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Eastern Mediterranean crisis balloons as Turkish drill ships multiply

Disputes over oil and gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean have caused a spike in tensions between Ankara and Turkish Cypriots on the one side, and the EU and Greek Cypriots on the other.
Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz sets sail in Izmit Bay, on its way to the Mediterranean Sea, off the port of Dilovasi, Turkey, June 20, 2019. REUTERS/Murad Sezer - RC17D18454C0

NICOSIA, Cyprus — In the early hours of July 1, a loud shudder rippled through Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus. Spooked residents might have mistaken the explosion for the opening shots of another war between the Greek Cypriots and Turkey amid sharpening tensions over drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean that are drawing in regional stakeholders Egypt, Israel and Greece.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu ramped these up to a new level last week with stark warnings that the Greek Cypriots “can’t take the slightest step in the Eastern Mediterranean. If they dare, they will receive the appropriate response like in the past.” Cavusoglu was alluding to Turkey’s 1974 military intervention on the island that has left it divided between the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus recognized solely by Ankara.

Upping the ante, Turkey dispatched a second drill ship, the Yavuz, which arrived yesterday off the northernmost tip of the island, the Karpas Peninsula. The area was “licensed” by the Turkish Cypriots to the state-owned Turkish Petroleum company, even though under international law they are not authorized to do so.

The move prompted angry rebukes from Cypriot leaders. Its presidency called the deployment of the Yavuz “an escalation by Turkey of its repeated violations of Cyprus’ sovereign rights based on the UN Law of the Sea.” European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini warned the body was reviewing options for “appropriate measures” and would respond “in full solidarity with Cyprus.” Russia also raised the alarm calling for "restraint" and respect for Cyprus' sovereignty.

While Turkey and Cyprus continue to trade threats, the nocturnal boom was caused by what is believed to have been an errant Russian S-200 missile that was likely fired by Syria in response to an Israeli airstrike. (Cyprus is roughly a 20-minute plane ride from Damascus and Beirut.) The projectile detonated mid-air, its debris landing 9 miles from the capital on the Turkish side. Miraculously nobody was hurt. But it was a rude reminder to islanders that decades of frozen conflict may be thawing into a nasty and unpredictable conflagration unless the sides step back and resume long-running United Nations-facilitated peace talks to reunite the island — the latest round in Switzerland collapsed in 2017. Yet there are few signs that either will.

The Eastern Mediterranean is a tinderbox where proven — and exaggerated — reserves of oil and natural gas have ignited competing claims between Turkey and their Turkish Cypriots proteges on one side, and EU members Cyprus and Greece on the other. America’s ExxonMobil and Noble Energy, France’s Total and Italy’s Eni are among a slew of companies drilling in blocks licensed to them by the Republic of Cyprus that are caught in the middle as Turkey continues to wade in with its own drilling vessels, shored up by military escorts and bellicose rhetoric. Cyprus does not have a navy and unlike Turkey is not a NATO member.

Cutting through the maze of production guesstimates and maritime legalese, the essence of the dispute is political. Ankara insists the Greek Cypriots have no right to exploit energy from the Eastern Mediterranean without striking an agreement with the Turkish islanders on their fair cut of the proceeds first. Moreover, Turkey claims extraction rights over chunks of the contested waters that it says lie within its continental shelf. The Greek Cypriots riposte that discussions on natural gas can only occur within the broader framework of reunifications talks and that these cannot restart until Turkey pulls back its ships. In the meantime, their fellow Turkish islanders need not worry, their share from hydrocarbons sales will be safeguarded by a national investment fund approved by the parliament in May to manage future revenues for the “benefit of all Cypriot people.”

But whether Cyprus accepts it or not, “energy issues are already on the negotiating table and will remain so in future talks as a result of Turkey’s intervention in the Eastern Mediterranean,” said Lefteris Adilinis, a liberal Greek Cypriot commentator, in an interview with Al-Monitor.

'Barbarians' at the gate

“I don’t think Turkey understands how bloody frightened the Greek Cypriots are of them,” Fiona Mullen, who runs Sapienta Economics Ltd., a Nicosia-based risk consultancy, told Al-Monitor. Turkey is the canvas on which all their insecurities are projected. Such feelings are palpable among the generation of Greek Cypriots who witnessed the Turkish invasion. An estimated 30,000 Turkish troops have remained in the Turkish controlled north ever since. Sorbonne-educated Savvas Kokkinos, who owns a small book stall in the heart of the old city, is one of them. The author of several poems with dark references to “barbarians,” Kokkinos told Al-Monitor, “Turkey wants all the gas so it wants to take all of the island. In fact, it wants the rebirth of the Ottoman Empire.”

