Ankara sits at the intersection of European imperialism and traditional Islamic beliefs. Skyscrapers and international corporations are nestled aside Ankara’s grand Kocatepe mosque, with Istanbul and Europe lying to the West and the Middle East and Asia to the right. Despite the Turkish Republic’s unique history of cultural connections, Turkey finds itself more diplomatically isolated today than ever before.

In the latter half of 2020, Turkey sent out a naval alert on the Oruc Reis, announcing its intent to search the Eastern Mediterranean for gas and oil. Greek and Turkish naval ships slipped into a geopolitical battle for resources in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. 

Expected to hold millions of dollars in lucrative oil and gas reserves, the Eastern Mediterranean has suddenly become a geopolitical gem, vied and sought after by butting powers in the region.  A study by the 2010 US Geological Survey estimated that nearly 1.7 billion barrels of oil and 3.5 trillion meters of gas resided in the Levant Basin Province of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Doga Unlu ‘23 is currently studying remotely in Turkey and described how this conflict is affecting the region.

“I feel like this time things have escalated a little bit more compared to before. Maybe the last time things were [as] escalated was maybe a time when Cyprus was divided,” Unlu said in an interview with The Politic.  “Today, it doesn’t feel [like a] normal escalation.”

In a pandemic-wrought economy preceded by years of economic struggle, these resources would mean a breakthrough for Turkey and Greece. Plagued by vague and conflicting agreements (or disagreements), millions of refugees, and a history’s worth of tension, a military response is not off  the table for Turkey. 

In Turkey 

As TV’s blare in living rooms and coffee shops around Turkey, the street hustle mixes in with the new words of today’s hottest topic: international laws and maritime borders. 

Unlu talks about how every night, there were light debates on this issue. Who is in the right? What are the borders? People discuss and learn. Once obscure words now become modern day lingo, and the country finds itself intrigued by the new precedent and seriousness of Erdogan’s actions. But while this issue appears on the news, it is not as serious as people outside the country may think. 

“While people around my neighborhood aren’t organizing any events…. Since this issue is on the news, a lot of people [I observe] have acquired the terminology, but it has not affected peoples’ lives that much,” Unlu said. 

People discuss, debate, and while the conversations affect people’s outlook on the issue, the reality suggests that there is a more peaceful solution up ahead. However, there still remains a complicated history, and in the face of possibly millions of gallons of oil, the conversation remains. 

The Issue of Economic Exclusive Zones

Turkey’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which delineates its maritime claims and territories, is complicated by the historical precedent from World War I.

“There is a historical problem that Turkey has had in a couple of treaties. As a result of which even though Turkey has a coast line…about five thousand kilometers on the Western side, it is not able to enjoy all the rights most countries would be able to enjoy…due to some of the treaties that were made out in World War I.” Muqtedar Khan, professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware, said. 

The treaties in question are the Treaty of Sevres and Treaty of Lausanne, which highlights the fall of the great Ottoman Empire.  

The Treaty of Sevres was signed in 1920 between the Ottoman Empire and Allies of World War I. This documented the defeat in prominent areas among Palestine, Iraq, and Syria, and partitioned the Ottoman Empire into European occupation zones. As a result of this treaty, the Ottoman Empire found itself reduced to Anatolia.  

The Treaty of Lausanne occurred a few years after the Treaty of Sevres in 1922, officially ending the Ottoman Empire’s era. In exchange for recognition of the new Turkish Republic, the Ottoman Empire gave up all claims to its territory. 

“So Turkey feels that in this moment of weakness in the 1920s the western countries imposed certain restrictions on Turkey’s…affairs. Now they are essentially re-negotiating those treaties by taking aggressive moves in the Mediterranean sea,” Khan said. 

The area in question has been a source of discord for Turkey. The islands, some of which are hundreds of miles away from Turkey, are technically considered to be a part of Greece. However, because they are only about 10 or 20 miles from Turkey’s coast, Turkey feels that “this is an abuse used to expand maritime rights,” according to Khan.

While these maritime rights seem like an issue for the courts, the constant back and forth between Greece and Turkey in years past makes the issue of land rights and oil resources personal to Turkey. 

Ever since the Greek War of Independence, when Greece revolted against the Ottoman Empire, there has always been a political divide. Even though it was about 200 years ago, European countries support Greece’s side, and Turkey finds itself left out of an interconnected web of alliance. Greece continues to uphold international support on numerous occasions, even through today. Whereas Turkey has found itself in the opposite situation. 

“A lot of interactions have happened between Greece and Turkey. Some of them were worse than others, depending on the time period,” Unlu mentioned.

