A day after reports that Noble Energy had begun its natural gas drilling off the coast of Cyprus, amid threats from the Turkish government that it was considering deploying naval escort ships to protect exploration areas north of the country, an Israeli expert on the situation deemed the threats grave to both Cypriot and Israeli concerns.
Drilling of the Homer Ferrington oil rig began on Tuesday, and will continue to a depth of approximately 5.8 kilometers below sea level for about two to three months, during which bedrock will be analyzed for quality level of hydrocarbons, Cypriot Energy Service director Solon Kassinis told the Cyprus Mail daily newspaper on Tuesday. Meanwhile, following a statement from Cypriot President Demetris Christofias that drilling was about to begin, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had threatened on Monday that Turkish aircraft, frigates and torpedo boats would be sent to watch over the eastern Mediterranean, Reuters said that day.
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“Turkey will do everything it can to prove us that we made a mistake by not apologizing,” said Dr. Alon Liel, now a lecturer at several Israeli universities but a 30-year veteran in the Israeli foreign service positions, the last of which was director-general of the Foreign Affairs Ministry from 2000-2001.
“The issue of demarcation of the territorial waters with Greece is one of the main sources of conflict between Turkey and Greece,” Liel told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. “Now because Turkey entered such a hostile mood and because Turkey has two rivals in the region – Cyprus and Israel – who are now coordinating their energy activities, Turkey will now do everything it can to try to explain to the two sides that they cannot reach agreements on the issues of drilling rights in the Mediterranean without Turkey.”
While Turkish forces currently occupy the northern part of Cyprus, the Turkish Cypriot government is recognized as legitimate by Turkey alone.
“According to the international community there is no such thing as drilling rights in northern Cyprus,” Liel said. “It’s very complicated to reach agreements in territorial waters because Cyprus sees this as the northern side of Cyprus – for Cyprus there is no north and south.” Despite international disputes, however, Erdogan said earlier this week that Turkish drilling may begin in the region soon while Turkish Cypriot Prime Minister Irsen Kucuk accused Greek Cypriots of usurping his community’s access to the gas reserves, according to Reuters.
“They are claiming that they’re going to do their own drilling and that they have their own rights – that northern Cyprus has its own rights to the gas,” Dr. Amit Mor, CEO and energy specialist at the Eco Energy firm, told the Post, also on Wednesday.
The Cyprus natural gas reserves are being explored by Texas-based Noble Energy, the same company participating in the drilling at the adjacent Israeli Tamar and Leviathan fields, and Israeli partner Delek has the option of joining the Cypriot development as well, reports have said.
Involvement of the Israeli company in the Cyprus drilling is dependent on Cypriot governmental approval, Mor explained.
“Cyprus has the right to explore and try to find its own hydrocarbons,” Mor said. “If they find commercial resources the companies involved and the Cyprus and Israeli governments could evaluate the mutual development of Cypriot and Israeli sources.
“The Israeli government has to set up its policies vis-à-vis natural gas
experts,” Mor added. “The Cypriot government and the companies could
evaluate mutual development of Israeli-based and potential Cypriotbased
sources for domestic consumption in Cyprus and for export.”
Whether or not Israel and Delek choose to take part in the Cypriot
drilling, Liel predicted that Turkey will try to make maintaining
natural gas drilling and transportation rights in the region as
difficult for Cyprus and Israel as possible.
“In a way, we have an economic energy conflict that now is kind of
coinciding with this political crisis, and it’s an explosive situation,”
he said. “I’m, by the way, much more worried about possible clashes
between Israeli and Turkish ships in the Cyprus area than in the Gaza
area. I don’t see anyone now planning flotillas to Gaza. But I see a lot
of work being done with energy resources in the Mediterranean region
and this is a very vivid topic, and Turkey will be very active there.”
Liel expressed fear that Turkey will meanwhile help reinforce Lebanese claims to gas reserves to strengthen its own fight.
“Turkey will do everything it can to help the Lebanese argument
regarding its territorial waters and drilling rights,” Liel said. “This
is quite a sensitive issue in which you have four players involved –
Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon and Israel. Out of the four only two are
cooperating – Cyprus and Israel – and then the other two are opposing
everything that Israel and Cyprus are doing.
“To Turkey it’s a real blow – a political blow, an economic glow,” he continued.
In an interview with the Post last week, National Infrastructures
Minister Dr. Uzi Landau had said he found it difficult to envision
anything substantial escalating around the natural gas situation and saw
it unlikely that Turkey challenging the European Union in such a way.
“The Cypriot ambassador didn’t pay attention to that at all. He brushed it off his shoulder,” Landau said.
He said that there was little threat to Israel from this angle, as “no
one is claiming – even the Lebanese – that the Leviathan or the Tamar
natural gas fields are within foreign waters.”
But Liel charged that such sentiments were simply being echoed in order
to maintain a “business as usual situation” in the area, rather than
risk frightening investors. In addition, he stressed that there have
been several clashes between Greek and Turkish boats over natural gas in
the Aegean Sea during the past 15 years. However, Liel did agree that a
Turkish challenge to the European Union was unlikely, as he believes
that “Turkey understands that the possibility of membership in the EU is
almost nonexistent,” since it will not recognize Cyprus’s borders.
“We have a very severe crisis with Turkey,” Liel said. “I think that
Turkey will use the gas conflict to achieve two goals – 1) to enhance
its energy and economic interests in the region, and 2) to show Israel
that this is a serious conflict.”