Western diplomats speaking to Al-Monitor on strict condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic say the fears are overblown and that Turkey and Cyprus are hardly on the verge of war over gas.

But analysts caution against such complacency born in part they say from the fact that only nine people have perished in the buffer zone separating the two sides since their forced division. Turkish muscle flexing goes beyond Cyprus and needs to be understood in the broader arc of Turkey’s efforts to renegotiate its relations with the West and its neighbors so as to reflect the influence it feels it deserves. “And if you don’t have a stake in the energy architecture you can’t be a great power. You need a naval presence as well,” Zenonas Tziarras, a researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, who focuses on Eastern Mediterranean geopolitics, said of Ankara’s reasoning.

In this vein, PRIO’s Cyprus Director Harry Tzmitras told Al-Monitor, “Turkish activities that are perceived as against Cyprus or Greece may instead or simultaneously constitute a clear message to [its] other adversaries.” Turkey is at daggers drawn with Israel and Egypt that have struck energy agreements with Cyprus and are mulling plans to build a pipeline to carry Eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe.

Mullen argues that Turkey is more likely to come to blows with Greece over purported Turkish plans to drill close to Kastelorizo, a Greek island close to the Turkish coast whose maritime boundaries the fellow NATO allies contest. Repeated Turkish violations of Greek airspace by Turkish F-16s are fanning such fears. “There will be either a confrontation or a grand bargain but not one that will necessarily result in a unified Cyprus, but more likely a hard division,” said Mullen. This would leave the Turkish Cypriots frozen out of the EU and firmly under Ankara’s boot.

Adding to the combustible mix, Turkey is getting sucked into the conflict in Libya, another energy giant on the Eastern Mediterranean. It is arming the UN-backed and Muslim Brotherhood-friendly Government of National Accord against the United Arab Emirates and France supported warlord, Gen. Khalifa Hifter. He has threatened to shoot down Turkish planes and arrest Turkish citizens who stray into his territory. Turkey has made similarly hawkish noises.

Then there’s the erratic Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, credited with doing more to help push a solution to the Cyprus problem than any of his predecessors when he faced down his once influential generals during the early days of his rule, and endorsed the ill-fated Annan plan to unify the island.

The strongman’s stinging defeat in the Istanbul municipal election rerun, among other factors, may propel him to unleash his fury in the Eastern Mediterranean, or so Cypriot officials worry. 

Sources close to the government claim its thinking is influenced by Cem Gurdeniz, a retired Turkish admiral with stoutly anti-Western and ultranationalist views laid out in a book on the Eastern Mediterranean called “Mavi Vatan” ("Blue Nation"). A DC audience was treated to these at an event hosted by the pro-Erdogan Turkish Heritage Organization in May.

Erdogan summed up plans a year prior during a ceremony at a naval command center in Istanbul, saying, “We will not allow moves aimed at usurping the Eastern Mediterranean’s natural resources to the exclusion of our country and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Just as we taught a lesson to the terrorists in Syria, we will not cede ground to the bandits in the sea.”

Erdogan was referring to a US-backed Kurdish militant group that Turkish forces pushed out of Afrin, a mainly Kurdish enclave in northwestern Syria that remains under Turkish occupation.

Turkish military drones are said to be patrolling the skies over the Turkish drill ships round the clock. Turkey is also reportedly building two large naval bases in the Turkish Cypriot coastal towns of Morphou and Iskele. France has secured docking rights for its vessels in Mari on the Greek side. Russian war ships stop at Limassol. “There are too many cooks in the Eastern Mediterranean,” observed Mehmet Ogutcu, a  p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Helvetica} Turkish energy consultant.. 

The moves come as Cyprus issued warrants for the arrests of 25 crew members on board the Fatih, the Turkish drill ship named after the Ottoman Sultan who wrested Istanbul from the Byzantine Greeks, now anchored 68 kilometers (42 miles) northwest of Paphos, a Greek Cypriot tourist haven. Cyprus President Nikos Anastasiades said its presence amounted to “a second [Turkish] invasion." What if Cyprus acts on the warrants? Gurdeniz has a six-point plan, which calls among others things to close the crossing points along the Green Line dividing Nicosia, and to start drilling inside blocks where the international oil majors are drilling.

“Things are going to explode,” predicted Kokkinos.

Much ado about nothing?

Ankara is apparently unfazed by the EU depiction of Turkey’s actions as “illegal” and its threats to impose sanctions if Turkish ships carry on drilling.

These might include targeted punishment of individuals and companies deemed to be colluding with Turkey and declaring crew and officials on board the drill ships persona non grata.

