The Eastern Mediterranean Dispute and the Future of NATO as a Security Alliance
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which completed 70 years in 2019, has come a long way from its early vision of providing collective security against the Soviet Union in the Cold War days. Seven decades is a long time for security alliances to change, for the world order to shift two times over, and for nation states to rise and fall. And yet, sceptics and proponents alike must admit that NATO has been quite successful in evolutionising its vision an additional two times over since 1949. This is what Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has termed the three ages of NATO; with the first age beginning after the end of the Second World War, the second age following after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990s, and the third age being triggered by the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea.
At the centre of NATO’s modifying vision and ideology is the unparalleled notion of NATO solidarity. Even though the infamous collective defence clause -an attack on one is an attack on all- has only been invoked once, after 9/11, the functioning of the alliance rests heavily on the collective solidarity of its member states. It was the solidarity of member states, from the United States and United Kingdom to Romania and Estonia, with each member state contributing troops for NATO missions, that crystallised NATO’s formidable presence in the late 90s-early 00s. Afterall, decisions within the alliance are taken on the basis of unanimity, one ‘No’ from a single member state being enough to halt entire military operations.
It is certainly not surprising that NATO’s position, as a security alliance, becomes all the more precarious when a military conflict breaks out between its own member states. Onto its third age, the solidarity aspect of NATO’s framework has perhaps never been more threatened. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was the first straw, triggering a shift of alliances within the organisation. The United States distancing itself from the organisation was soon to follow, even before former President Trump was elected. NATO’s seventieth anniversary in 2019, while renewing its commitment to global peace and security, also witnessed increasing fractures within the bloc. Yet another military conflict, and this time among two of its own member states, could become NATO’s worst nightmare. The Eastern Mediterranean dispute, with an origin traced back to the early days of both Greece and Turkey as sovereign nations, had since the Cyprus crisis in 1974, been largely considered a frozen conflict with occasional skirmishes. Greece and Turkey have been NATO member states since 1952. This is not the first time NATO has had to stand-by and watch as these two member states engage in a political and military power struggle.
Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus, which is only one facet of the Eastern Mediterranean dispute, pitted Greece and Turkey against each other, reigniting tensions present since the Ottoman Empire’s 400-year occupation of Greece. After long-drawn peace talks, and while both powers continued to remain in NATO, the Cyprus conflict, like other aspects of the Eastern Mediterranean dispute, remains a contentious issue to this day. In 1974, the southern flank of NATO solidarity was weakened, and Greco-Turkish relations have continued to remain a complex point of discussion for the alliance. Which is why, in September 2020, when the Eastern Mediterranean dispute suddenly became an active conflict again, NATO had much to worry about.
The other two facets of the dispute, which pre-date the Cyprus situation, have further triggered the now ongoing dispute between Turkey and Greece. First, there is the disagreement over the boundaries of Greek territorial waters and the ownership of islands in the Aegean Sea, and secondly, the disputed exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of both countries in the Eastern Mediterranean. What is different this time, and adds to the contentious character of the dispute, is the resource geopolitics of the region. Discovery of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean over the past decade has brought up questions on how Cyprus should manage its gas reserves. Turkey naturally objects to the Republic of Cyprus (Greek Cypriots) being in charge of energy exploration and contends that the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (installed by Turkey after the 1974 invasion) also has equal administration of the matter. The objection has materialised in the form of Turkish naval vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean, deployed to disrupt Cyprus’ exploration efforts.
The EastMed Pipeline project, finalised between Greece, Cyprus and Israel, is an ambitious €6 billion project, expected to transport natural gas from off-shore reserves in the Levantine Basin into Greece (via Cyprus and Crete). A connection with the existing Poseidon and IGB pipelines would then transport gas into other European countries. In addition to these three countries, the EastMed Gas Forum includes Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and France, with the United States as an observer. Turkey’s exclusion from the project was not taken lightly. In November 2019, Turkey signed two agreements with the UN-recognised Libyan government, the demarcation of the Turkish and Libyan EEZs in exchange for Turkish support against the Libyan National Army. The first agreement extends Turkey’s EEZ from its southern Mediterranean border, all the way to Libya’s northeast coast, thereby disregarding Greek islands like Crete, and disrupting the course of the EastMed project. Athens’ response was to sign a similar delimitation agreement with Egypt, disregarding the maritime boundaries claimed by Turkey. The spill-over from the Libyan conflict has further pitted Ankara against Egypt, France and UAE in the Mediterranean.
The dispute, while quite simply halting any exploration activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, has the potential of turning into a full-fledged military conflict between the parties involved. So far, NATO’s efforts in mitigating the crisis have delivered underwhelming results. Talks within NATO have led nowhere, even after the establishment of a deconfliction mechanism to de-escalate tensions between Athens and Ankara. The Mediterranean, considered the NATO Sea for the longest time, is at a risk of falling prey to Russian expansionism, should Moscow decide to step in amidst the ensuing chaos. While the United States, under the Biden administration, has projected a greater inclination towards mediating the dispute, which would also mean addressing the crisis from the standpoint of shifting US interests. But it is time for NATO, in its third age, to protect its European interests, particularly in its Southern neighbourhood, with or without US involvement. The alliance also has to view the crisis from a perspective of energy security.
At its core, the Eastern Mediterranean dispute concerns competing claims of national sovereignty made by Greece and Turkey. The present escalation of the dispute, however, has more to do with the exploration of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean and which states get to benefit from it. NATO is at this stage, in a more neutral position to mediate the competing claims and to bring Ankara to the table, than for instance the EU, which has actively denounced Turkey’s actions as a violation of the law of the sea. The crisis, while making the cracks in NATO solidarity more visible, also provides NATO with the opportunity to factor in energy security, when considering stability in its Southern borders. As part of its latest remodelling in this third age, it is time for NATO to make its Energy Security Strategy more comprehensive, in devising mechanisms for North Atlantic Energy Cooperation. The Eastern Mediterranean dispute and the competing claims of Greece and Turkey, if left unresolved, will continue to halt all energy development in the region and the spillover is likely to further exacerbate the situation in Libya, which NATO cannot afford. A repeat of 1974 must not be allowed, where NATO stood helpless as the relations between two of its member states never improved.
This article was written for the MD x EuroMUN Printed Edition.