Turkey sends drones to northern Cyprus, makes drilling claims

Since earlier this year Turkey has been increasing its activities in the Mediterranean, seeking to send vessels to explore for gas between Cyprus and Greece.

Missiles and drone aircrafts are seen on display at an exhibition at an unidentified location in Yemen in this undated handout photo released by the Houthi Media Office (photo credit: HOUTHI MEDIA OFFICE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Missiles and drone aircrafts are seen on display at an exhibition at an unidentified location in Yemen in this undated handout photo released by the Houthi Media Office
Turkey sent drones to northern Cyprus on Monday morning as part of an attempt to increase its role in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Turkey has bases in Qatar and Somalia and has hinted it will send troops to Libya. Turkey forced an Israeli research ship to leave waters near Cyprus last week, according to reports. Ankara is increasingly trying to surround Cyprus with an exclusive economic zone that it claims, and looks ready to use drones and naval assets to assert its control. It also told Israel that any pipeline in the Mediterranean would require Turkey’s approval.
Anadolu reported that Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones flew to northern Cyprus at 5 a.m. on Monday. Since earlier this year, Turkey has been increasing its activities in the Mediterranean, seeking to send vessels to explore for gas between Cyprus and Greece and claiming that it controls the rights to an economic zone stretching from Turkey to Libya. It signed a deal with Libya’s embattled government of Tripoli last month – even though Libya is in a civil war and the Tripoli government doesn’t control the water off the coastline where Turkey says it has rights. Turkey has been saying every day over the last week that it could send forces to Libya to support Tripoli against the Western Libyan government of Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by Egypt.

Ankara’s larger plans are to stake claim to a huge swath of Mediterranean and carve it into economic blocks for drilling. The drones are a way to assert Turkey’s power and to show that it will use military means if necessary to administer economic zones that surround Cyprus on three sides. Turkish Petroleum-linked vessels are seeking gas to put facts on the ground in the dispute.
In June, the vessel Yavuz went to the east Mediterranean off the coast of Cyprus to drill in the Bay of Gazimagusa, which Turkey says the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has rights to. Turkey’s Fatih ship was already working in the area. “The Greek Cypriot administration does not have a right to take decisions on its own, or even have a say in any matter concerning the whole island,” Turkey’s Energy and Natural Resources Minister Fatih Donmez said at the time. The Fatih began operations 75 km. off the western coast of Cyprus. Turkey claims this area “falls entirely within Turkish continental shelf, registered with the UN under permit licenses the Turkish government in previous years granted to Turkish Petroleum Corporation.”
Maps published online by Turkish media show that Turkey has divided land areas in the Iskenderun basin, Mersin basin and Antalya basin off its coast into more than 20 plots with numbers such as 4320 and 5027. In the 1970s, Turkey invaded Northern Cyprus, which is not recognized by other countries besides Turkey. Now, Ankara wants to leverage its claims to mark out other areas that Turkish companies could conceivably drill. Around Northern Cyprus, Turkish media shows various economic blocks labeled sequentially from A to G. The E, F and G blocs are off the coast of Syria, Lebanon and Israel.
Turkey calls this area the “blue motherland” or “blue homeland.” From Ankara’s point of view, it is Cyprus that has been going ahead with drilling without consulting it. In early 2018, Turkey condemned “Greek Cypriots” for enabling ENI’s Saipem 12000 drilling platform to drill in an area labeled Block 3 by Cyprus. In response, the Turkish Navy conducted drills.
Turkey bases its claims to an Exclusive Economic Zone on a 1982 UN convention that spells out maritime law and says countries can drill within 200 nautical miles off their coasts. Where the EEZs overlap, the countries should come to an agreement. For instance, Cyprus signed agreements with Egypt in 2003, Lebanon in 2007 and Israel in 2010. Israel and Lebanon have small overlapping claims, which the US had sought to mediate in the past.
Turkey’s claims are not just overlapping with Cyprus: It is pushing a much wider agenda. According to Turkish media reports the country wants Turkish Petroleum to have licenses all the way around the eastern coast of Cyprus between Cyprus and Israel, and that Turkey will claim the western side, surrounding Cyprus with claims. Block 3, which Turkey complained about in 2018, overlaps the northern Cyprus block F. But Turkey’s ambitions now are much larger than in 2018 when this dispute was more on paper, than today when it involves navies, drones and more robust Turkish threats. Turkey’s disputes now impact the EU, NATO and concepts of an East Med pipeline.
While Turkey pushes northern Cyprus claims to the eastern blocks between Cyprus and Lebanon and Israel and Syria, it also pushes up against blocks 4-7 that Cyprus claims east and south of Cyprus. According to Turkey’s Anadolu news agency, the government of Cyprus “unilaterally identified 13 oil exploration blocks around the island of Cyprus and granted permit licenses to oil companies such as Exxon, Nobel, Eni, Kogas and Qatar Petroleum.” Turkey’s response is that it “declares at every opportunity that Turkish Petroleum’s hydrocarbon activities within the TRNC’s license areas, as well as within Turkey’s continental shelf, will continue with seismic and drilling operations.”
Turkey uses international legal claims where it benefits and discards them in other areas. Northern Cyprus is not recognized by the international community so it can’t grant licenses. On the other hand, Turkey claims that the government in Tripoli is the internationally recognized government and uses it to further its claims. No matter: Turkey benefits in both scenarios, so that’s the goal.
Turkey now says it will base drones in northern Cyprus and use them to escort ships searching for gas. According to Reuters, the drones will be both unarmed and armed, and be based at Gecitkale (Lefkoniko) Airport. Now that the Bayraktar TB2 drones are in northern Cyprus, it adds to the crowded skies of the area and potentially escalates disputes.
For Turkey, this is a great, nationalist milestone as the country daily engages in threats to close the US base in Incirlik, and threatens more military offensives in Iraq, Syria and far away in Libya. Turkish media heralded the great drone deployment with real-time cameras attached to the tail of one of the drones. They were seen on flight radar sites and images posted online as well. By noon on Monday, the drones were flying around their new base like horses enjoying a new pasture.

The Bayraktar drone is a point of pride for Turkey. Ankara boasts it is the best-armed UAV in its class, and says it was first delivered to the army in 2014, with its armaments being increased in 2015. New versions are being constructed today. Turkey has put MAM-L and MAM-C long-range anti-tank missiles from Rokestan on the drone, and says it is now one of only six countries making these kinds of armed drones.
Turkey has signed a deal with Ukraine and sent drones to Libya. A Turkish drone was downed in Libya over the weekend. Ankara is increasingly using drones in northern Iraq and Syria. Turkey is gearing up for a potential naval confrontation with its drones and also by test firing a new locally produced anti-ship missile called Atmaca, it tested in November.
The new Turkish base in Cyprus will give the drones, with a range of around 150 km., the ability to monitor areas off the coast of Cyprus, but will not likely bring them close to Israel – unless the drones are guided using another manner. Nevertheless, the drones are a symbolic way for Turkey to show off its increasing power in the region – and may pose an issue for Cyprus.