The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - Reuters
CAIRO - 26 February 2018: The Middle East is teeming with various sorts of crises. Recently, a new crisis has been added to the list, namely the dispute between Middle Eastern nations over gas drilling rights.
Israel, for instance, threatened to stop Lebanon drilling in ‘Block 9’ under the pretext that it falls within Israeli territorial waters; however, the political scene has been dominated by Turkey’s protests against the drilling by Egypt and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean, a matter which added one more crisis to the already tense relations between Turkey and Egypt / Cyprus.
Forms of objection
Turkey’s objections to Egypt and Cyprus drilling for natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean region have taken a number of political and military forms, some of them being:
In an interview with a Greek journalist on February 5, 2018, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated that his country will not recognize the maritime demarcation agreement signed in 2013 that defined the economic zones of Egypt and Cyprus, in the gas-rich Eastern Mediterranean region.
He claimed that the agreement infringes on the Turkish neritic zone which, according to claims by Ankara, extends between longitudes 32, 16 and 18 in the Eastern Mediterranean. His statements were rejected by Cairo, which - in a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs - asserted that the border demarcation agreement between Egypt and Cyprus is not a matter of discussion because it conforms to international laws and was listed by the UN as an international agreement and that any infringement or violation of Egypt’s sovereign rights in the region will not be tolerated.
Cairo also responded militarily; marine vessels took up positions in the Eastern Mediterranean and around Zohr gas field as a part of the “Sinai 2018” anti-terror operation. This sent a straightforward warning message to Turkey and any other country that plans to infringe on Egyptian territorial waters or economic zones.
Blockade of Eni’s drilling vessel
Eni, the Italian gas drilling company, announced that its vessel had sailed to start excavating Block 3 in the Cypriot economic zone, but was ordered to stop by Turkish warships on February 9, 2018, on accounts of “military activities in the ship’s destination”. The incident is considered blatant aggression on Ankara’s part and a violation of all international laws and conventions which stipulate that civilian vessels must not be subjected to military aggression, in addition to the fact that it includes Italy as one of the crisis’s parties since the ship belongs to an Italian company.
On February 13, 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned foreign gas drilling companies against involvement in the dispute between Turkey and Cyprus over Mediterranean gas drilling rights. He threatened to intercept and prevent foreign vessels from drilling in the disputed areas, which he did with an Eni ship off the coast of Cyprus. The incident forced Europe to call on Ankara to maintain good relations with its neighbors and to respect their territorial sovereignty. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, even had a phone call with Nicos Anastasiades, president of Cyprus, to discuss the situation and warned Turkey against any moves that threaten EU members, which intensified the conflict between Ankara and the EU, an especially pertinent point when considering Turkey’s pending application to join the union.
Turkey’s protests against Mediterranean countries drilling for natural gas in the area vary. Ankara knows that its position is illegal and goes against international laws because of the 2013 demarcation agreement between Egypt and Cyprus, which was founded on the rules and regulations of international law and according to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which was registered with the UN as per resolution no. 102. Turkey didn’t object to the resolution at the time and therefore has no right to protest it now. In their agreement, the two countries observed the maritime rights of all other countries in the region in order to avoid future conflicts or claims to neritic or economic zones. However, Ankara still holds to its stance, which stems from a number of motives, including:
On January 19, 2018, Turkey started an extensive military operation in Afrin, a city in north-eastern Syria, to exterminate armed Kurdish factions in the city, despite the operation being a blatant violation of Syrian sovereignty. Before the operation started, Erdoğan announced that he would finish the factions off in one week; yet, a month later, Turkey has not specified a time limit for concluding the operation nor has it defined what would or would not make it a success. Moreover, there is a news blackout on the number of soldiers killed in the operation (estimated by some sources to be around 20), in addition to rumors that the operation will be extended to include Manbij and other Syrian cities. Thus, it can be inferred that Erdoğan has deliberately created the gas crisis with Egypt and Cyprus to cover up his military involvement in Syria.
Searching for energy resources
Turkey is a trading nation whose population is estimated at about 81 million citizens. Because of the scale of its market, the country is continuously in need of new energy resources. This could be part of the reason why the Zohr gas field, discovered by the Italian company Eni and inaugurated by Egypt, is of such high concern to Turkey. Adding fuel to the fire, Eni will start drilling in 11 new zones within Egyptian territorial waters soon and George Lakkotrypis, Cypriot minister of Energy, announced the discovery of a new gas field in Cyprus’ territorial waters.
