Rising tensions between Turkey and Greece could prove to be the death knell for a project that aims to transport East Mediterranean natural gas to energy-starved Europe, regional experts have warned.
The state-run Anadolu news agency on Sunday reported that Greek surface-to-air missiles locked on to Turkish fighter jets that were in the midst of a reconnaissance mission. The incident allegedly took place on August 23, when Greece’s S-300 missile system in Crete put a lock on the Turkish jets. The report said that the Turkish planes managed to complete their mission “despite the hostile environment.”
Greece’s Defense Ministry denied the Turkish allegations and said that five Turkish jets flew through Greek airspace without prior warning and appeared to be escorting US B-52 bombers.
Although both countries are members of NATO, Turkey and Greece have longstanding disputes over territorial claims in the Aegean Sea.
The most recent round of escalation could spell trouble for the EastMed pipeline, an off/onshore natural gas pipeline project that would connect resources found in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea to mainland Greece via Cyprus.
“This is a huge headache for that project,” Dr. Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkey expert at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line.
“There is a huge question over whether this project is even feasible or not,” he said. “Given Turkey’s disagreement and this brinkmanship between it and Greece, I sincerely don’t think that any multinational company would be eager to take this dangerous step and invest millions of dollars into a potential conflict zone.”
The Eastern Mediterranean holds significant natural gas resources and is deemed to be a significant strategic asset for countries in the region. The leaders of Greece, Israel, and Cyprus signed on to the EastMed project in early 2020. However, the US withdrew its support for the initiative earlier this year after stating that it was not viable.
Nevertheless, with a looming energy crunch that has come on the heels of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe has expressed renewed interest in the idea.
If you want to get the gas in the Eastern Mediterranean, then Israel, Turkey, Cyprus, and Greece would have to learn to cooperate, which sounds like science fiction
“If you want to get the gas in the Eastern Mediterranean, then Israel, Turkey, Cyprus, and Greece would have to learn to cooperate, which sounds like science fiction,” Yanarocak said.
Ankara has repeatedly accused Athens of violating international treaties by fortifying islands in the area, many of which are situated close to the Turkish coast. Greece has defended its stance on the matter, arguing that it is defending the islands in question from a potential Turkish attack.
In a further blow to bilateral relations, since May Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has refused to talk with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Erdoğan accused his Greek counterpart of lobbying against US arms sales to his country.
Dr. George Tzogopoulos, a senior research fellow at the Athens-based Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, asserted that Turkey’s aggressive rhetoric is political grandstanding that comes ahead of an important election period.
“Turkish rhetoric against Greece was much heavier than deeds,” Tzogopoulos told The Media Line, adding however that “ongoing world instability in parallel with the substance of Greek-Turkish differences and Ankara’s regional ambitions make it hard to make prognostics.”
Whereas Greece views the delimitation of its territorial waters as being the only issue, Tzogopoulos said, Turkey has a much broader agenda and is consistently engaging in public attacks against Greece.
This has put the US in a delicate position.
“[The US] values its strategic relationship with Greece but does not want to lose Turkey,” Tzogopoulos asserted. “For now, it is acting to prevent a crisis in NATO’s southeastern flank [from] erupting.”
Like Yanarocak, he views the EastMed pipeline as a significant energy prospect that could provide a much-needed answer to Europe’s ongoing energy woes that have come as a result o Russia limiting natural gas supplies to the bloc.
“The big question is whether quantities to be found in the continental shelf of the Republic of Cyprus (in tandem with the ones of Israel, Egypt, and possibly Greece in the future) will lead companies (principally American companies) to finance the pipeline,” Tzogopoulos related.
Israel has already jumped in boost exports to Europe, with natural gas production up 22 percent in the first half of 2022, Energy Minister Karine Elharrar announced last week. Exports to countries neighboring Israel rose 35% over the same period, while royalties from gas sales jumped 50% to roughly $253 million.
In June, Israel agreed to ship billions of dollars’ worth of gas to Europe through Egyptian liquefaction facilities.
The big question is whether quantities to be found in the continental shelf of the Republic of Cyprus (in tandem with the ones of Israel, Egypt, and possibly Greece in the future) will lead companies (principally American companies) to finance the pipeline
Tzogopoulos believes that the upcoming November elections in Israel could prove pivotal to the EastMed pipeline project.
“The Bennett-Lapid government only provides lukewarm support to the pipeline project in comparison to the Netanyahu one,” he said.