Erdogan’s Long Game in the South-Eastern Mediterranean

July 20, 1974: A large-scale Turkish military invasion in the northern part of Cyprus changes the picture of the island for once and for all. Only a small area has been initially occupied by the Turkish forces; a few weeks later though, and after an utterly failed peace negotiation process in Geneva, Turkish operations escalate, leading to the occupation of 36% of the island, creating a de facto state in the northern territory of the country. One remarkable paradox has been going on ever since, with the Republic of Cyprus being internationally recognised as a sovereign state, an important regional entity and an EU Member, while the aforementioned de facto state, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is recognised merely by Turkey.

July 20, 2019. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan mentioned in his Presidential Statement that “the Turkish Army will not hesitate to take the same step it took 45 years ago if needed for the lives and security of the Turkish Cypriots”. These lines summarize the core of the Turkish foreign policy in relation to the latest developments over the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The very reason for such a comment though, should be traced several years ago when Nicosia made the first moves to consolidate the EEZ of the Republic of Cyprus.

Establishing an Exclusive Economic Zone for Cyprus

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS – in force since November 16, 1994 – has been finalized by merging and editing former treaties on the Law of the Sea, and is the document that has officially established the term Exclusive Economic Zone. It has provided an international point of reference for the EEZ definition, clarifying the rights and limitations that a country has over the respective area. In a nutshell, UNCLOS has defined the EEZ as an area expanding up to 200 nautical miles from the continental shelf of a sovereign state, where the respective state has the right to proceed in exploring, preserving and exploiting natural resources – living or non-living – for economic or other purposes. It is worth noting here that Cyprus has signed the Convention in 1988, while Turkey has never approved the UNCLOS provisions.

Until recently, the ongoing debate related to the convention discussed could be summarized in the Greek-Turkish disagreement with Cyprus being a rather insignificant parameter. The discord between Turkey and its Western neighbour over the sovereignty regime in the Eastern Mediterranean can be traced back to the late 1970s. Turkey has, since then, been pushing an agenda of continuous questioning of the Greek rights in the region, with tension being escalated twice in such a degree that the two countries have found themselves on the verge of war – the so-called Hora/Sismik and Imia incidents, in 1987 and 1996 respectively. Turkey has always been focusing on obstructing Greece from declaring its own Exclusive Economic Zone, an objective that has been undoubtedly achieved until now.

On the other hand, Cyprus has been methodically working since 2003, when Nicosia, after coordinating with Cairo, agreed on the demarcation of the Exclusive Economic Zone between the two countries. In the following years, Cyprus has also come to an agreement with Lebanon (2007) and Israel (2010) defining the Cypriot EEZ in relation to all of the country’s neighbouring states, minus Turkey. Such developments have practically enabled Nicosia to set the base for immediate utilization of their rich subsoil; with prompt and purposeful moves, Cyprus has managed to, in less than a decade, clearly define the “lots” within their EEZ, complete a contest and award the respective lots to outbidding parties, quickly proceed to deep-sea exploration and establishment of the drilling process, and eventually reach a point where those resources are almost ready to be commercially utilized. Indeed, the findings so far have been encouraging, with fields like Glafkos and Aphrodite proving that the energy sector of the island could turn out to be a game-changer, not only for the domestic economy, but also for the geopolitical balance of the region. It should be noted here that Cyprus has attracted colossal firms of the energy industry like Italian ΕΝΙ, French TOTAL and of course, US ExxonMobil. At the same time, Cyprus’ government has made steps of strategic significance, pointing out that they don’t look to limit their activity solely in exploiting their gas reserves, but they aim for the Republic of Cyprus to be a major player within the Eastern Mediterranean. The initiative for the establishment of a gas liquefaction plant in the island, alongside the recent ratification of the agreement between Nicosia and Cairo for the creation of an offshore pipeline that will be connecting the two countries, are indicative of Cypriot intentions.

Erdogan’s narrative and strategic objectives

Since the Republic of Cyprus’ first movements in this direction, Turkey has made its position clear. Through the constant questioning of sovereign rights within the Cyprus EEZ, Ankara tries to consolidate its participation in the negotiating table as an equal partner. The main cards that the Turkish side is playing so far fall within a dual context; on the one hand, Ankara is pressing through diplomatic means, calling for UNCLOS not to be recognized and presenting themselves as protectors and guarantors of the Turkish Community in the northern part of Cyprus, which Erdogan claims should be equally benefitted by the exploitation of the Cypriot EEZ. On the other hand, those claims are always backed by an indirect or direct threat of use of force, in the case of non-compliance. Ankara has been systematically using the threat of casus belli in its bilateral relations in the Aegean and in the wider Eastern Mediterranean region; a tactic that has proven to be quite successful when dealing with Greece (extension of territorial waters, non-declaration of Greek EEZ), but rather inadequate in the case of Cyprus.

In this respect, Ankara has escalated its rhetoric over the last year, and has taken actions that are increasingly provoking the current status quo. Such moves could be summarized in the continuous issuing of NAVTEX for real fire naval exercises that are reserving parts of the Cypriot EEZ close to the area in which the drilling work is taking place. Additionally, Turkish drilling ships, Fatih and the Yavuz, have been repeatedly deployed in the area, to the west and to the east of Cyprus, and seismic operations have been taking place to the south of the island by the seismographic research vessel RV Barbaros Hayreddin Paşa. This research and drilling activity has been backed by Turkish naval and air-force presence, creating a tense situation. The main issue here is that Turkey has never been authorized by the Republic of Cyprus to operate in the area, though Ankara claims that all of this action has been legally approved by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus; the de facto state that no one but Turkey is recognising within the International Community.

Considering Turkey’s stance until now, we are not expecting normalization of the relations between the two sides in the near future. The European Union has recently reacted amidst continuous objections from Nicosia against Turkey, however, the EU sanctions have been openly downplayed by Ankara, suggesting that they have been, at the very least, inefficient. Greece has been following a moderate policy towards Turkey over the last decades, trying to achieve balanced relations with the neighbours and avoid any escalation, or even confrontation, whatsoever. The region of Eastern Mediterranean forms a vital part of Erdogan’s grand strategy, and should be seen as an extended geopolitical chessboard for the Turkish President. However, he has proven that he can be unpredictable, and would not hesitate to put at risk, or even sacrifice, long-term strategic alliances in order to promote the Turkish interests.