I returned from holiday on the Greek island of Ithaki last weekend. More or less simultaneously prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced the Greek government’s decision to extend its territorial claim over the Ionian Sea from six to 12 miles of its western coasts, including Ithaki.
This is about energy. There is a scramble going on to grab the gas reserves in the north eastern Mediterranean. Blemishing the natural beauty of islands such as Ithaki by extracting climate-destroying fossil fuels seems like a kind of sacrilege. But it’s bound up with growing rivalries among the capitalist classes of the region.
On one side you have Greece, Southern Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt, which want to develop a pipeline across the eastern Mediterranean. On the other side, you have Turkey and its client state in North Cyprus, which claim this project violates Turkey’s territorial rights in the area.
To some extent this is an old conflict. Greece hasn’t dared extend its territorial claim from six to 12 miles in the Aegean Sea, where Greek and Turkish coasts and islands mingle closely. This is because Turkey has threatened since the 1970s to treat this as an act of war.
But the rhetoric is escalating. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week used celebrations of the battle of Manzikert in 1071—when the Byzantine Empire lost Asia Minor to the Seljuk Turks—to do so. He insisted Turkey “will take what it is entitled to” in the Mediterranean”.
“We are tearing up and throwing away the maps of the Eastern Mediterranean that imprison us on the mainland,” Erdogan’s vice president Fuat Oktay declared in June.
The European Union has started to weigh in heavily on the side of Greece and its allies. Its foreign policy chief Josep Borrell angered Turkey by flying over disputed waters off Cyprus at the end of June.
Now French president Emmanuel Macron says he is sending ships to take part in naval exercises in the area.
Competition over access to gas reserves is interwoven with the growing struggle for dominance in a Middle East thrown into chaos by the defeat of the US in Iraq and the risings of 2011. Erdogan reacted by asserting Turkey’s claim to lead the Muslim world.
This antagonised Saudi Arabia, particularly since Erdogan also supports different wings of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudi ruling family loathe the Muslim Brotherhood as a longstanding threat to their own claim to Islamic leadership. The Syrian war became in many ways a proxy conflict between Erdogan, the Saudis, and—yet another rival Muslim power—the Shia rulers of Iran.
Libya is another battleground. Until recently, the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli was fighting what looked like a losing battle against the forces of general Khalifa Haftar. He had the support of conservative Arab states suspicious of Islamist influence in Tripoli, and of France and Russia, both after Libyan oil.
But the Tripoli government’s position was hugely strengthened when Erdogan sent Turkish military advisers and weapons systems and several thousand Syrian mercenaries to resist Haftar. In exchange he got an agreement that allows Turkey to drill for oil and gas off the Libyan coast.
Last month’s agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to open diplomatic relations belongs to the same tapestry. It has nothing to do with “peace” between Israel and the Palestinians, as the Trump administration claims. The UAE is one of Haftar’s main backers.
The deal’s timing “reflects the changing agenda and the changing balance of power in the Middle East”, Emile Hokayemy of the International Institute for Strategic Studies told the Financial Times newspaper. “The competition is much more intense, and this helps them consolidate not only an anti-Iran front, but also a de facto alliance with Israel, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, Marxists such as Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin detected the emergence of imperialism, as economic competition between firms fused with geopolitical rivalries among states.
Today we see a similar pattern in the Middle East, but with local predators mingling dangerously with imperialist great powers such as the US, Russia, and France.