On July 24, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan joined thousands of worshippers in the streets around the historic Hagia Sophia in Istanbul for a doubly symbolic moment. Surrounded by a swarm of politicians, soldiers, security forces and imams, the Turkish leader made his way into the giant, former Byzantine cathedral through doors once hammered open by conquering Ottoman soldiers in 1453. Inside, he read out the namaz, or Muslim prayer, formally turning the 1,500-year-old building back into a mosque.
In doing so, Erdogan was turning the page on nine decades of recent history, during which this extraordinary structure and UNESCO World Heritage Site had been a globally recognized symbol of secular Turkey. Indeed, since 1934, Hagia Sophia had been neither a cathedral nor a mosque, but a secular museum, established as such by the very founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Yet Erdogan was not only challenging Ataturk’s vision of a secular state that day. By choosing July 24 to hold the reopening ceremony, Erdogan was also challenging the entire foundation of modern Turkey’s international status.
It was on that date in 1923 that Ataturk’s Turkey signed the Treaty of Lausanne, which ended years of war and occupation, while giving international recognition to the new Turkish Republic. That treaty also formally dissolved the republic’s predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, which had once stretched from the Caucasus to Yemen and from Iraq to Libya. In signing the Treaty of Lausanne, Ankara had renounced all claims to those lands and, with them, its former imperial grandeur.
Turkey is now making a major move to end the regional status quo that the Treaty of Lausanne largely established. And the crucible for that challenge is increasingly the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean.
“Reopening Hagia Sophia reminds us of our strength,” Erdogan told his fellow Turks in a nationally televised address on July 2. “It is a symbol of our resurrection and a breaking of the shackles put on our feet… We will continue to march and we will not stop until we reach our destination.”
For many of Turkey’s neighbors and current allies in Europe, that march is already having some significant and dangerous consequences.
The Treaty of Lausanne has long been presented by Turkey’s secularists as a triumph for Ataturk and Turkish diplomacy, establishing the modern secular republic and ending Turkey’s international conflicts with a policy of “peace at home, peace abroad” for the new nation.
Yet, the treaty has never been seen that way by Turkey’s Islamists, like Erdogan, or its right-wing nationalists. “Some tried to make us carve Lausanne as a victory,” Erdogan told an assembly of neighborhood representatives, or muhtars, back in 2016. “As a result of Lausanne, we gave away the islands, which are so near [to our shores] that even a shout could be heard [from them]. What makes up the continental shelf, what will happen up in the air, what will happen on land—we are still struggling with this.”
Erdogan was referring in particular to the status of the Aegean Sea, the northern extension of the Eastern Mediterranean that Turkey shares with Greece. The treaty saw Turkey renounce its claims to all but a couple of islands there.
This region had once been entirely under Ottoman rule, although by 1923 most of it was part of Greece. Some islands, such as Rhodes and tiny Kastellorizo, were administered by Italy up until after World War II, when the 1947 Paris Peace Treaties also assigned these to Athens.
Turkey is making a major move to end the regional status quo that the Treaty of Lausanne largely established.
Kastellorizo is a particular case in point, too, when it comes to contemporary Turkish objections to the consequences of Lausanne. The island lies only a mile off the Turkish coastal town of Kas, but 354 miles southeast of Athens.
“Turkey is being squeezed into a very small and unjust sea area,” says Altug Gunal, a professor in the department of international relations at Ege University in Izmir. “Greece has the leading role in this siege. It claims that even very tiny Greek islets that are outermost to the Greek mainland and adjacent to mainland Turkey have the same extent of maritime jurisdiction as the Greek mainland.”
This Greek claim is backed up by the 1982 iteration of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS III, which essentially enables islands to extend the maritime rights of the mainland nations they belong to. For Athens, this is a major benefit, as it means that Greek waters curl around the southern coast of Turkey to Kastellorizo and far beyond. In the Aegean, too, the dense constellation of Greek islands means that no seaborne approach to key Turkish ports, such as Izmir, can be made without effectively going through Greek waters.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Turkey has therefore never signed up to UNCLOS III. Instead, it continues to follow the convention’s original iteration, the 1958 UNCLOS I, which did not treat islands the same way. Instead, it assigned “continental shelves” to their contiguous mainland, giving the waters around most offshore islands to the nearest continental state.
This interpretation is also significant for a second long-standing dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean—Cyprus.
The island has been divided into a Turkish Cypriot north and a Greek Cypriot south since the 1974 Turkish invasion. The Republic of Cyprus, or ROC, in the south continues to enjoy international recognition as the de jure government of the whole island, with only Turkey recognizing the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus that declared independence in 1983 and remains the de facto ruler of the north under Ankara’s patronage.
