On Europe’s southeastern edge, gas and geopolitics are threatening to inflame long-standing rivalries.

The eastern Mediterranean — a region abounding in hydrocarbon reserves, armed conflict, border disputes and regional powers hoping to punch above their weight — has seen tensions surge over the past year.

Turkey, Greece and Cyprus are embroiled in a worsening dispute over maritime boundaries and gas exploration, a conflict that is drawing in other countries in the region. Wars in Libya and Syria, exacerbated by foreign interference, continue to displace hundreds of thousands of people. Meanwhile, as the United States turns inward and the European Union looks on, Russia is working to expand its influence.

Here’s an overview of the overlapping conflicts and crises plaguing the region.


The country remains split between a Greek Cypriot South and a Turkish Cypriot North. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is recognized only by Ankara, which in turn doesn’t recognize EU member Cyprus.

Vast gas reserves are thought to lie beneath the eastern Mediterranean. Once believed to be a catalyst for peace and cooperation, these potential riches have instead fueled tensions amid disputes over maritime boundaries.

Turkey last year began drilling for gas around Cyprus in areas it claims to belong to either Turkish Cypriots or Turkey’s own continental shelf, prompting condemnation from the EU.

Ankara then signed a maritime delineation agreement with the internationally recognized government of Libya, claiming a contested part of the eastern Mediterranean as its own. This enraged not only Cyprus and Greece but also Egypt and Israel; Tel Aviv has recently signed a pipeline deal with Athens and Nicosia. The conflict has also drawn in the EU: Brussels could soon issue sanctions on Turkey, and France has said it will send warships to the Eastern Mediterranean in an attempt to deter Turkey.

Political, economic and security crises in African and Middle Eastern countries continue to fuel massive displacement, with many trying to make their way across the Mediterranean into Europe. The chaotic situation in Libya has turned the country into a transit zone for those hoping to attempt the perilous crossing, despite the violence and exploitation many migrants and refugees encounter there.

While the number of arrivals in Europe has continued to fall since the 2015 refugee crisis, frontline countries are still struggling to cope. Greece is once again Europe’s main entry point, with arrivals from Turkey currently at their highest level since 2016, stranding tens of thousands in abysmal conditions on the Aegean islands. Cyprus has now the highest number of asylum seekers per capita in the EU. In Turkey and Lebanon, meanwhile, anti-refugee sentiment is on the rise.

The relationship between the two traditional adversaries has deteriorated to its lowest level in decades amid disputes over issues including Cyprus, maritime boundaries and migration.

Lebanon wants to explore for gas in an area also claimed by Israel.

Despite recent attempts at brokering a truce, conflict continues to rage in Libya. Two rival governments — the internationally recognized administration in Tripoli and an eastern administration linked to warlord Khalifa Haftar — are fighting for control of the oil-rich country.

Both the Tripoli government and Haftar have the support of foreign powers, giving the conflict an international dimension. Turkey, Qatar and Italy are the main backers of the internationally recognized administration, while France, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia are supporting Haftar.

An end to violence in Syria seems distant. In the past few weeks alone, half a million people have fled a regime advance on a northern rebel stronghold.

Lebanon is mired in its worst economic crisis in decades, which is threatening to destabilize the country.

Amid a political stalemate, Israel is heading for its third election within a year. Tensions between Israel and Palestinians have risen following a U.S. peace proposal that strongly favors Israel.

With the exception of Israel/Palestine, the United States has — in recent years — largely stayed out of the disputes rocking the Eastern Mediterranean. U.S. President Donald Trump last year ordered a troop withdrawal from Syria and focused his energies on Iran. The EU has taken a backseat.

Russia has taken advantage of this vacuum to expand its influence. Besides propping up the Syrian regime and playing an increasingly important role in Libya, Moscow also uses energy to make inroads. It’s partnering with Ankara on the TurkStream pipeline. and Russia’s Novatek was among the companies to win bids for exploration rights in disputed waters off Lebanon. Russian state oil companies are also trying to expand their foothold in Libya.

Weapons trade has also allowed Moscow to expand its influence, with Russia selling its S-400 missile defense system to NATO member Turkey and striking several arms deals with Egypt.

The EU has largely remained a bystander in the crises on its doorstep and focused mainly on migration management. There has been no meaningful EU strategy for de-escalating conflicts in Syria and Libya, or tensions between Israel and Palestine; in Libya, member countries France and Italy back opposing sides. The Libya peace summit convened by Germany in Berlin last month failed to establish a long-lasting truce.

The EU’s focus on managing the stream of Mediterranean crossings has seen it cooperate with Libya’s abusive coast guard and lose leverage over Ankara, with Turkey frequently attempting to use the threat of “sending refugees to Europe” to pressure the bloc and its member countries. The EU’s toughest response to Turkey’s drilling activities so far has been to agree on sanctions on two Turkish oil company officials.

Originally published in Politico.