Showdown in Cyprus

Turkish warships shadow disputed American drilling operation in Greek Cypriot waters.

While world attention has been focused on a Turkish-Israeli military showdown over aid flotillas to Gaza, a possibly even more dangerous dispute is unfolding between Turkey and Israel-allied Cyprus. Tensions between the two countries are at their highest level in years, as the Greek Cypriot government in the divided island’s southern half went ahead with plans to have Texas-based Noble Energy start offshore exploration for natural gas in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

As Noble moved its drilling rig last Thursday from Israeli waters, where it had also been exploring for natural gas, to Cyprus’ 800,000-acre Aphrodite field, located off its south-eastern coast, Turkish warships and aircraft shadowed the transfer. The Turks, however, stayed outside of Cyprus’ territorial waters and airspace and did not interfere with the American company’s operation.

Noble received an exploration license for the Aphrodite field from the Greek Cypriot regime, and test drilling was expected to start on Monday. The Aphrodite field borders Israeli waters where “massive gas fields” were discovered.

Turkey strongly opposes the Greek Cypriot exploration plan, ostensibly because it does not include, and therefore will not benefit, Turkish northern Cyprus. It has called on the Greek Cypriots to halt all exploration.

“We will be very cautious in this process; all of our steps will be taken as retaliation and [in response] to Greek Cypriot moves,” a Turkish foreign ministry official said.

Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 after a Greek Cypriot-mounted coup sought unification with Greece. The island had previously experienced inter-communal violence. As a result of the invasion, more than 180,000 Greek Cypriots were evicted from the island’s northern half, while 50,000 Turkish Cypriots were also forced from their homes. The island was then divided in two, and the UN patrols the boundary, called the “Blue Line,” that was established between the two communities.

In the Turkish northern zone, a seperate government was set up. Called the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC), it is only recognised by Turkey, which exercises control over it. Since 1974, Turkey has moved thousands of settlers into the island’s northern half.

The Greek Cypriot regime in the southern part of the island, with its capital in Nicosia, is the internationally  recognised government. Called the Republic of Cyprus, it has a seat at the UN and was granted European Union (EU) membership in 2004. Since Turkey embarked on a confrontational course with Israel two years ago, Greek Cyprus and the Jewish state have drawn closer together. Greece, the other member of this new, eastern Mediterranean partnership, has said it “will throw its weight” behind Cyprus’ gas exploration project.

Last year, as an indication of Israel’s and Cyprus’ close co-operation, they signed an agreement delineating their economic zones for exploration purposes. According to one report, Israel has also offered Cyprus two modern warships and is rebuilding Cyprus’ only naval base after its near destruction by a munitions explosion. An Israeli company, Delek, a partner of Noble’s in exploring Israeli waters, also has an option to drill in the Aphrodite field.

In calling on the Greek Cypriot regime to halt exploration, Turkish officials did not engage in the kind of incendiary language their prime minister, Recep Erdogan, did last week on his so-called ‘Arab Spring’ tour of North Africa. At a meeting of the 22-member Arab League in Cairo, he said Israel “must pay a price for its crimes and aggression it has committed.” In Tunisia last Thursday, Erdogan continued his bellicose statements and issued Israel a warning.

“Israel cannot do whatever it wants in the eastern Mediterranean. They will see what our decisions will be on this subject. Our navy attack ships can be there at any moment,” he said.

Before leaving on his ‘Arab Spring’ tour, Erdogan grabbed the world’s attention by threatening to have Turkish warships escort the next aid flotilla to Gaza, challenging the Israeli blockade. The Turkish government, however, has refrained from a military challenge in the Cyprus dispute – so far. But a German newspaper reports that in an interview with the government-friendly Turkish newspaper Zaman, Turkey’s EU minister, Egemen Bagis, had earlier threatened  military action to stop Cyprus’ exploration plans.

“It is for this that we have a navy,” said Bagis. “We have trained our soldiers for this; we have equipped a navy for this. All options are on the table; anything can happen.”

For the time being, Anakra has limited its response to Noble’s drilling to declaring it will arrange an agreement with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to explore the waters off the island’s northern end for natural resources and to threatening to have warships escort the exploration vessels. This is a tepid response when one considers the harsh words Erdogan has been using in previous days, but it is a realistic one. While Cyprus cannot defend itself against the Turkish navy, using military force against Noble’s oil rig would bring an unwelcome confrontation with America.

America, and most other countries for that matter, back Cyprus in this dispute, saying international law is on the island nation’s side. The United States also likes the idea that natural gas discoveries off Cyprus may help its European allies gain energy independence. Besides, it is Turkey that may now be acting illegally. It does not have the right to negotiate any exploration deals with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, since the KKTC is not recognised as Cyprus’ governing body. Turkey has also stated that Greek Cyprus’ gas exploration plans have put an end to the UN-sponsored negotiations to reunite the island that began in 2009.

The natural gas that lies under the eastern Mediterranean’s sea floor is sure to continue to heat up tensions between states in the area. Located in the Levant Basin, the huge gas deposits extend across different economic zones and undefined sea boundaries of several countries such as Egypt, Syria, Cyprus, Lebanon and Israel. Israel has discovered two fields so far in its EEZ, Tamar and Leviathan, with enough proven reserves to meet its natural gas needs for the next 20 years as well as for export. One German report stated that, in the long run, Israel will probably export its excess natural gas to Europe. The pipeline for this venture will most likely run through Cyprus to Greece, making Israel’s partnership with those two countries all the more valuable and their protection from Turkish aggression all the more necessary.

If any gas deposits are discovered off Cyprus’ southeastern coast, it is in Israel’s interest to keep them out of Turkish hands. They would only strengthen a country now determined to follow an anti-Israel course. Oil and natural gas are the missing ingredients in Turkey’s “neo-Ottoman” bid to establish itself as the Middle East’s most powerful country again. The other two regional powers Turkey must contend with, Iran and Israel, contain such energy resources. And it is probably this knowledge of its own energy insecurity that stands behind Turkey’s militant insistence that the part of Cyprus it controls receives a share of any discoveries.

By following through on its plans to explore for gas in face of Turkish threats, the Greek Cypriot government is calling Turkey’s bluff and stating its unwillingness to become a part of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman sphere of influence. It was left with no other choice if it wanted to maintain its sovereignty and independence of action.

But the danger still exists Turkey may resort to harsher measures, possibly military ones, in order to stop the drilling and stake its claim as the region’s number one power. Predicting its course of action is difficult. One report stated that Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu enacted last Wednesday “their security cooperation agreement signed almost two weeks ago.” Remaining low-key but ready is probably the wisest measure they can adopt at this time.