Energy, geopolitics in Eastern Mediterranean: Turkey's vital position for Western interests

A view at Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.
A view at Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

Turkey, as a rising power in the 21st century and a NATO member since the mid-20th century, has a crucial place in the Eastern Mediterranean. As global powers are bogged down in Syria, Turkey's regional power and geostrategic position becomes more of an issue for the same actors in terms of energy supply. Even though Ankara was pursuing a cautious policy in the region, in 2015, Turkey and Russia nearly came to the brink of war because a Turkish Air Force jet downed a Russian warplane. It was later explained that the Turkish fighter jet was piloted by Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) member who acted to damage Ankara-Moscow ties in service of the U.S. agenda.

Since the Turkish government parried FETÖ's coup attempt in 2016, Ankara has determined an assertive policy in the region against U.S.-backed groups menacing Turkish interests. The dispute between the two NATO allies in the region turned into a showdown, and Turkish-U.S. relations strained while Turkish-Russian relations improved. It should be noted that right after the failed coup attempt, both Russia and Britain had approached Ankara positively. What makes Turkey vital has much to do with its geopolitical position between energy rich territories in the Caucasus and the Middle East, and the West. In the present case, it begs the question of if Turkey's geostrategic position helps it with NATO allies or causes more conflicts.

Western interests in Iraq

British energy giant BP, the biggest investor and operator of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline since the beginning, has been granted an oil concession by Baghdad after the Iraqi government recaptured the oil-rich city of Kirkuk from Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) peshmerga forces. BP will exploit the resources, but they will not be transported to the Eastern Mediterranean Turkish port via the existing Kirkuk-Ceyhan line, as they were since 2014, due to Daesh in northern Iraq. Using the KRG pipeline built in 2013, oil from northern Iraq has been transported to Turkey via this route.

Recently, Turkey and Iraq have come to an agreement to develop a new pipeline from northern Iraqi territories under the central government's control. It will join the existing pipeline to Ceyhan while BP drills for oil in the region and the transport of Iraqi resources will get more dependent on Turkish geopolitics. In the present case, the Turkish government's plan to provide a $5 billion loan, even more than oil rich Saudi Arabia, for the reconstruction of Iraq is not a big surprise.

On the other hand, Russian energy giant Rosneft, BP's shareholder in many projects, had managed to get oil concessions in the KRG's fields in 2017. Despite strained Russian-German relations because of Crimea in 2014, the fact remains that the Russian deal in Iraqi Kurdistan was much to do with German interest in the Middle East. Rosneft promised to refine Kurdish oil in German refineries. However, this oil supply, unlike BP's, will be pumped via the KRG pipeline. In the same year, the German government also granted the North Stream pipeline project in the North Sea to another Russian giant, Gazprom, which is not going to strengthen Russian interests in the German fuel supply or in Europe. That is why resources in the Eastern Mediterranean are considered significant for European fossil fuel supply in terms of varying imports by sources.

Both BP and Rosneft will transfer Iraqi oil from KRG-controlled fields or Iraqi-controlled territories through the pipeline in southeastern Turkey. This reality may explain why Russian and British policy for the region does not support groups against Turkey either in northern Iraq or in northern Syria. That is to say Russian and British interests do not comply with that of U.S. policy for the region. At the moment, the two sides get Turkey's movement area, such as Operation Olive Branch in Syria against U.S.-backed People's Protection Units (YPG) insurgents.

Ankara put forward evidence that the YPG and PKK are linked. The PKK is infamous for attacking Turkish security forces, civilians and pipelines since 1984. Besides, having considered the potential of a future, U.S.-backed pipeline between Iraq and the East Mediterranean across northern Syria, Turkey's security concerns provide an insight as to why Ankara is apprehensive concerning YPG establishments in the region. In this regard, Moscow also seems determined to prevent any energy corridor between Iraq and the Mediterranean via northern Syria unless such a project is suitable to Russian interests.

Russian and Israeli gas to Europe

The Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) is the biggest part of a long pipeline project that can reduce European reliance on Russian fossil fuels. Once the project is completed, it will pump natural gas from the Shah Deniz field in the Caspian Sea to Europe across Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. TANAP is owned by the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR), Turkey's state-run Petroleum Pipeline Corporation (BOTAŞ) and British BP. However, BP's share in the Shah Deniz gas sales agreement is a kind of lion's share, which obviously helps Britain become adequately influential on European gas imports from the Caspian Sea via the EU-backed Southern Gas Corridor. On the other hand, even though the EU supports alternative routes, it is possible for Israel to join TANAP, as well. Israel's offshore resources have the potential to diversify European fossil fuel imports rather than those from Russia. In this regard, Israel appears to be a prospective rival to the Russian energy market in Europe after the Tamar and Leviathan offshore discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean.

While Britain is taking part in such projects in cooperation with Turkey and Azerbaijan, Russia is trying to influence Eastern Mediterranean countries that are in disagreement with the U.S. and with whom Britain has a special relationship. As Lebanon disputes its maritime boundaries with Israel for Mediterranean offshore resources, and Turkey is on a collision course with U.S. strategy in Syria, Russia seeks to turn these regional problems into an opportunity by taking firm action in its approach to Turkey, Lebanon, Libya and Egypt.

In order to restore U.S. influence, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited regional countries in February. Visits to Turkey and Lebanon, which have tended to cooperate with Russia rather than the U.S. for the moment, were the most crucial among them. Tillerson was not warmly welcomed in Beirut and he did not look satisfied while leaving Ankara after long negotiations. Meanwhile, statements from Ankara assert that Turkey most definitely wants a share in the energy transportation pie from east to west. As Energy and Natural Resources Minister Berat Albayrak said in February during his visit to Azerbaijan, where he was talking about TANAP: "Turkey is of great importance for the transportation of the natural resources in the Caspian to the world." He also said that Turkey "is the most rational alternative in terms of transporting the natural resources in the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe."

Ultimately Ankara is keen to benefit from its geostrategic position more than ever. Having security concerns in the region, Turkey is buying Russia's S-400 missile defense system as well as taking part in a joint project with Britain for TF-X aircraft. All this is happening while Russia and Britain are working with Ankara, but NATO allies like the U.S., France and Germany are hardly satisfied by Turkey's strategy. As the Paris climate agreement seems to be failing globally for now other than increasing Russian influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, assertive Turkish foreign policy also paves a way for a split in opinions in the West due to the fact that global powers cruelly compete in the region while regional powers strive to cope with its destruction.

* Researcher at the Association of Researchers on the Middle East and Africa (ORDAF)

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