Over the last years, Turkey has increased its activism in the Mediterranean, becoming a key and assertive player in regional politics and crises. From the Eastern Mediterranean gas dispute to the Libyan war, Ankara has not hesitated to flex its muscles to safeguard its interests and achieve its goals. Turkey's activism is part of a wider foreign policy, which has become more and more militarized since 2015, aiming at extending its geopolitical influence in the Middle East and its surrounding regions. This includes a significant maritime component, the so-called Mavi Vatan or the "Blue Homeland" doctrine, for the control of waters in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea through military power projection. It is not by chance that Blue Homeland is the name of the largest naval exercise (involving 103 military ships and 20,000 soldiers) in Turkey's history which was launched at the end of February 2019 to test its ability to carry on war simultaneously in the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean. A more active role for the Turkish Navy in national defence as well as in energy geopolitics competition is one of the pillars of this maritime doctrine, which also relies on the development of an indigenous defence industry.
Positioning itself as maritime power Turkey has intended to send a loud and clear message to other players, both regional and external, that have their stake in the area: Ankara wants its say in regional affairs and particularly in the great game of gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. This was addressed not only to Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Israel that along with Jordan, Italy and the Palestinian National Authority, in January 2019 established the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum to coordinate their energy policies and create a regional gas market, but implicitly also to the European Union and the United States that support cooperation projects and have important energy and geopolitical interests. Aspiring to become an energy hub between hydrocarbon-rich areas and the European markets as well as to diversify its energy supplies Ankara, which imports more than 90% of its energy requirements/demand, showed to be ready to challenge any initiative that does not include it and may endanger its geostrategic interests.
Against this backdrop, the first move was taken in May 2019 when Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced the start of drilling activities in the waters west of Cyprus. Claiming the rights of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to benefit from natural resources around the island, over the years Turkey has opposed unilateral initiatives by the Republic of Cyprus (the Greek part recognized internationally) as well as the activities of international energy companies in disputed waters around the island. Indeed, Turkey considers Cyprus's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as infringing on its continental shelf (Turkey claims a 200-mile EEZ). Furthermore, it has not signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea nor agreed maritime demarcation deals with the other littoral countries, except for Northern Cyprus and more recently Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) of Fayez al-Serraj. Conversely, since 2004 Cyprus has signed demarcation agreements with the other littoral states. It is not surprising that in this context the presence of Turkish drilling vessels – Fatih in the west and Yavuz in the northeast of Cyprus – have escalated tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, provoking harsh reactions in Brussels and Washington as well.
Tensions escalated even further at the end of the year when Turkey took a further step signing an agreement with the internationally recognized GNA, one of its few allies in the wider Mediterranean, defining maritime borders and EEZs with Libya. Although the legitimacy of the agreement was questioned by the other littoral states, Turkey staked a claim on an area through which the EastMed pipeline is supposed to pass, making its realization more difficult. However, the construction of this ambitious 1,800 km pipeline – which is supposed to transport between 10 and 16 billion cubic meters per year from the Levant gas fields to Greece and Italy through Cyprus and Crete bypassing Turkey – faced a number of challenges in terms of feasibility, costs, and funding, even before the global economic slowdown and the drop in energy demand amid the Covid-19 pandemic put on hold drilling activities carried out by international companies and made the investment for the project more unlikely.
Even more important, the military dimension of the agreement between Turkey and GNA allowed Ankara to throw its weight behind Serraj's government by providing GNA with military equipment, training, armed drones, and forces. Turkey's military support, along with Qatar's financial backing, has reversed the balance of power on the ground in the GNA's favour in a crisis that has gradually transformed into a proxy war between regional and external players. The involvement of a plethora of actors in Libya clearly shows that the great game of energy is just one side of a greater game for geopolitical influence in the wider Mediterranean region. Up to now, it seems that Turkey is succeeding in projecting its power in Libya and that the Ankara-Doha axis, of which the support of political Islam is one of its main pillars, appears solid and resilient to external shocks. However, how long it is sustainable amid the recession of global economy, the drop in energy demand that tremendously affects hydrocarbons producers like Qatar, as well as the spectre of another financial crisis in Turkey, remains an open question. While it remains to be seen whether or not the latest developments both in Libya and in the Eastern Mediterranean will turn into an opportunity to de-escalate tensions and open new and unexpected channels of dialogue and cooperation, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's decision to transform Hagia Sophia into a mosque was an unequivocal message to the world, and especially to the Sunni world: Turkey is here not only to stay but also to play a leading role.