Eastern Mediterranean, the Return of History: Greece, Turkey, Italy and the Great Power Game

On December 7th, 2017, Turkish President Erdoğan visited Athens, where he shocked the Greek government by openly talking about the revision of the Treaty of Lausanne. This treaty had been signed in 1923 by Greece, Turkey, and the victorious Allies in World War One, where the boundaries between the former enemies were finalized. Among other things, much of the Aegean Sea and most of the islands came to be assigned to Greece. The Dodecanese islands that had been taken by Italy after 1911 when Italy defeated the Ottoman Empire and seized Libya, came to be assigned again to Italy. Rome had expanded its territory in the Mediterranean at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. Italy’s defeat in World War Two, saw finally the Dodecanese islands returned to Greece, the best known being the island of Rhodes (Rodhos). After World War Two, one of the areas of conflict was the status of Cyprus. As a British colony it was eventually given independence and the presence of a controversial Turkish minority claiming a special status on the island brought a Turkish occupation of the northern part in 1974. The original British withdrawal from the island was negotiated in such a way that today, the United Kingdom has sovereign bases on the island that have been involved very discreetly recently in air wars in Syria and are fulfilling a crucial role in the Anglo-American alliance and intelligence cooperation.

By 2020, the confrontation between Turkey and Greece in the Aegean and in the Mediterranean at large, saw the Greek Minister of Defense speak about possibility of military conflict with Turkey.(i) This statement by the Greek Minister of Defense came a few hours after the Turkish President held a press conference in Ankara with Fayez Al Sarraj, Prime Minister of the UN-recognized National Accord Government based in the Libyan capital of Tripoli.(ii) Erdoğan said that Turkey and Libya would proceed with oil exploration and drilling in Greece’s contested maritime space in the eastern Mediterranean(iii), adjacent to Crete and now claimed by Libya aided and abetted by Ankara as it kept challenging Athens. Turkey had begun its military and political involvement in the civil war in Libya while confronting the Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian involvement in North Africa against a Turkish presence and the ideological influence of the Muslim brothers and manipulated by Erdoğan’s Islamist ideology. Just a few weeks earlier, there had been confrontations between Greek and Turkish forces on the border in Thrace.(iv) Thousands and thousands of real and imaginary refugees and other irregular migrants from the Middle East at large, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, moved to Turkey and planned on entering Europe. Having encouraged them to move to the Greek border, Ankara is seeking to entice those manipulated unfortunate souls to step into the European Union. In its confrontation in Cyprus, Turkey paved over the entry point in northern Cyprus in favor of entering the republic to the south.

Some years earlier, the war in Syria had seen thousands of refugees going to primarily Germany and Sweden. This development gave Erdoğan a chance to blackmail Europe to receive aid and status recognition and drawing concessions regarding Ankara’s relations with the European Union. For decades, Turkey had tried to be admitted into the European club. The EU, in trying to avoid conflict with Turkey, had already admitted Greece in 1980 and promised future admission to Turkey as to avoid conflicts in the area. Both Athens and Ankara have been long standing members of NATO but that membership has not lessened the confrontation between the two countries. Neither has it mitigated Turkey’s contemporary attempt to revise power relations with its Greek neighbor.

The Arab-Israeli conundrum receives the bulk of interest in Europe and North America, and of course the Islamic world, as the Jewish state’s legitimacy has always been challenged at some level or another. The European, and especially Italian relations to North Africa and the Middle East and inevitably to Mediterranean security have been historically linked in the mind of the European public and political parties to the wars between Israel and its neighbors. What are overlooked in the European political world are the other conflicts in the Middle East. For example, the partition of Cyprus, the confrontation between Turkish and Greek worlds which overlaps with contentious maritime borders, potentially rich with oil and gas in the Aegean Sea and off the shores of Cyprus. Sectarian conflicts in the Middle East are also relevant, as Shii, Sunnis and other radical Islamists in the Sunni world challenge the social fabric and political systems of individual states such as Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.

Italy with specific strategic interests is, arguably, the European country with the most important role in the Mediterranean. The fall of Gadhafi in 2011 after an internal revolt aided and abetted by France and other powers against the desires of the Italian government brought a power vacuum that allowed hundreds of thousands of African, Middle Eastern and Asian illegal immigrants moving successfully to the European continent through Italy. The Syrian civil war added even more impetus to these catastrophic migrations that have brought the European Union to a point of delegitimization in the eyes of many European citizens. In the recent past, the government of Silvio Berlusconi, had been successful in supporting the Gadhafi regime so as to stop illegal immigration in exchange for Italian development aid and of course purchase of Libyan oil.

Historically Italy’s main state-owned oil company, Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi, ENI, successfully entered the international oil and gas markets from the 1960s onward. Its total revenues never matched those of companies such as Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell, Total or British Petroleum (BP); all the same, the company itself came to play a big role in Italian daily and political life. It does so to this day. It serves Italian strategic needs very well. The Italian gas and oil markets have always been characterized by long term national policies, because of the vulnerable economic position of Italy as it lacks natural resources. Following the Chernobyl disaster, Italy did away with nuclear energy in the 1980s. In this regard, the rhetoric about renewable energy in the country has not been matched by policies. By 2019, ENI was drilling offshore Cyprus for gas and oil, challenged by Turkey.(v) In early 2020, both Italian ENI and French energy giant Total announced the suspension of their drilling programme in Cyprus waters allegedly because of the corona virus crisis. However, not a few are those who believe that the real reason is the Turkish bullying.

