Cyprus’ offshore gas deposits are fueling continued unrest in the Mediterranean. Seeking to drill for oil and natural gas 40 miles offshore, well within Cyprus’ EEZ, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğann insists that his actions are within international law.
“The legitimate rights of Turkey and the Northern Cypriot Turks over energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean are not open for argument. Our country is determined to defend its rights and those of Cypriot Turks,” Erdoğan said at a NATO meeting in Ankara last month. But the US, UK, the EU, and Israel all stood in solidarity with Cyprus, condemning Turkey’s actions.
Cyprus has since issued 25 international arrest warrants for the crews of the Turkish drill ships, which Turkey has alternately railed against, saying they “crossed the line,” and also claimed aren’t having the slightest effect.
Solidarity with Cyprus
Cyprus is seeking all means within international law to address Turkey’s actions. Thanks to the increased tensions in the region, Southern European states are on alert for a “hot incident,” that could potentially escalate the situation and cause conflict.
“Our neighboring country faces internal tensions, while geopolitical developments are emerging in the region. I would like to assure the Greek people that Greece has very strong alliances and also an upgraded geostrategic role. Moreover, the Greek armed forces are very competent. There is no reason for fear and uncertainty,” said Greek PM Tsipras earlier this month in an interview with Alpha TV.
Tsipras reiterated that Greece supports a diplomatic approach to the issue and to the resolution of the conflict in Cyprus – with Turkey, Greece, and the UK as guarantors for Cyprus’ security.
However, there will be no tolerance for Turkey’s violation of the EEZ.
Speaking after the sixth South EU Summit, French President Emmanual Macron said, “I wish here once again to reiterate my full solidarity with Cyprus and my commitment to respect its sovereignty. Turkey must cease its illegal activities in the EEZ of Cyprus. The European Union will not show any weakness on this subject.”
Following the European Council Meeting last week, not only was a united stance resonated by the EU28, in a show of solidarity with Cyprus, the EU threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey unless illegal drilling activates were ceased.
“The European Council endorses the invitation to the Commission and the EEAS [EU foreign affairs service] to submit options for appropriate measures without delay, including targeted measures”, read the European Council’s press release.
EU Commission President Juncker later added “What Turkey is doing in the territorial waters of Cyprus is totally unacceptable. The Commission has been charged to propose measures to be taken as soon as possible when it comes to this conflict and will do so, and these will not be soft measures.”
“Today the European Council sent a clear and stern message to Turkey”, said Greek Prime Minister Tsipras, referring to the statement released at the conclusion of the Council Meeting. Tsipras told reporters that it was “the first time after decades of international violations of international law by Turkey that the EU, after coordinated actions by Greece and Cyprus, has condemned Turkish actions in such a clear and decisive manner”.
Turkey Talks Tough
Turkey insists that its actions do not violate international law, as drilling activities are taking place within the continental shelf. Nor are they especially likely to succeed in natural gas extraction; this is instead a projection of Turkish state power.
“[Turkey wishes] to give a message to the broader Western security architecture, NATO, the US and relations with the European Union that Turkey is an indispensable partner in the region and you cannot really plan without it,” said Harry Tzimitras, the director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo’s Cyprus center. “Otherwise, you’ll have consequences.”
Calling the arrest warrants nothing more than a bluff, Turkish politician Mevlut Cavusoglu said, “They [Greek Cypriots] only talk. We aren’t listening.” This, however, runs counter to the word of Greek Cypriot sources, who assert that the arrest warrants have taken a toll on the Turkish drillship Fatih, located 40 nautical miles west of Paphos, where it has been since May.
The second drillship, Yavuz, is to be deployed to the east of the island. Keeping the ships in EEZ waters is costing Turkey an estimated $500,000 per day. Some Norweigians working aboard Fatih and the ships supporting it have withdrawn and been replaced by Turkish nationals.
“No one should have any doubt that the necessary response will be given, in case of such an insolence [of issuing warrants],” said Turkish foreign ministry spokesperson Hami Aksoy in a statement. “Such warrants are null and void to us. We will also initiate the necessary counter-legal processes together with relevant institutions.”
“Turkey never surrendered in the face of any threat and it never will,” he added.
Turkey does not intend to wind down its military presence in the breakaway republic of Northern Cyprus either. “Turkey is not reducing its troops in Northern Cyprus,” Erdoğan said, speaking to reporters prior to his visit to Tajikistan’s capital Dusanbe, adding that the country “does not need permission from anyone” on the issue.
“Our extensive and long-term exploration and drilling activities in the region will resume as planned without making concessions to our legitimate rights on license areas,” said Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Fatih Donmez.
Cyprus has submitted the geographical coordinates of the north and northwest limits of its continental shelf in order to clearly delineate the borders of the EEZ. This would help make clear to foreign companies cooperating with Turkish drilling operations that violating those borders is a violation of the laws of the Republic of Cyprus.
While in theory Cyprus and Turkey can appeal to an international dispute settlement mechanism for such a deliniation of maritime zones, Turkey is not a party to UNCLOS, the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea, nor do they accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice – making a resolution via this international governance mechanism problematic, to say the least.
Erol Kaymak, a professor of political science and international relations at Eastern Mediterranean University in Northern Cyprus, insists that the long-running dispute is also exacerbated by the lack of communication channels between Greek Cypriots and Turkish officials.
“The Cyprus problem is essential here because Turkey only negotiates with Greek Cypriots via the Turkish Cypriots because of what we call the ‘double minority problem’,” Kaymak told Al-Monitor. “Turkey doesn’t recognize Greek Cypriots and the Greek Cypriots don’t recognize Turkish Cypriots, so unless that issue is resolved, there is no means of building a pipeline, for instance, from Cyprus to Turkey, which is the win-win scenario that everyone keeps talking about.”
Even if Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cyrpiots were to reach an agreement on how proceeds from gas exploration were to be shared, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that this would not result in mutual recognition. “We asked [the Greek Cypriot side] to [begin drilling] only once the rights of Turkish Cypriots have also been secured, to which they replied, ‘but if we do this we would be recognising them’,” Cavusoglu said. Nor would such a deal be valid without Turkey’s inclusion, he insists.
“We too are in the Mediterranean and have informed the UN regarding our territorial waters.”
Cyprus is the Energy Hotspot
Cyprus occupies a unique geostrategic position in the Mediterranean, which it’s using to build bridges across the region. Cyprus is a crucial nexus for the proposed East-Med pipeline, which would run between Israel, Cyprus, Greece, and Italy, bypassing Turkey (and thus depriving it of any energy transit revenue).
This pipeline would bridge the eastern Mediterranean region, while diversifying EU energy sources and reducing dependency on imported Russian natural gas.
In addition, on May 22, Cyprus, Greece, and Egypt signed an electricity interconnection framework agreement to establish a subsea cable called the EuroAfrica Interconnector, linking the three countries. According to the project developer, EuroAfrica Interconnector Limited, the project will consist of a 2,000-megawatt cable connecting Egypt to continental Europe via Cyprus, making Egypt an energy hub for Africa and Southern Europe.
“Cyprus now becomes a major hub for the transmission of electricity from Africa to Europe, and Egypt establishes itself as a regional energy hub for the transmission of electricity from Africa to the Arabian peninsula,” said Ioannis Kasoulides, chairman of the Strategic Council of the EuroAfrica Interconnector.
Cypriot Minister of Defence, Savvas Angelides, said during a workshop at the JRCC Coordination Center Zenon, “It is obvious that the EU has a particular interest for energy developments in the Southeastern Mediterranean, deeming that important discoveries of natural gas deposits in the region are conducive to conditions of the Union’s energy autarky.”
Due to Cyprus’ limited military capacity, cooperation with other countries is of key importance. To that end, Cyprus has been engaging in a series of trilateral meetings with leaders across the eastern Mediterranean to build cooperation and joint initiatives in political and economic cooperation, security, and education.
“Turning the Eastern Mediterranean from a zone of conflict and tension into a region of stability, security, development and prosperity for the people is our strategic goal” said Angelides.
Egypt, however, is not Cyprus’ only Middle Eastern partner: earlier in June, Israel ramped up its unofficial aerial alliances with Cyprus and Greece, conducting a two-week exercise over Cyprus. This exercise took place due to the ongoing violence in Syria and Turkey’s acquisition of Russian S-400 surface-air missiles, which will potentially create a “new order” in the airspaces of the region.
The Turkish government claims that the S-400 is a “closed deal,” and rejects any pressure applied by the U.S or NATO to cancel it. While this is not the first time the Israeli air force has held exercises in Cyprus, it was the first time Israeli attack helicopters performed combined sorties with Cypriot pilots, indicating a closer cooperation than in times past.
“Look at the location of Cyprus in this Mediterranean area and you will understand the importance of such cooperation between air forces,” said a senior Israeli source.
However, peace negotiations seem stubbornly out of reach, as increased US involvement complicates matters. In April, the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Partnership Act was introduced to Congress, which, if passed, would bolster US-Cyprus relations, “deepen energy security cooperation among Greece, Cyprus and Israel and (…) encourage the private sector to make investments in energy infrastructure in the Eastern Mediterranean region,” as well as lift an arms embargo on Cyprus.
Such legislation could very well be seen as incendiary in Turkey. In combination with ongoing tensions over natural gas drilling, disagreements between Turkey and NATO over their purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, and disagreements with NATO and the EU over Syria, friction with Turkey do not seem likely to subside anytime soon.