methodology. Since January 2010, 2.5 tcm of natural gas has been discovered in the eastern Mediterranean. The natural gas discovered by Egypt, Israel and the Greek Cypriot administration in the Zohr, Tamar, Leviathan and Aphrodite fields has changed the geopolitics and geoeconomics of the region. Ongoing problems in delineating maritime jurisdiction areas among the riparian countries and the question of how and where to transport the natural gas have led to a coalition of regional alliances.

After the Arab Spring, Turkey abandoned its fundamental principle of not interfering in other countries’ problems, which had guided its foreign policy since its establishment and resulted in solving problems primarily through diplomacy. Turkey believed it could reshape the foreign policy balances in the Middle East, North Africa and the East Med. For this reason, it became a direct party to regional conflicts and problems between other countries. It attempted to solve the problem of delineating maritime jurisdiction areas in the East Med by using military force in accordance with its Blue Homeland Doctrine. Due to the foreign policy it pursued in the eastern Mediterranean in line with the doctrine, Turkey became isolated in the region.

Turkey’s aggressive policies led anti-Turkey countries to unite under the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) with the support and guidance of the United States. Feeling very alone in the region, Turkey abandoned the Blue Homeland Doctrine by making a radical policy shift in the eastern Mediterranean when the EU threatened sanctions in December 2020. Turkey launched an intensive diplomatic initiative to normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. Why did Turkey have to change the policy it had pursued in the eastern Mediterranean? How will regional gas cooperation initiatives among countries in the region affect Turkey’s foreign policy in the near future?

Eastmed Gas Forum and Turkey

The EMGF, a platform for gas producer, consumer and transit countries to cooperate on developing infrastructure for gas trade within the region and with external markets, was formed by Egypt, Cyprus, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and Palestine in 2019. The organization’s formal charter was signed in September 2020. The EU and the US are permanent observers. The EMGF Gas Industry Advisory Committee was also established in November 2019 as a vehicle to allow the pivotal participation of the private sector and strike the right balance between public and private interests. The significance of the EMGF goes beyond energy; it is a pivotal enabler of regional peace and a vital engine for economic growth and prosperity.

There will be an additional market need for the extra natural gas supply that will emerge in the eastern Mediterranean in the coming years. Inadequate export infrastructure makes it challenging to access distant markets. The most reasonable option is to generate electricity from the surplus natural gas and export it to neighboring countries. The US has withdrawn its support for the EastMed pipeline project, which will transport gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe, and has announced that it will support electricity interconnection projects.

There are two projects in the eastern Mediterranean to interconnect power grids. One is the EuroAsia interconnector project, which will connect the power grids of Israel, southern Cyprus and Greece from the seabed; the other is the EuroAfrica interconnector project, which will connect Egypt, southern Cyprus and Greece.

In addition to these projects, it has been found that the additional natural gas that can be sent from Egypt or Israel to Jordan will be converted into electrical energy in Jordan and sent to Lebanon via Syria. If this initiative comes to fruition with US support, the EMGF will change the geopolitical dynamics in the region. Since Turkey is not a member of the forum, it will be excluded from the new geopolitical equation.

The US and the EMGF

According to the US regional vision, the EMGF will serve as a platform for economic, defense and security cooperation and a driver for regional energy cooperation. The reconciliation between Israel and the Arab countries with the Abraham Accords signed on Aug. 13, 2020 between the United States, Israel and the United Arab Emirates will make it possible for the Gulf countries to obtain electric energy converted from eastern Mediterranean gas. Joint energy projects between the United Arab Emirates and Israel have begun. The Mubadala Investment Company, owned by the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, acquired a 22 percent stake in Delek, one of the partners in the Tamar gas field, in 2021. Israel, which was previously under the US European Command, has been placed under Central Command, joining the Gulf States. The move coincides with attempts by Israel and its neighbors to strengthen diplomatic ties in line with the Abraham Accords to facilitate military cooperation among the US, Arab states and Israel.