Creating confusion and deliberately fabricating crises have been an overarching theme of Turkey’s foreign policy for years. Recently, Erdoğan has managed to strain his country’s foreign relations with all neighboring and regional countries. His relations with the EU are tense, he has created crises with both Syria and Iraq and his diplomatic ties with the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are weakening because of his alliance with Doha during the Qatari crisis, in addition to the problematic issues between Ankara and Washington. Turkey’s foreign policy has been creating crises that seem to negatively impact its future in regards to both internal and external issues.
The issue with Cyprus
There has been a conflict between Turkey, Cyprus and Greece for four decades over dividing the island of Cyprus. Turkish Cypriots took control of the northern third of the island in 1974 after military interventions. They announced establishing the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is not recognized by the international community, but only recognized by Ankara. On the other hand, Greek Cypriots took over two thirds of the island and established the Republic of Cyprus, a member of the UN and the EU. There are constant efforts by the UN to unite the island, yet they are thwarted by Turkey’s obstinacy in defending the political and economic rights of Turkish Cypriots. Turkey’s stance on the maritime demarcation agreement between Egypt and Cyprus is part of Ankara’s foreign policy regarding the division of the island, since Turkey does not recognize any agreement that the Republic of Cyprus makes without representation from Turkish Cypriots.
Opposing the tripartite alliance
Turkey took a stance in opposition to the tripartite alliance of Egypt-Greece-Cyprus since it was announced in 2014; it views the alliance as directed against Ankara because of its tense relations with the three countries. However, Cairo, Athens and Nicosia have denied such claims, affirming that the alliance is not directed against any of their Mediterranean neighbors; the statements could not change Turkey’s convictions and views on the alliance.
The tripartite alliance is credited for the maritime demarcation agreement between Egypt and Cyprus and for cooperation in drilling for oil and gas that resulted in the discovery of Zohr. The Turkish discontentment with the three allying states became very evident after the alliance’s fifth summit in Nicosia, on November 21, 2017; Turkey rejected the closing ceremony speech calling for a resolution to the Cyprus crisis with the help of the UN.
Ankara also protested the Egyptian-Greek “Medusa 5” military exercise off the coast of Rhodes Island, although it has conducted marine drills in the same area. These stances are indicative of Turkey’s dissatisfaction and anxiety regarding the possible success of the tripartite alliance that threatens its interests in Cyprus, in the Middle East and in the EU, while at the same time reinforces the regional status of three states it is in discord with.
Erdoğan has taken a negative stance against both the Egyptian government and people, since the June 30 revolution in 2013. It refused to recognize the regime change, leading to the collapse of diplomatic relations between the two countries and the withdrawal of ambassadors.
Afterwards, Erdoğan consistently demonstrated his antagonism towards Egypt’s political leadership and worked against the country by supporting terrorist groups and hosting their members. There was little reconciliation to Egyptian-Turkish relations by the end of 2017, taking the form of Erdoğan reducing his political rhetoric against Egypt, Turkey and Egypt cooperating to resolve the Jerusalem crisis, and resuming the Egyptian-Turkish business forum with the aim of reinforcing economic cooperation.
However, Erdoğan still sees Egypt as a powerful regional competitor and is intent on fabricating crises to antagonize it and to thwart the economic and political ascension of Egypt in the region, which has only been made possible by Egypt’s political leadership in the past four years. In the same period, Turkey has seen a plummeting recession in all fields. In this context, Erdoğan's hostile stance on gas drilling in the Mediterranean is nothing but an attempt to draw Egypt towards a military confrontation that would deplete its marine power. Egypt’s political leadership is aware of such attempts to impede its developmental efforts; hence, Cairo’s political response was to ward off any aggression against Egyptian territorial waters. This occurred in the form of statements issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a military response in the form of extensive marine operations in the Eastern Mediterranean which assert the readiness of Egypt’s army - ranked the 10th of the world’s most powerful armies.
Finally, we can see that Turkey’s protests against Mediterranean gas drillings by Egypt and Cyprus is illegal, in addition to it being indicative of Turkish political bankruptcy and of Turkey’s insistence on fabricating foreign crises. Such a policy of protest will negatively impact Turkey’s relations with the EU since the latter does not tolerate any threats of aggression against its member countries. Turkey’s actions could go as far as resulting in the imposition of sanctions against Ankara if the EU believes antagonism towards Cyprus has gone too far.
Although Cairo and Ankara have expressed the willingness to bolster economic cooperation, their political relations seem to remain strained; ‘political aversion’ will continue so long as Erdoğan’s policies continue to antagonize the Egyptian political leadership. Erdoğan’s antagonism continues to put obstacles in the way of any improvement in relations between Cairo and Ankara.
This article was originally published in Arabic on Al Siyassa Al Dawliya Magazine
Mona Soliman is a political science researcher.