Tension is increasingly in the Middle East with yet another conflict looming in the horizon. Last week, Turkey warned both Israel and the Greek-Cyprus government against proceeding with their exploratory offshore drilling in disputed areas in the eastern Mediterranean.
The exploratory drilling is part of a geological area called the Levant Basin, which lies off the coasts of Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Israel, Gaza and Egypt. The US Geological Survey estimates the basin could hold 122 trillion cubic feet of extractable gas. That makes it one of the world’s richest gasfields — in one of the world’s most fractious areas.
Both Israel and the Greek Cypriot government have already rejected Turkish warnings and are proceeding with their co-operation to explore the underwater natural gas bonanza. Clearly, the emerging dispute will further complicate the already complicated political landscape in the Middle East.
With all the parties concerned already dependent on gas and oil imports to meet their domestic needs, tension is likely to escalate. In addition, hydrocarbon energy is increasingly becoming a strategic commodity and exporting countries are increasingly using it as a means to draw political concessions.
Turkey, for example, relies on two regional rivals for gas and oil supplies. Moscow provides Ankara with approximately 60 per cent of its gas demands, whereas Iran supplies it with more than 40 per cent of its needs of oil. Historically, these two countries had been Ottoman Turkey’s worst enemies and despite major efforts to mend fences between them, relations have in recent months suffered major blows.
The end of what was seen by many as the most successful application of Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s strategy of “zero problems with the neighbours” has put Turkey in an awkward position vis-à-vis its hydrocarbon exporting neighbours. The breakout of Arab revolutions has in fact provided Turkey with as many opportunities as challenges.
Before the Arab Spring, energy was one of the cornerstones of the Russo-Turkish relationship in the post-cold war era. Over the past decade, since the ruling AKP came to power in Ankara, Russia has become Turkey’s largest natural gas supplier. Indeed, Ankara has sought ways to reduce its dependence on Russian gas, especially when Moscow started to use its energy supplies as political leverage with many of its customers.
For its part, Russia has always sought to keep Turkey tied to it through energy and to prevent other suppliers from helping Ankara diversify its natural gas sources. The problem was manageable, however, as long as the two countries favoured cooperation and interdependency over conflict and animosity. But, this situation changed dramatically when the wind of change stormed the Arab region.
Russia is absolutely alarmed by Turkey’s efforts to seize on the opportunity presented by the Arab Spring to further its influence in the Middle East, the Balkans, Central Asia and Caucasia. With Turkey marketing itself as a model of Liberal Islam and with the ascendance of Islamist forces in all of the Arab countries which have so far witnessed change; Turkey is set to gain most.
The two countries have also taken opposite sides on the Syrian crisis with Russia supporting the Syrian regime and Turkey backing and hosting the opposition. Should the Syrian regime falls; it will be considered by Moscow as a strategic setback.
It will fundamentally change the balance of power in a region that stretches from central Asia to the Middle East and from the Balkans and Caucasia to the Gulf in Turkey’s favour. Hence, Moscow would be more inclined now than ever before to keep Turkey tied to it through energy supplies.
Iran too is in a similar mood, especially since relations with Turkey turned sour over differences on Syria and Iraq. It would very much like to remain Turkey’s major oil supplier so that it can have political leverage upon Ankara.
Turkey’s insecurity about its oil and gas demands has further increased given Israel’s extensive efforts to build a special relationship with Azerbaijan, another key supplier of oil for Turkey. The dispute over the gas bounty on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean has just highlighted Turkish venerability in terms of energy supplies.
Ankara would want to diversify its natural gas and oil supplies away from Russia and Iran and therefore prevent both from gaining more political leverage in Turkey. But Ankara has little recourse to pursue this strategic objective right now. Given the complicated political map of the region, the underwater hydrocarbon reserves appear to be Turkey’s only hope to avoid reliance on Russian and Iranian energy.
This explains why Turkey is so keen on seeking to secure its share of the treasure. Without securing its independent energy supplies, Turkey can never act as a major regional power.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is the dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon.