Tensions Mount in the Eastern Mediterranean as Turkey Seeks to Drill in Cyprus’ EEZ

Turkey sends boats off the coast of Cyprus, expressing that drilling protects the rights of Turkish Cypriots and does not violate international law - but Cyprus, the United States, and the EU all disagree.

As Turkey gets ready to drill for natural gas offshore of Cyprus, Cyprus rallies support from the EU to collectively counter Turkey, hoping to protect its exclusive economic rights. The Turkish drillship Fatih, is anchored 68 kilometers northwest of Paphos, escorted by three support ships, and a Turkish navy frigate – but has not commenced drilling yet. Cypriot President, Nikos Anastasiades, outlined the issues at an informal summit in Romania, after denouncing Turkey’s prospecting intentions as a “flagrant violation of Cyprus’ sovereign rights and international law”, and “a second invasion”.

Cypriot President, Nicos Anastasiades, described the Turkish drilling bid as “by far the most serious violation of Cyprus’ sovereign rights in a very long time” and an “unprecedented escalation of illegal action” in the region.

He added that “the EU should consider the use of restrictive measures against all those involved in Turkey’s unlawful actions in the Republic of Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean”.

“The time has come for a collective response to these challenges – with actions beyond the usual messages that have proven ineffective”, said Anastasiades.

The European Union’s Chief of Foreign Policy, Federica Mogherini, voiced “great concern” on Monday over Turkey’s plans to drill in the area. “We call urgently on Turkey to show restraint, respect the sovereign rights of Cyprus in its exclusive economic zone, and refrain from any such illegal action to which the EU will respond appropriately and in full solidarity with Cyprus”, stated Mogherini in Brussels, following talks with EU foreign ministers.

Previously, on May 6th, European Parliament head, Antonio Tajani, referred in a press release to Turkey’s intention to drill within the EEZ of Cyprus, as “a violation of international law”, adding that  “The Republic of Cyprus has the full and sovereign right to explore and exploit natural resources within its EEZ.”

The day before, the US’ State Department spokesperson, Morgan Ortagus, concurred that they were  “deeply concerned by Turkey’s announced intentions to begin offshore drilling operations in an area claimed by the Republic of Cyprus as its Exclusive Economic Zone. This step is highly provocative and risks raising tensions in the region. We urge Turkish authorities to halt these operations, and encourage all parties to act with restraint”.

Offshore dredging vessel in Cyprus. Copyright: kirill_makarov /

This development comes on the heels of ever-worsening relations between Turkey and the US. In early April, two US senators introduced a bill to lift an arms embargo on Cyprus, while authorising 5 million euros in military aid to Cyprus and Greece – due to Turkey’s decision to purchase TE S-400 Russian missile defense systems – as well as escalating threats against Cyprus. The US has threatened to impose sanctions, if Turkey moves forward on the purchase. Greek press also reported that the US was considering deploying KC-135 aerial refueling tankers at the Larissa Air Base in Greece, and conduct more joint exercises with the Greek military.

After the summit in Romania, European Council President Donald Tusk said,  “The EU stands united behind Cyprus and expects Turkey to respect the sovereign rights of EU member states.” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said “this situation must be deescalated and all parties [should] show restraint. Hydrocarbons development should benefit all Cypriots and support a settlement”.

Defense Minister, Savvas Angelides, stressed the need for calm, and said Cyprus won’t be dragged into a situation that heightens regional tensions, which would help foster instability in the zone. “Our calm mustn’t be misinterpreted as weakness”, Angelides said after talks with Greek counterpart, Evangelos Apostolakis.

Cyprus will not face this issue alone. In addition to the EU, the US, Russia, France, Greece, and Egypt, have condemned Turkey’s actions.

Turkey however, asserts that they are acting in accordance with international law, to protect their rights as well as the rights of Turkish Cypriots on the divided island. They plan to send a second drillship to the area – according to an announcement made on Sunday, by Turkey’s Finance Minister, Berat Albayrak. Turkey claims part of Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone. “We will continue to take all kinds of necessary steps without hesitation”, said Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu. However, Cyprus asserts that future gas proceeds will be shared equitably among all residents, Turkish Cypriots included, once reunification is achieved.

“The legitimate rights of Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus over the energy resources of the Eastern Mediterranean are not debatable,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in Ankara, speaking alongside NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, at a North Atlantic Council Mediterranean Dialogue meeting. “We expect NATO to respect Turkey’s rights in this process and support us in preventing tensions.”

Cyprus Natural Hydrocarbons Company CEO, Charles Ellinas told New Europe, that while Turkey has made similar claims in the past, now they are acting on them. “There may be a number of reasons why now, including Turkey raising the stakes, before the possible resumptions of negotiations for the Cyprus problem being pursued by the UK Secretary General, António Guterres.” Ellinas said. He speculated that the timing could be related to Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, attempting to deflect domestic public opinion away from the internal problems he is facing back home, after the controversial decision to cancel the results of last month’s mayoral elections in Istanbul, which his party lost  – a great embarrassment for Erdogan.

“Whatever the reasons, this is a massive provocation that can destabilise the region. By doing this, Turkey is trying to enforce its own interpretation of what constitutes its exclusive economic zone, and what it defines as its ‘legal rights’ in the East Med, ignoring UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) – this claim is independent of the Cyprus problem. Cyprus is using all means available to it to respond to this, but may be unable to stop it”, Ellinas said.

If Turkey chooses to continue to escalate by drilling within the Cypriot exclusive economic zone, things can get hairy if they make hydrocarbon discoveries of their own. “Turkey is clearly trying to create a fait accompli with potentially immense consequences”, Ellinas concluded.

Since the summit, Cypriot authorities submitted the boundaries of their exclusive economic zone to the UN, in addition to launching procedures to have an international arrest warrant issued for the crew of the Turkish drillship, Fatih.

Ellinas noted, that despite EU and US support being useful to Cyprus, he doesn’t think this alone is enough to halt Turkey’s actions. “So far, including other challenging issues, such as over the S-400, Turkey appears to be determined to go its own way irrespective of international reactions.”

In one way though, Cyprus can rest assured: it is very unlikely that Turkey’s actions will affect or derail Cyprus’ energy deals with Italy’s Eni, France’s Total, and US’ ExxonMobil. While there is a risk as these companies proceed in areas claimed by both Cyprus and Turkey, it is unlikely the deals will be cancelled altogether. Ellinas said, ”I do not think so. These companies are used to work in difficult environments, and Turkey’s actions will not deter them from their plans, unless of course, they affect the safety of their staff and contractors, as happened with the Turkish frigates stopping ENI’s drilling rig last year.”

After the summit in Romania, Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, stressed that this issue was not only a Cypriot issue, “but a European one“.

“Europe’s international geopolitical role cannot be credible if, first of all, it doesn’t ensure the adherence to international law within itself”, Tsipras said.

He also asked for another summit after European Parliament elections, to tackle the issue if it has not been resolved by then.

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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