Turkey-Cyprus Drilling Issue is Escalating Tension in the Mediterranean

Turkey has recently sent a drill ship (Fatih, “conqueror”), after announcing its willingness to conduct exploratory natural gas drilling, in an area of the Eastern Mediterranean that Cyprus considers to be part of its Exclusive Economic Zone. According to Cyprus News Agency, Nicosia directly issued a warning, demanding Fatih to immediately cease its actions, defining them “illegal operations violating the international law and maritime safety procedures” which constitute “serious criminal offences under the laws of the Republic of Cyprus”, and receiving the full support of all the highest representatives of the EU. Cyprus President, Nicos Anastasiades, compared Ankara’s behaviour to a “second invasion”, after a Turkish occupation of the northern part of the island triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup, in 1974.

Referring to this accusation, the spokesman of Turkey’s ruling AKP party, Omer Celik, called on Cyprus to “remember 1974”, since the Turkish invasion was aimed at “protecting the lives, rights and interests of Turkish Cypriots”, as reported by Kathimerini. Celik also condemned Greek and Cypriot leaders for “signing deals with countries that have problems with Turkey”, probably alluding to Israel and Egypt.

Turkey has consistently challenged the Greek Cypriot administration’s policy over drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean, considering it as “unilateral”. Ankara insists the exploration is part of its and Turkish Cypriots’ “legitimate rights” over hydrocarbon reserves in the East Mediterranean, as confirmed both by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. Çavuşoğlu said Ankara would send a second drillship (Yavuz) to the Eastern Mediterranean to look for oil and gas. This stance has been bolstered by Turkish vice president, Fuat Oktay. In order to support its posture on this issue, Ankara conducted its biggest ever military exercise (“Blue Homeland”, Feb. 27-March 8) in the Aegean and East Mediterranean, involving frigates, destroyers and fighter jets.

The area has never been officially demarcated, as Turkey (the only member state of the United Nations) does not recognise Cyprus, even if Nicosia has notified the United Nations on the limits of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in line with the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Cypriot EEZ has been delimited by bilateral agreements with Israel, Lebanon and Egypt. But instead, Turkey claims there is no Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone, and moreover it argues that a part of this area belongs to its continental shelf. Ankara has never signed the UNCLOS because of the Aegean dispute with Greece and because Turkey objects to certain UNCLOS articles.

The dispute started in late 2011, after the discovery of energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean has generated another point of contention between Turkey and Cyprus (and, by extension, Greece). Cypriot Foreign Minister, Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, visited both Greece and Israel to request support for the drilling program.

The Cyprus-Turkey tension is part of a broader competition for the exploitation of new gas discoveries in Eastern Mediterranean, in countries that were previously thought to have no such natural resources. Such a geopolitical contention involves Greece, Cyprus and Egypt on one side, and Turkey on the other side, and has drawn the interest of international oil companies (ENI, ExxonMobil).

In January 2019, a meeting of energy ministers of Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories has been announced, aimed at expanding cooperation between natural gas producers and consumers in the region, creating a powerful global energy player and potentially providing Europe with an alternative supply of gas. The forum – Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) – headquartered in Cairo, is also planned to ease exploitation of Eastern Mediterranean gas reserves to further economic development in the region. The EMGF has excluded the other Eastern Mediterranean gas players, notably Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. As a countermeasure, Turkish energy experts relaunched the idea of establishing a north-eastern Mediterranean gas forum with Northern Cyprus, Lebanon and Syria.

Greece, Cyprus and Egypt are also boosting their multilateral cooperation and share their vision of Turkey as a threat. If the Greek(and Cypriot)–Turkish dispute dates back to several decades ago, the resumption of the Turkish–Egyptian hostility traces back to the military coup against the Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, in 2013. It allowed the rise to power of the current President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who adopted an anti-Muslim Brotherhood stance, while Erdoğan’s Turkey is considered to be the main international sponsor – together with Qatar – of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the light of this framework, and because of the increasing militarization of Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey-Cyprus competition for gas could escalate out of control.