Recent events line up with this issue. This past year, Turkey formalized a heavily criticized alliance with Libya. Their human rights violations as well as the new claim to the Red Sea stirred controversy among countries in the Middle East. 

“Different alliances are forming across countries especially Egypt, [who] surprised Turkey, which is Muslim and a MENA country. Usually MENA countries sign agreements together,” said Unlu. (MENA: Middle East and North Africa) 

In response, Greece, Egypt, and several other players signed a new maritime deal just one day before peace talks. Germany, which had tried to negotiate a new concession between Greece and Turkey, found itself in the middle of the disagreement. Outraged by Greece’s actions, Turkey called off talks and set out on the Oruc Reis, where they scoured the area for oil and gas.

Turkey’s Concerning Isolationism. Does Turkey Want Alliances with the World? 

Many have pointed to Turkey’s own actions that have driven it away from alliances with the west. Most prominently is President Erdogan himself. In recent years, he has been criticized for his actions to undermine democracy in Turkey: arrests of journalists, censorship of media, and election tampering. These actions go against strong prevailing beliefs about democracy, which make Western countries wary of Turkey’s decision making. This abuse of democratization puts President Ergodan’s actions under strong scrutiny, making political alliances suspicious of his future actions and intentions. 

Furthermore, Turkey’s recent invasions into Kurdish-Syria have not only disrupted and endangered the lives of Kurdish groups in the region but have also tested the West’s willingness to stay in the region. From this incident, the US withdrew troops from the region, under harsh criticism, in order to avoid a full out war. 

Turkey’s slow withdrawal and dissociation from NATO has tested many of its alliances with European powers, and currently, there is a hold on approving NATO’s Graduated Response Plan due to Turkey’s insistence on recognizing the Kurdish people as a terrorist threat first. This action along with many others, continues to push Turkey and the West into two different sides. 

Military Escalation 

While this isn’t the first time Turkey and Greece have had conflicts, this time is different. 

“Today, it’s gone further from being intelligence measures. There are definitely more ships deployed from either side than before,” said Unlu.

Greece’s deal with Egypt is not an uncommon occurrence; countries in the Middle East have not included Turkey in past deals before. In late September, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Italy and the Palestinian territories set up the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, which would dictate over all energy and gas matters in the region. Leaving Turkey out of this committee has proved disastrous. Now, Turkey has no ambition or incentive to work together with countries in the region over these resources. They have been left out of collaborative efforts. 

Furthermore, other countries such as France and the United States have voiced support for Greece’s side. While Turkey may be eight times bigger than Greece, Greece has the alliance of multiple countries. 

“It is quite possible there is a breakout of some kind of military exchange. It will not be […something] Greece and Turkey; it could involve several countries,” Khan predicted. “I think Turkey has now realized that Europe will never accept a Muslim country like Turkey as a member of the European Union. So the concessions that it was making in the past to European Union, it is not willing to make those concessions anymore.” 

This proves concerning as a conflict of this potential size among governments would prove disastrous. Already, sides are being created, and this conflict could prove to be the setup for a war during a global health crisis and economic recession. 

A Solution?

Though the situation is complicated by a desperate grab for economic resources and history, Unlu is confident that there will be a solution. 

“There has to be a compromise,” she said. 

She explained how even though Greece and Turkey are historically enemies, the reality is often very different. 

“Although the two countries are politically conflicted with each other. The people love each other…I think there is a very separate line between how people interact and countries’ governments interact.” 

Because of this love, Unlu has been able to make friends with lots of Greek Yalies, and even though their governments usually place the two on opposite sides, in the end, the two countries share borders. The people do not want to find themselves in an all out war, and with the worsening situation around the world with the coronavirus, Unlu believes peace is an option. 

“It is, I think, likely, that Greece and Turkey will try to resolve the issue by talking to each other…I don’t think it is super likely that this will go to the international court and become a bigger deal,” Unlu emphasized. 

As for the role of international countries, there is perhaps an easier solution to this problem. Foreign countries have the potential to increase the danger of this conflict, but at the same time, they have the power to de-escalate. This area is shared among multiple European and MENA countries. As a result, a collaborative end is possible. 

“I feel that Turkey is trying to push back against Western demands. Eventually I think European countries, especially Germany, [are] going to make some concessions to Turkey and Turkey will back off,” Khan said. 

While Turkey and other countries in the Eastern Mediterranean grapple with economic resources, there is no doubt that the two continents share the same world. In the 21st century, the world is connected more than ever, and for countries that share seas, they are more than neighbors; they share the same home.

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