After many years of being the Middle East’s backyard, the Mediterranean has over the past decade become its flashpoint, hosting a toxic mishmash ofmilitarized conflicts, border disputes and energy competitions. If these divisions are not contained using constructive diplomacy and viable multiparty agreements, regional instability will continue to pose a threat to all Mediterranean littoral states.
Most countries in the region have not yet signed bilateral agreements that delineate their maritime borders. The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) postulates that a state can exercise maritime sovereignty in an area of up to 12 nautical miles from its coast and to establish an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), where it could claim rights over fishing, mining and drilling activities, in an additional area of 200 miles. However, in semi-closed seas with multiple states and overlapping spheres of influence, like the Mediterranean, where the distance between many neighboring countries is less than 424 miles, a bilateral agreement is required to draw the dividing line between each country’s economic zone.
The discovery in the last decade of massive hydrocarbon riches in the region and the intensification of the civil conflict in Libya have altered the regional status quo, reviving interests in drawing final maritime borders between the Mediterranean states. Indeed, last November, the Turkish government signed a maritime border agreement with Libya’s Government of National Accord that delineates their EEZs in the Mediterranean. The deal, which was considered to be illegal by Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, had created a maritime corridor between the two countries. Italy and Greece inked a similar agreement in June, ending an issue that had been pending for four decades. Moreover, Greece and Egypt agreed to resume talks on demarcating the maritime boundaries between the two countries.
The main bone of contention in the legal dispute between Turkey on one hand, and Greece and Cyprus on the other, is concerned with the legal status of islands in maritime law. Athens and Nicosia affirm their adherence to the principles of UNCLOS in this regard. Yet, due to the close proximity of a number of Greek islands (especially Kastelorizo) to the Turkish coast, Ankara, who is not a signatory to the UNCLOS convention, claims that islands should not be entitled to the same rights to maritime zones as land territory.
To be sure, this legal dispute is the façade of an imbroglio involving multiple parties who are impelled by potent economic and realpolitik motivations. If fully utilized, the huge deposits of natural gas in the Mediterranean could transfer billions of dollars to the coffers of the region’s countries. To that end, Mediterranean actors have pursued different paths: Egypt aspires to become a natural gas hub in the Eastern Mediterranean; Greece, Cyprus and Israel are planning to construct a 1,900 kilometer subsea pipeline that would transfer Israeli and Cypriot gas to Europe through Greece (the project has been put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic and falling oil prices); and Turkey has deployed its hard power capabilities in Libya’s proxy civil war. Meanwhile, oil conglomerates crave a piece of the cake, European states wish to see their current dependence on Russia’s natural gas lessened and the US is keeping a close eye on regional developments.
To complicate things further, the politics of maritime boundaries and pipeline competitions takes place against the backdrop of simmering geopolitical conflicts, most notably the longstanding Cypriot question and the decades-long Arab-Israeli conflict. The flow of refugees in recent years from the region’s hot spots, such as Syria and Libya, towards European shores has added a destabilizing element to the already fragile equilibrium. Unsurprisingly, the delay in finding viable political solutions to these protracted disputes has led to the militarization of the region. This has taken shape through huge arms purchases (including a great deal of naval hardware), the rise in the number of military drills (especially among the anti-Turkey axis states), deeper military involvement in Syria and Libya (chiefly on the part of Turkey), the frequent harassment of civilian and commercial vessels by warships, and the seasonal escalation of fiery rhetoric among Mediterranean states’ officials. Perilously, such high levels of militarization, which take place within the framework of contested sovereignties, undemarcated maritime borders and overlapping licenses granted to oil companies to operate in similar zones, create a situation that runs the risk of maritime accidents.
In recent months, all eyes have been gazing towards developments in the Libyan civil conflict, notably the vital Turkish military contribution to the series of battlefield victories by the forces of the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord against the forces of the eastern commander Khalifa Haftar. The change in the front lines among the Libyan warring factions has proved that Turkey has not only retained a foothold on Libyan soil, but also put on display that its intervention could be decisive. In response, Egypt seems adamant to prevent Turkey from further extending its grip into Libya’s oil crescent, by force if necessary. Referring to a potential larger military role for his country in Libya, the Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi warned on June 20th that any direct Egyptian intervention “would have international legitimacy at this point,” adding that the key central towns of Sirte and al-Jufrah are red lines for Egypt’s national security.
Within the larger framework of geopolitical and geoeconomic conflicts playing out in the region, Libya is only a piece in a larger puzzle of interwoven interests, ambitions and concerns, but it is an important one. As unjust as it may sound, in international politics, the law usually follows in the footsteps of power politics, not vice versa. And so, redrawing the Mediterranean’s maritime borders will likely reflect the balance of power on the ground rather than institute a new balance. Seen through this prism, the outcome of the Libyan conflict stands to have an impact on the leverage of the contending parties in the Mediterranean.