Would Turkey and Greece go to war to control the oil resources in the Aegean Sea?
What exacerbates the possibility of going to war is that the two countries are going through difficult economic conditions that they are trying to solve by controlling the oil and gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Aegean Sea is witnessing great tension between Turkey and Greece, due to the conflict over oil and gas resources in this region. This might lead to an armed conflict between the two countries, which have been hostile to each other over the past two centuries, since the war of independence of Greece from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, which culminated in the country's independence in 1829.
It is noteworthy that the two countries are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, yet this did not mitigate this hostility. What exacerbates the possibility of going to war is that the two countries are going through difficult economic conditions that they are trying to solve by controlling the oil and gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean, which are estimated at 5% of the world's gas reserves. Experts believe that the situation between the two countries is the most dangerous in years.
In an article in Hellenic Shipping News titled "Turkey's pursuit of disputed gas and oil fields will have consequences for stability" (1), Sam Meredith says Turkey's exclusion from regional development and security agreements between the many riparian states of the Eastern Mediterranean has made Ankara feel increasingly cornered. The writer quoted Emre Perker, director of the Europe department at the Eurasia Group, as saying in an interview for CNBC that Turkey would seek to emphasize its strategy in the eastern Mediterranean.
In mid-August, Turkey escalated its steps when it sent the survey and exploration ship "Oruc Reyes", accompanied by Turkish warships, to areas disputed with Greece and Cyprus to carry out surveys of what Greece considered provocative steps that could lead to an armed conflict. The European Commission called on Turkey to stop what it considered provocative steps, which Ankara rejected, affirming its right to carry out drilling in marine areas it considers its own.
According to a report prepared by the Synergia Foundation (2), Turkey urgently needs to find its own energy sources, especially as it is completely dependent on importing oil and gas. According to the report, Turkey imports 99% of its gas and oil with 40% of the gas it needs coming from Russia.
It is worth mentioning that the Aegean region is rich in gas and oil. Oil was discovered in this area in 1971 by the Denver Oceanographic Exploration Company, which discovered the Prinos oil field between the island of Tassos and the city of Kavala on the Greek mainland. The field was developed by the Energean Gas and Oil Company, the same company that was mired in controversy after the Zionist entity brought it in to develop the Karish field, which is disputed between Lebanon and the Zionist entity. Production in the Prinos field began in 1974, and it was named after the Prinos village, which is the closest inhabited area to the field. At that time, the field's reserves were estimated at 90 billion barrels, with an estimated daily production rate of 1,900 barrels. But by 2020, the field's reserves have been estimated at 120 billion barrels.
Background to the conflict
The latest oil discoveries in the eastern Aegean region were made by an Italian company, which found a field containing 3.5 trillion cubic meters of gas, which ignited the competition between Greece, Egypt, Cyprus, and Turkey to seize it. What complicates the matter in the Aegean region is that after the First World War, Greece was able to control most of the islands in the Aegean Sea, even those very close to the Turkish coast.
This deepened the dispute over the boundaries of territorial waters in the eastern Mediterranean. While most of the riparian countries of the Eastern Mediterranean signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which gives each country a territorial distance of 12 nautical miles and 200 miles of the exclusive economic zone, Turkey refused to sign and preferred to adhere to the principle of the continental shelf, considering that the extent of its territorial waters in the Aegean Sea is in reality broader than what is stipulated in the United Nations Convention. This made Turkey dispute Greece’s sovereignty over Kastellorizo Island, which has an area of 10 square kilometers and is only two kilometers from the Turkish coast.
Egypt supports Greece
The conflict moved to other dimensions after Turkey signed in 2019 with the government of Nader Al-Sarraj, which was in control of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, an agreement to define the maritime borders between them, in addition to an agreement on security and military cooperation between them (3). Egypt, which supports Marshal Khalifa Haftar, has announced its objection to the agreement, in addition to Greece, which considered that the agreement ignores the fact that the Greek island of Crete is located at sea between Turkey and Libya. This was followed by Turkey and the Libyan National Unity Government led by Abdel Hamid Dabaiba in early October 2022 signing a preliminary agreement to explore oil in this area, which prompted Egypt and Greece, which have a strategic partnership between them, to announce that they would oppose any exploration activity in the disputed area (4). In response, Turkey announced that it would resort to using sonobuoys, which are launched from drones, to monitor the navigation of Greek submarines, which escalated the tension between the two sides.
In 2019, Egypt and Greece contributed to launching the Forum of Gas and Oil Producing Countries in the Eastern Mediterranean, with the membership of seven countries: Egypt, Cyprus, France, Greece, "Israel", Italy, Jordan, and Palestine, and excluded Turkey from membership in the forum (5). This angered the Turkish leaders in Ankara, who considered that this contradicts the spirit of the agreement that had been concluded in 2007 between Turkey and Greece, which was to lay oil and gas pipelines in the Aegean Sea region connected to other gas and oil pipelines heading from Azerbaijan to transport oil and gas in the Caspian Sea through Turkey to the Aegean Sea and from there to Europe. This was supposed to be one of the offshoots of the Nabucco line, which was a competitor to the Russian oil and gas pipelines heading to Europe, pushing the Russian President to intervene to thwart it by putting pressure on the Central Asian countries and by providing good offers to Hungary not to be part of the project.
The impact of the economic crisis in both countries
Both Turkey and Greece are counting on Aegean oil and gas to obtain new economic returns that will help them overcome their economic crisis. The nominal GDP of Turkey is estimated at about one trillion US dollars, making it the sixteenth economy in the world. However, in fact, the Turkish economy is considered the 64th in the world in terms of real GDP. A financial crisis erupted in Turkey in 2018, and it continues to this day, which led to a decline in the value of the currency from 3.65 Turkish liras to the dollar in 2017 to 18.23 Turkish liras to the dollar in September 2022. The size of the Turkish debt is 453 billion dollars, i.e. equivalent to 45% of the GDP.
As for Greece, its gross domestic product is around 222.10 billion dollars, making it the fifty-third economy in the world in terms of nominal value and the fifty-fourth in terms of actual gross domestic product. A financial and economic crisis erupted in the country in 2010, which made it enter into a long political crisis from which it has not yet recovered. The Greek debt amounts to about 350 billion euros, which is equivalent to twice its gross domestic product, placing it in a more difficult economic situation than the Turkish economic situation. This may motivate the political and economic elites in the two countries to try to control the oil and gas resources in the Aegean Sea at any cost, even if it would be a military option. Would we witness an armed conflict between the two countries that are supposed to be allies in NATO, and if that happens, what would be the repercussions on NATO?
3- Daren Butler and Tuvan Gumrucku, Turkey signs maritime boundaries deal with Libya amid exploration row, Reuters, November 28, 2019, at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-libya-idUSKBN1Y213I