As the internationally recognized legitimate government, the ROC claims full maritime rights for the whole island of Cyprus. Under UNCLOS III, that means exclusive rights to the resources—including what lies under the seabed—within an exclusive economic zone extending 200 nautical miles beyond its 12-nautical-mile territorial waters.
In 2011, this became a major boon for the ROC when, at the farthest reaches of that exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, south of Cyprus, Nobel Energy discovered the Aphrodite natural gas field. Since then, the ROC government has also parceled out exploration blocks across the island’s EEZ, bringing in ExxonMobil, France’s Total and Italy’s ENI to survey and drill within them. Further discoveries—the Calypso and Glafkos fields—were made in 2018 and 2019 by ENI and ExxonMobil respectively. All these offshore fields lie well south of Cyprus, in ROC jurisdiction under UNCLOS III.
These developments were greeted with consternation in Ankara. Consistent with its view on the maritime limits of islands derived from UNCLOS I, Turkey refuses to acknowledge that the ROC has any rights to an EEZ. Instead, it sees its own EEZ extending southward from its long Mediterranean coast, with Cyprus possessing only its 12-nautical-mile territorial waters. These, Ankara argues, should also be divided between those belonging to the ROC in the south and those accorded to the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Much of the EEZ claimed by the ROC, in Ankara’s eyes, is therefore within Turkey’s EEZ, giving Turkey the right to explore there.
For the past few years, then, Turkish seismic research vessels, and more recently drilling ships, have been operating in the waters off Cyprus claimed by both parties. In 2018, this led to Turkish warships threatening to ram a ship contracted by ENI to conduct undersea prospecting, while from August 2019 into early 2020, Turkish ships drilled off the coast of northern Cyprus in waters within the ROC-claimed EEZ, provoking alarm and protest from Nicosia and its close ally, Greece.
The Libyan Connection
These tensions further escalated in November 2019, when Turkey signed an agreement with Libya’s internationally recognized government in Tripoli, known as the Government of National Accord, or GNA, that grew out of the complicated regional dynamics of that country’s civil war. The fighting ostensibly pits the GNA against the forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s breakaway Libyan National Army, which is loyal to the rival, Tobruk-based government led by Aguila Saleh Issa. But over the course of 2019, the Libyan conflict became a full-blown proxy war. Turkey and Italy back the GNA, while Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France have provided support—including military assistance—to Haftar’s forces, although Paris denies any formal backing.
In response to a sudden offensive by Haftar’s forces in April 2019 that eventually pushed to the outskirts of Tripoli, Ankara began sending Turkish-aligned Syrian mercenaries to support the GNA, along with trainers, special forces, arms and equipment. The November 2019 agreement formalized this support, which proved decisive in helping the GNA push the Libyan National Army back from the outskirts of Tripoli to those of the coastal city of Sirte in the east.
At the same time, the agreement also delineated the maritime boundary between Turkey and Libya. Again, according to the Turkish argument that islands do not possess EEZs, the Greek islands that lie between Turkey and Libya—most notably Crete, Rhodes and Kastellorizo—also do not have such zones. This leaves only Mediterranean water between the coasts of Turkey and Libya.
A Turkish warship and a Turkish drilling ship in the Eastern Mediterranean, July 9, 2019 (Turkish Defense Ministry photo via AP).
As Ankara sees it, the maritime element of its Libyan agreement gives Turkey the right to explore for oil and gas not only off of Cyprus, but also just off the shores of Greek islands such as Crete and Kastellorizo as well. Sure enough, this summer, in July, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced that Turkey would take up this right and dispatch its seismic research and drilling vessels to what Athens—and most other governments around the Mediterranean—see as Greek waters.
This extended Turkish maritime claim also exacerbates the Cyprus gas dispute. With the Aphrodite gas discoveries lying so far south of Cyprus, and the largest potential market for that gas being in distant Europe, transporting the gas to market has long been an issue. One potential solution is the proposed EastMed gas pipeline. This 1,200-mile, largely undersea feat of engineering would link neighboring Cypriot, Israeli and potentially Egyptian gas fields, then run northwest to Cyprus, Greece and Italy, where it would join the existing European gas pipeline network.
The Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement, however, means that the EastMed pipeline’s planned route now runs straight through the area claimed by Turkey. According to Ankara, that gives it a say in the project’s construction. This latest Turkish move naturally provoked a major diplomatic reaction from Greece, which in a Foreign Ministry statement on July 21 accused Turkey of having “complete contempt for international law.” The Greek navy was subsequently put on alert.