Another crucial political development is that an embargo imposed on Qatar was lifted with the signing of the al Ula declaration by Qatar, Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Council on Jan. 5, 2021. The Abraham Accordsand the al Ula declaration will pave the way to establishing an energy and trade bridge between the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. Greece, a key US ally, and Egypt are members of the Philia Forum, which seeks to promote cooperation, peace and prosperity throughout the Mediterranean and Gulf regions in such areas as energy, innovation and the digital economy. The United States is promoting regional cooperation led by its strategic allies to expand its influence in regions such as the East Med, North Africa,Central and Eastern Europe and the Gulf States. The US intends to build bridges of cooperation between Central and Eastern Europe, the eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf countries in the areas of energy, economy and security through the Three Seas Initiative, the EMGF, the 3+1 Initiative and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Reconciliation with key countries

The US is in the process of establishing new regional cooperation pacts with Greece, Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. One of the driving forces behind the establishment of regional cooperation mechanisms such as the EMGF and the 3+1 Initiative is the response to Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy. Turkey now faces the prospect of being excluded from US-led and motivated regional cooperation projects because of this foreign policy. Turkey has decided to change its foreign-policy mindset from military power to reconciliation with critical countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and eventually Israel. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’sprimary goal is to align Turkey’s foreign policy with the United States’ vision for the East Med, North Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf. Efforts to reconcile with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel can be seen as the result of Turkey’s foreign policy reset.

Erdoğan uses Israeli gas as a pretext to persuade his supporters

Turkey and Israel in the past gave high priority to military, strategic and diplomatic cooperation; however, the ties between the two countries have increasingly deteriorated in recent decades. Until 2008, relations between Turkey and Israel were good. The Turkish government’s condemnation of the 2008–2009 Israel–Gaza conflict strained the ties between the two countries. Turkey’s relations with Israel are particularly sensitive to developments in the Palestinian territories. On May 31, 2010 Israeli commandos killed nine activists – eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American with dual citizenship — aboard the Turkish-owned Mavi Marmara, which was attempting to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza imposed after Hamas took control of the territory in 2007. Political and military relations ceased, although trade continued. Erdoğan relied on anti-Israel rhetoric to win Arab support.

Economic crises and foreign policy isolation have eroded Erdoğan’s political power. For Erdoğan, regaining his political strength depends on ending Turkey’s foreign policy isolation and improving the economy. As Israel is a key partner of the US, Erdoğan needs to normalize relations with the Jewish state. However, when he exploited anti-Israel rhetoric in domestic politics, he strengthened the support of voters who are sensitive about Israel’s tough stance on Palestine. Therefore, he must convince his supporters to reconcile with Israel by claiming that Israeli natural gas could come to Turkey and ensure Turkey’s energy security. Turks complain about high bills due to rising natural gas prices. As a result of intense perception management by the media supporting Erdoğan, the public believes that natural gas prices will go down if Turkey can obtain Israeli gas.

The gas pipeline that transports Israeli gas to Turkey must pass through the Greek Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Therefore, laying a new pipeline through the Greek Cypriot EEZ is not feasible unless the Cyprus problem, an ongoing dispute between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots, is resolved.

Egypt is currently the energy hub of the eastern Mediterranean. Israel and the Greek Cypriot government have agreed with Egypt to transport offshore natural gas to Egypt’s LNG facilities. While countries in the region are making agreements on natural gas through the EMGF, Israel’s direct gas agreement with Turkey, which is not a member of the EMGF, is not a preferred option for Israel. Israel has agreed to export a total of 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually to Egypt and Jordan over 10 years. Israel must increase its investment in the Leviathan field to export gas to Turkey. If the United Arab Emirates invests in the Leviathan field as part of its cooperation with Israel, the only remaining difficulty will be transporting the gas to Turkey. The Arab Gas Pipeline, a trans-regional gas export pipeline built to transport natural gas from Egypt to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, will be the optimal route if it is extended from the Homs region of Syria to Kilis in Turkey. Before a pipeline can be built between Homs and Kilis, however, relations between Turkey and Syria must be restored.

As a result of the aggressive foreign policy that ensued, Turkey has found itself in a stalemate, which it will unfortunately have to make significant concessions to break.

Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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