Turkey, Cyprus: Rising Energy Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean

8 MINS READSep 28, 2011 | 20:17 GMT
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Tensions have been increasing in the eastern Mediterranean over an energy exploration project initiated by the government of Cyprus, which controls the southwestern part of the island. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is not recognized by any country other than Turkey and hosts Turkish military forces in the island's northeast, has protested that the island's sovereignty issues must be resolved before Cyprus proceeds unilaterally with energy development. Both Cyprus and Turkey see an opportunity in pushing the dispute right now, but Turkey's options in the confrontation are limited, and the real challenge will come if Cyprus insists on proceeding from exploration to actual energy production.
A Turkish seismic survey vessel started natural gas exploration Sept. 27 in an area off the southern coast of Cyprus, near where the Cypriot government began drilling Sept. 20. Ankara's move to begin exploration follows a deal reached Sept. 21 between Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which controls the northeastern part of the island, on a continental shelf delimitation agreement giving the coastal state the right to exploit seabed resources and licensing the Turkish Petroleum International Co. to begin energy exploration there. Turkey also has stated that it will send naval submarines and frigates to protect the survey vessel, though details on this remain unclear. Tensions over energy issues were simmering for years before the recent escalation. Turkey has opposed drilling by the Cypriot government since plans were initially put forward in 2007, but Ankara did not take any significant action against the project until the drilling began; the deployment of the seismic survey vessel and supporting the TRNC's own energy projects is Turkey's way of catching up. However, the conflict has less to do with energy competition than with Turkey's geopolitical influence. Cyprus believes the present circumstances give it a unique opportunity to initiate its energy development project. For one, the fraying ties between Turkey and Israel increase the risks for Ankara of conducting any sort of naval operations close to the drilling area. Turkey's ties with the European Union are also at a low point. Cyprus hopes to portray Ankara as a provocateur in this dispute and undermine Turkish-EU relations further before assuming the rotating EU presidency in the second half of 2012. Turkey also sees an opportunity in the situation. Ankara is viewed as a rising power in the region, but thus far it has had difficulty substantiating its position with anything more than rhetoric. After learning the limits of rhetoric in its confrontation with Israel, failing to secure even an apology for the deaths of nine Turks in the May 2010 flotilla incident, Turkey has looked elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean — to Cyprus — for a place to demonstrate its influence. With the European Union currently distracted by the Greek debt crisis, Ankara believes now is the time to pressure Cyprus, but it is not clear how hard Turkey is willing to push in making its presence felt.

Energy in the Eastern Mediterranean

Cyprus has been divided since Turkey militarily intervened there in 1974 after a Greek-inspired coup attempt. The island is split between a Greek Cypriot southwest, which is internationally recognized, and a Turkish Cypriot northeast represented by the TRNC, which was established in 1983 and is only recognized by Ankara. Peace talks between the two sides began in 2008, but little progress has been made. Turkey has asserted that Cyprus does not have the right to exploit the island's seabed resources unilaterally until the island's status is resolved, a right the Greek Cypriot government, as the island's only official representative at the United Nations and a member of the European Union, has claimed. (click here to enlarge image) Despite Turkey's protests, the Greek Cypriot government went ahead with the development plans, granting U.S.-based Noble Energy an exploration license in 2007 in Block 12 (where drilling began Sept. 20) of Cyprus' exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a maritime boundary that gives a state the right to conduct economic activities up to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from its coast. Block 12 is the only area in the EEZ for which Cyprus has granted a license, and it sits near the Leviathan and Tamar offshore fields, which Israel has been developing in partnership with Noble Energy since 1998. Israel signed an agreement with Cyprus recognizing the Cypriot government's EEZ in December 2010, a few months after the May flotilla incident severely damaged relations with Turkey — likely not a coincidence. (Cyprus signed similar deals with Egypt in 2003 and Lebanon in 2007.) Though Israel has largely stayed out of the current dispute between Turkey and Cyprus, it has been happy to see Turkey's rhetorical calls for an end to drilling go unheeded and remind Turkey of the costs of losing Israel as a partner. Tensions had already been increasing in the eastern Mediterranean after the Turkish government announced Sept. 8 that its warships would escort Turkish aid ships that sail toward the Gaza Strip to break the Israeli-imposed blockade. This announcement was made shortly after the leaking of a newspaper report that said the U.N. investigation on the flotilla incident found the Israeli action legal. Even though it is yet to be seen whether Turkey would make good on this threat (or even allow another aid ship to sail toward Gaza from its ports), it nevertheless indicated that Turkey was not officially ruling out a military role in addressing its concerns. Now the Turkish energy minister has stated that Ankara will send frigates and submarines deployed in the eastern Mediterranean to escort the survey vessel conducting energy exploration if needed.

Europe and the Timing Question

Ankara expected that the financial turmoil currently engulfing Europe — with Cyprus' main benefactor, Greece, at its epicenter — would make Cyprus feel more vulnerable to Turkish pressure and thus more likely to capitulate. In addition, Turkey's relations with the European Union are at their lowest point, and Ankara is unlikely to adjust its behavior to curry the favor of a bloc that appears unlikely to ever let Turkey join it. Indeed, no chapter in Turkey-EU accession talks has opened since July 2010, and the Turkish government already announced it would suspend all ties with the European Union when Cyprus assumes the European Union's rotating presidency in 2012. The division was demonstrated most recently when German Chancellor Angela Merkel pointedly stated on the eve of Turkish President Abdullah Gul's Sept. 20 visit that Germany did not favor Turkey's joining the bloc. Turkey has not formally dropped its EU bid but has mainly continued it for public relations reasons as it increasingly turns its attention to the Middle East, where it has a historical leadership role. The long-stagnant EU application, therefore, will not make Turkey particularly sensitive to Brussels' condemnation if Ankara decides to escalate its actions from rhetoric and sending surveying vessels to a more active role for the naval assets it claims to have deployed to Cyprus.

Turkey Lacking Washington's Support

In pursuing the Cyprus issue, Turkey had hoped to receive the backing of the United States. Washington needs help from Ankara on a number of issues, from containing Iran's influence in Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal to a ballistic missile defense installation aimed at countering Russia. Turkey hoped that, if not outright endorsing Ankara's position and calling for Cyprus to end its drilling, the United States would at least turn a blind eye to Turkey's efforts. However, this has turned out not to be the case. A U.S.-based company is involved in Cyprus' drilling operations, and Washington is making clear in a number of ways that it is supporting Cyprus in the dispute. Ultimately, Turkey is facing serious constraints in its effort to halt Cypriot energy exploration. While STRATFOR sources have said the Turkish government will tolerate exploration but draws a redline on energy production from Block 12, there is little Turkey can do short of military action to stop the Cypriot government. Even trying to begin its own energy production as a response is not a likely option, because while the Turkish Petroleum International Co. may be able to conduct exploration on its own, it would need to find a foreign partner with the technical capabilities to begin resource extraction. And few foreign firms would be willing to take the political risk of working with Turkey and the TRNC, which is not internationally recognized, in these waters. Turkey chose to confront Cyprus on the energy issue because it believed the move, if successful, could serve to prevent Ankara from gaining a reputation as being unable to make good on its rhetoric or purported influence. If it fails to get Cyprus to stop drilling, Turkey will look even more ineffectual than it began. Ankara has raised the stakes for itself in this dispute, and the question now becomes whether it backs down on pressuring Cyprus to stop the drilling, or if not, how far it is willing to take matters in order to prevent another embarrassment.

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