French President Emmanuel Macron also began to weigh in, particularly after a tense standoff between a French frigate and three Turkish warships off the Libyan coast on June 10. The French vessel, operating in a NATO operation to enforce a U.N. arms embargo on Libya, had sought to stop and inspect a Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship suspected of smuggling weapons. According to the French Defense Ministry, one of the Turkish vessels accompanying the cargo ship then flashed its targeting radar on the French frigate, and the Turkish sailors on board donned their bullet-proof vests and took their stations behind light weapons. Turkey claimed the cargo ship was carrying humanitarian aid.
Macron subsequently described Turkey as bearing “a historic and criminal responsibility” for its intervention in Libya. He called for a NATO investigation into the standoff near the Libyan coast, as well as for European Union sanctions on Turkey over its drilling campaign in the Eastern Mediterranean. In July, Brussels followed through, imposing sanctions on top officials from the Turkish state oil and gas exploration company.
By late July, then, tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean had become higher than at any time in decades.
Disputes over maritime boundaries are nothing new between Turkey and Greece. And the Cyprus issue has been a cause of division since the 1950s. So what prompted this latest escalation, as well as Turkey’s intervention in Libya? The answer can be found in the gradual, yet significant political shift in Ankara epitomized by the reopening of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque.
“Ataturk presented Lausanne as a victory,” says Zenonas Tziarras, a researcher with the Peace Research Institute Oslo, who is based in Nicosia. “But the ideological current in Turkey now represented by Erdogan thought the opposite—[to them] Lausanne was the end of the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate, which had been centered on Istanbul, and so it was a defeat. Erdogan came to power as an expression of this current, and as he has consolidated power, he has been increasingly able to express this in his foreign policy.”
Indeed, by late 2017, ahead of what was billed as a conciliatory visit to Greece, Erdogan felt confident enough to say in an interview broadcast on Greek TV: “I think that over time all treaties need a revision. The Lausanne Treaty, in the face of recent developments, needs a revision.”
Most recently, too, with Turkey’s economy ailing, Erdogan’s government has seen its popularity dwindle at home, losing control of both Ankara and Istanbul in municipal elections in 2019. His Justice and Development Party, the AKP, was also forced to form a coalition government after failing to win an outright majority in 2018 parliamentary elections.
“Ataturk presented Lausanne as a victory. But the ideological current in Turkey now represented by Erdogan thought the opposite.”
This has left the AKP much more reliant on its coalition partner, the National Movement Party, or MHP. A right-wing nationalist party, the MHP also rejects Lausanne, but believes that the treaty’s supposed inequities should be redressed by force if necessary. The failed military coup against Erdogan in 2016 also strengthened the MHP’s hand, as the subsequent purge and mass arrests of those responsible—many of them MHP rivals within the military—left it ascendant within the armed forces.
As a result, a naval strategy long popular with the MHP known as “Blue Homeland,” or Mavi Vatan, has been adopted by Erdogan and the AKP as both military doctrine and presidential policy. Turkish military spending has steadily increased. The defense budget rose by 86 percent between 2010 and 2019, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute SIPRI, with 27 percent of that coming between 2017 and 2018 alone. Although actual figures are state secrets, the navy has likely received a major share of this increase, as have indigenous naval industries, with Turkey now designing and building its own frigates, landing craft, light aircraft carriers, and oil and gas exploration ships.
By March 2019, the Turkish navy was thus able to hold its largest-ever exercise, Sea Wolf, deploying 131 warships in the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black seas. Erdogan then followed this up in September by being photographed in front of a map showing some 462,000 square kilometers of those three seas as Turkish waters.
“The strategy is to build a military force that is no longer mandated to defend the homeland, but to have a regional stance, if needed,” says Atilla Yesilada, an Istanbul-based Turkish analyst. “In the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey sees itself as the victim, rather than the aggressor, with Greece, the Greek Cypriots, Egypt and Israel all working together to parcel out the sea between them and confine Turkey to within a few miles of its shoreline.”
Few see the issue as only about resources, either. Indeed, the current combination of worldwide economic recession due to COVID-19, a long-standing global natural gas glut, and moves toward renewable energy make the high cost of extracting and transporting Eastern Mediterranean gas look highly questionable in purely economic terms.
“In the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey’s gas exploration is not about economics, but about supporting a claim of sovereignty,” says Charles Elinas, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “They want a say in everything that happens there.”
Diplomatic Off-Ramp, or Escalation?
