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Turkey, Cyprus: Rising Energy Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean

Released on 2012-08-01 01:00 GMT

Email-ID 49606
Date 2011-09-29 00:37:49
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Turkey, Cyprus: Rising Energy Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean

September 28, 2011 | 2017 GMT
Turkey, Cyprus: Rising Energy Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean
AFP/Getty Images
Turkish seismic survey vessel Piri Reis moored at Izmir port Sept. 23

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


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

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. [IMG] 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.

Turkey, Cyprus: Rising Energy Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean
(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
any aid ship that sails 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

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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