But although Cyprus is pressing hard for EU retaliation the widespread consensus is that when push comes to shove the bloc will probably not have the stomach to act. EU governments fret that the imposition of sanctions will wreck the controversial deal whereby in exchange for billions of euros in assistance for the estimated 4 million refugees hosted by Turkey, Ankara will continue to hold them and other refugees at bay. “Our toolbox is limited,” complained an official at the EU’s External Action Committee, in off-the-record comments to Al-Monitor.

The EU wants the Greek and Turkish Cypriots to set up a committee to discuss energy as a confidence-building measure that might help ease the resumption of the UN-led talks. But so far the Greek Cypriots have refused. What's more, they are talking about vetoing North Macedonia and Albania’s membership of the EU unless Brussels gets tough with Turkey.

Niyazi Kizilyurek is the first Turkish Cypriot to have been elected to the European Parliament in May — on the ticket of the main opposition Greek Cypriot pro-Communist Akel. Kizilyurek said the current government in Cyprus thinks it can leverage its gas wealth to get a better deal with the Turkish Cypriots. “Anastasiades doesn’t believe in sharing power with the Turkish Cypriots,” he told Al-Monitor. And Turkey doesn’t believe in pulling out all its troops from the island, which Cyprus insists is necessary if there is to be sustainable peace.

Ironically, Cyprus’ gas reserves may not be worth the fight. Charles Ellinas, an energy expert who has long aired skepticism about the amount of gas Cyprus sits on, told Al-Monitor, given that ‘the global energy market is moving inexorably toward clean energy” and that “energy demand growth is in Asia, not in Europe” Eastern Mediterranean gas “profitability, if any, is low.”

Moreover, “Turkey’s intervention is making exploitation even more difficult. So the likelihood that gas stays where it is increases. The net outcome is that nobody benefits.”

Meanwhile, Kizilyurek warned, “The longer the [UN-backed] talks remain frozen, the greater the risk that tensions spiral dangerously out of control in the Eastern Mediterranean." He predicted a new round could commence as early as September when Turkish drilling ends and Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci attend the UN General Assembly in New York, provided that Ankara plays along.

The United States, which might have been tapped as a mediator, is embroiled in its own crisis with Turkey over the latter’s refusal to scrap the acquisition of Russian S-400 missiles among a slew of other quarrels. The first batch is expected to arrive this week amid US threats of sanctions and moves seen as connected to boost ties with Greece and Cyprus. Among them is a congressional bill to ease an arms embargo on Cyprus.

Alone in Ankara

Micha’el Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, points to a negative reinforcement cycle whereby Turkey feels it is being contained by its NATO allies, not least by the United States, and feels compelled to respond triggering an escalatory chain of reactions and counter-reactions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s presence in Tel Aviv for the March 20 signing of the EastMed gas pipeline reinforced Ankara’s sense of exclusion. It did not help that in January, Egypt hosted regional energy ministers to set up an Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. Turkey and Lebanon were not invited.

Others argue that Turkey’s troubles are largely self-inflicted. It has jailed US citizens to use as bargaining chips in its quarrels with Washington, and is talking about deepening defense links with Russia. Either way, cautioned Tanchum, “Things could get nasty. People are not understanding the calculus on the other side. It's like the deaf talking to the deaf. If the United States starts deploying new assets in parts of Greece, this will change the calculus for Turkey.”

Nicholas Danforth, a senior nonresident fellow at the German Marshall Fund, concurs. He told Al-Monitor, “In response to what it sees as a series of provocations from its erstwhile Western partners Turkey is now regularly threatening to take forceful countermeasures. The challenge for Western policymakers is determining what is bluster and when as with Afrin, the S-400s and now the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey is serious about following through.”

The prevailing concern among Greek Cypriot officials is that US President Donald Trump, who has made his aversion to sanctioning Turkey publicly known, may devise a formula to let Ankara off the hook over the S-400s, giving it even freer rein for aggressive behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean. A popular conspiracy theory making the rounds in Nicosia is that Erdogan will smooth Trump’s path by shifting the Russian system to Northern Cyprus on the pretext of defending his Turkish brethren from further freak missiles. 

Paradoxically, Cypriot officials believe the best way to ease tensions would be to reactivate Turkey’s membership talks with the EU as this would allow the body to reestablish leverage through a mix of carrots and sticks. Back in Nicosia’s historic center, Panayotis Zeniou, a 26-year-old stylist at UK franchise Toni and Guy, sounded a fatalistic note as he blow-dried this correspondent’s hair. “I don’t want war with Turkey. But if there is I will take a gun and protect my family. What else can I do?”

Update: July 9, 2019. An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that PRIO is helping to organize an informal meeting of the regional stakeholders in London. It is not.

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