In 1964, when Turkey and Greece were about to come to blows over Cyprus, a telegram from U.S. President Lyndon Johnson was enough to halt the crisis. In 1996, too, the arrival of a U.S. warship defused a potentially grave Turkish-Greek dispute over an Aegean islet claimed by Athens as Imia and by Ankara as Kardak.
This time, however, while the State Department urged Turkey “to avoid steps that raise tensions in the region” in a July 20 statement, there has been no major or decisive U.S. response to a spat between two key NATO allies.
On Libya, too, while the U.S. ramped up its efforts to have a cease-fire declared in July, its position has been largely problematic. “There is a perception that the increasing Russian presence in Libya is a threat, so the U.S. is more prepared to greenlight Turkish moves,” says Claudia Gazzini, a Libya expert at the International Crisis Group. “Yet, the U.S. doesn’t want to alienate its Arab allies, who support Haftar, so it is walking a difficult tightrope.”
The U.S. downgrading of the Mediterranean as a strategic priority predates Donald Trump’s presidency. But there is a widespread perception in the region’s capitals that under Trump, the U.S. has further retreated from its usual, policing role in the region.
“A post-U.S. world order is accelerating,” says Tziarras, “and countries will take advantage of U.S. weakness, including Turkey.”
Greek and French military vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean, Aug. 13, 2020 (Greek National Defense photo via AP Images).
One unexpected consequence of America’s absence, however, has been to propel into the spotlight a country that has not exercised major diplomatic influence in the Eastern Mediterranean since the time of Bismarck: Germany. As the largest and most powerful economy in Europe—and also the current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, allowing it to shape the bloc’s political priorities for six months—Germany has a major role to play in managing the crisis.
On one side are Greece and Cyprus, two EU member states, backed up by a French president who seems to believe further escalation is the only way to deter Erdogan. On the other is Turkey, a major market for EU goods and a key backstop against refugees and migrants trying to enter Europe, which has been a hot-button political issue in the EU since 2015.
It’s no surprise, then, that in late July, Germany launched a significant diplomatic intervention to try and defuse the potentially damaging confrontation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel engaged directly with both Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, after which Turkey declared it would put its drilling operations on hold for at least a month and announced a meeting in Ankara between Turkish and Greek officials. Merkel had managed to halt an escalation—temporarily.
The price of resolving the crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean may ultimately be what Erdogan has been after all along: a renegotiation of the Lausanne Treaty.
Tensions have subsequently heated back up after Mitsotakis sealed a maritime boundary agreement with Egypt on Aug. 6 that overlaps with the Turkish-Libyan delimitation. Ankara instantly denounced the agreement, and the German-sponsored talks collapsed. Instead, Turkey announced that it was sending its survey and drill ship the Oruc Reis, accompanied by a naval escort, into the disputed waters between Crete and Cyprus.
Greece’s prime minister subsequently threatened to unilaterally expand the country’s territorial waters to the east toward Turkey, leading Turkey’s foreign minister to threaten war if it does. France dispatched naval vessels to participate in joint exercises with Greece and fighter planes for joint exercises with Cyprus, while Germany once again called for dialogue. The U.S. also finally intervened, with Trump calling both Mitsotakis and Erdogan to urge them to find a compromise.
In late August, however, Turkey instead announced that it would hold live-fire military exercises in the disputed zone off northwest Cyprus from Aug. 29 until Sept. 11. On Aug. 28, a weary Merkel called on all EU members to back Greece and Cyprus, while the EU itself announced that it will meet to discuss sanctions against Turkey on Sept. 24-25.
The EU is Turkey’s largest overseas market, making EU sanctions a real threat to a Turkish economy that was already shaky even before COVID-19 hit its important tourism sector and collapsed demand for its foreign exchange-earning manufactured goods. Yet the price of permanently resolving the crisis may ultimately be what Erdogan has been after all along: an international renegotiation of the Lausanne Treaty.
“Turkey knows that if it agreed to go to the international courts over its claims, it wouldn’t get what it’s asking for,” says Tziarras. “The strategy is more to pressure Greece into negotiating things it doesn’t want to negotiate and to create a precedent for future claims, beyond the Aegean.”
The events of July, in which diplomacy deescalated tensions, demonstrates that both sides are still able to walk back from the brink of conflict. By contrast, the events of August raise the question of how willing they are to follow through on the dialogue necessary to actually reconcile their claims. Most of all, the events of this summer indicate that a whole new balance of power is emerging in this highly strategic region, one in which old certainties—and treaties—are being increasingly called into question.
Jonathan Gorvett is a journalist, writer and analyst specializing in European and Near Eastern affairs, currently based in Ireland.