Turkish PM and Turkish Cypriot Leader Dervish Eroglu.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Early this week, the US-based Noble Energy Company began exploratory drilling
for offshore gas deposits off the coast of Cyprus. They did so with the
agreement of the Nicosia authorities, in an area indisputably located within
Cypriot territorial waters. Despite this, there was real concern that the
drilling could face interference from Turkish navy ships on maneuvers in the
The explorations proceeded undisturbed. The Turkish ships observed
procedures from a discreet distance. But Cyprus’s defiance of recent Turkish
warnings against beginning the search for natural gas in this area is unlikely
to be the last word on the matter.
Muscle-flexing in the eastern
Mediterranean forms part of Ankara’s broader combined strategic and economic
ambitions. Israel is part of the picture and is drawing closer to the
Turkey challenges the right of the Republic of Cyprus to drill
for gas for as long as the island of Cyprus remains divided. Ankara argues that
the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus should also benefit from
natural gas discoveries. The northern Cyprus state was established unilaterally
following a Turkish invasion in 1974. It is recognized only by
Since the division of Cyprus is nowhere near resolution,
compliance with the Turkish demand would prevent Nicosia from seeking to benefit
from the potentially huge revenues that could derive from natural gas deposits
in its territorial waters. Cypriot President Demetris Christofias has
declared that gas revenues will be shared with the Turkish Cypriots, even in the
absence of unification. This is unlikely to prove sufficient for
Many observers believe that there is more to the Turkish stance
than a mere brotherly concern for the north Cyprus enclave. Turkey is itself a
major “energy bridge” for oil and gas transportation from the Middle East and
Caspian Sea area to the lucrative markets of Europe. Unsurprisingly, it
has no particular desire to see the emergence of competitors in the
To prevent the emergence of rivals, Turkey has been prepared so
far to use verbal threats and dispatch ships to monitor drilling.
efforts at intimidation do not apply only to Cyprus. Israel is also currently
engaged in drilling for gas in the Tamar field within the Exclusive Economic
Zone (EEZ) agreed upon with Cyprus. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan
was quoted last week as saying that “the Greek Cypriot administration and Israel
are engaging in oil exploration madness in the Mediterranean.”
Turkish adversary is having an effect on Cyprus’s relations with Israel. Amiram
Barkat, a journalist for the financial daily Globes who has specialized in
reporting on the gas findings in the eastern Mediterranean and their strategic
and economic implications, recently published a major article (in Hebrew) on the
relationship between the two nations. Barkat noted a number of agreements that
have significantly tightened relations between Israel and Cyprus.
first of these is the December 2010 agreement that set the boundaries of the two countries’ exclusive economic zones in the
This agreement has been presented to the UN.
Barkat also pointed to a potentially more far-reaching agreement, not yet
signed, for cooperation in “Search and Rescue” activities. This could open the
way for Israeli naval and air activity in the Cyprus area.
of such an agreement could constitute the first steps in a strategic alliance
between Cyprus and Israel. This in turn would raise the question of Israel’s
response in the event of a Turkish act of military force against the Greek
Cypriot republic. The Cypriots appear keen to have this agreement signed
as soon as possible.
On the Israeli side, Barkat noted differences of
opinion between the political and professional echelons. Foreign Minister
Avigdor Lieberman, who has identified AKPled Turkey as irrevocably hostile to
Israel, is in favor of the rapid development of closer relations with
Professional elements in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs,
meanwhile, are arguing for a more cautious policy. They believe that as they are
now, Israeli-Turkish relations can still be repaired but that the conclusion of
a strategic alliance with Cyprus would make this an impossibility.
hope-springs-eternal optimism of foreign ministry officials notwithstanding, the
weight of the evidence region-wide suggests that the entry of the Turks into the
Mediterranean forms part of a larger pattern.
Ankara, which once prided
itself on its “no problems with neighbors” foreign policy, now appears to see
threats and belligerence as key items in its arsenal. Some observers suggest
that Turkey has identified the upheavals of the Arab world as offering it an
historic opportunity. The US-led regional alliance is in apparent
disarray. Its Iranian opponents are beset by domestic uncertainty and
widespread regional disgust at their support for the Assad
Turkey is hoping to step into the resultant vacuum.
Tweaking the nose of the Jewish state at every available opportunity is thought
to help win popularity among Arab publics.
The AKP is an Islamist party,
and its leaders’ hatred for Israel is surely sincere. But they are currently in
the pleasant situation whereby ideological conviction and assertive
self-interest take them in the same direction – toward ever-deteriorating
relations with Jerusalem. Cyprus is the context in which this process could
become truly dangerous.
In the latest development, Turkey has signed a
Continental Shelf agreement with the Turkish Republic of Northern
Cyprus. Ankara is set to begin its own explorations for gas within this
area. The Turkish Piri Reiss and a Norwegian seismic ship are to commence
exploration, accompanied by ships of the Turkish Navy. There are reports that
Turkish F-16s will be stationed on Northern Cyprus to provide protection for
It is at the overlapping point between the two economic
zones that the potential for friction will be at its highest.
the boundless confidence of a group of people convinced that their hour has come
around at last, the AKP leaders of Turkey are sailing into confrontation with a
list of long-demonized enemies. Israel is near the top of the list. Economic
ambitions and rivalries are combining for Turkey with strategic goals and
ideological visions. The storm clouds are gathering over the eastern