The energy power game was also seeing at this time the entry of another player, Israel, with the plan to build a gas pipeline from the Israeli controlled seabed in the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe via Cyprus and Greece. The East Med pipeline has already received European support with the European Commission designating it as a project of common interest.

As in many European nations, Italy relies heavily on revenues derived from the taxation of energy consumption and highway tolls. The Italian transportation industry has been faced with a lot of challenges and its contribution to environmental degradation and pollution is not to be underestimated. In the last decade, the government has pushed forward policies to motivate the population to purchase more environmentally sound cars. However, it looks like it will take some generations before the adoption of non-polluting cars. All the same, Middle Eastern conflicts have influenced the price of oil in markets all over the world, and have been exploited politically by states in conflict such as Iran vs Saudi Arabia. As many oil producing nations encounter political problems, such as those in Venezuela, industrially advanced states – Italy is one of them – have to be very careful about managing and resolving international conflict. International conflict and instability in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea present a challenge to any Italian government and even to the military organization to which Rome belongs, in this case, NATO. The politics of oil and gas, became less problematic as by 2020, the price of these commodities had collapsed in the international market while the United States had become the largest producer of oil. But in no way did this relatively positive development lessened the need for alternatives to fossil fuels for environmental considerations.

Whilst Turkey and Greece are members of NATO, the policies of the current Turkish government continue to be very confrontational toward Athens and Nicosia. Current relations between Washington and Ankara are becoming ever more problematic because of overlapping conflicts in the Mideast such as the Syrian civil war, the confrontation between Israel and its Arab neighbors and the rise of the Islamic State. A development that took important political significance was the acquisition of Russian anti-aircraft missiles S400 by Ankara over and above the objections of Washington.

Turkey’s acquisition of sophisticated Russian military hardware was, by 2020, an indicator of a successful Russian re-entry into the politics of the area, after the demise of the Soviet Union, as Moscow’s involvement into the Syrian and Libyan civil wars foreshadowed another chapter in the great power conflicts in the Mediterranean. While the United States, under the presidency of Donald Trump, had stated that the US administration was committed to withdraw from conflicts in the area, the reality on the ground showed that the US was still heavily involved in the security of the region. Among other reasons, was the decades old confrontation between Iran and the United States as the radical Mullahs of Tehran had successfully entered the Near-East, especially Iraq and Syria, directly challenging US interests in the area, threatening Israel with genocide and challenging very subtly both Russia and Turkey for hegemony in the region. (vi) In fact, by 2020, American military commanders involved in anti-Islamic terrorism campaign in Africa (vii) were mentioning the possibility and inclination toward an American involvement in Tunisia as its border with Libya was becoming even more challenging for international security.(viii)

The great power game was already witnessing the entry of China in the region through Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative that saw, on paper, a revival of the Silk Road and the systematic expansion of Beijing’s commercial interests in Africa, the Middle East and Europe.(ix) The entry of China added an ever greater dimension to the theory of the balance of power in the study of international relations. If anything, it confirmed and strengthened the ideas of neo-realism in international affairs and challenged idealism and globalization as harbingers of peace and conflict resolution in the world. What stood out was the inability of Italy to act as a great power in the Mediterranean and even more the European Union as its policies for peace and cooperation seemed to be totally irrelevant to the power conflicts in the region.

(i) Paul Antonopoulos, “Greek Defense Minister: Turkey’s behavior is aggressive but our powerful Armed Forces are deterrent,” Greek City Times, June 5th, 2020, https://greekcitytimes.com/2020/06/05/greek-defence-minister- turkeys-behaviour-is-aggressive-but-our-powerful-armed-forces-is-a-deterrent/.
(ii) Ibid.
(iii) Ibid.
(iv) Steven Brown, “Tensions soar as Turkish troops invade Greece occupying piece of land on contested border” Express, May 22, 2020, https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1285915/turkey-Greece-invade-contested-border- world-war-3-latest-ww3-news.
(v) “Our work in Cyprus,” ENI, https://www.eni.com/en-IT/global-presence/eurasia/cyprus.html.
(vi) Sina Azodi and Giorgio Cafiero, “Idlib is a stress test for Iranian-Turkish relations,” Atlantic Council, March 17, 2020, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/idlib-is-a-stress-test-for-iranian-turkish-relations/.
(vii) U.S. Army Africa Public Affairs, “USARAF commander engages Tunisian Land Forces army chief,” United States Army Africa, May 13, 2020, https://www.usaraf.army.mil/media-room/pressrelease/29481/usaraf- commander-engages-tunisian-land-forces-army-chief.
(viii) Jared Szuba, “US commander suggests sending military trainers to Tunisia after Russia sends aircraft to Libya,” Al-Monitor, June 1, 2020, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/06/us-commander-send-military- trainers-tunisia-russia-libya.html.
(ix) Andrew Chatzky and James McBride, “China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 28, 2020, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative.