CAIRO – 27 February 2018: A clashing of swords between neighboring rivals Turkey and Cyprus threatens to pull the two into conflict. With the involvement of Greece, an equal member of NATO but a competitor to Turkey, this may prove a major challenge to the alliance. Turkey is testing the
in Syria, the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. While Ankara’s foremost NATO challenger, the U.S., is unlikely to retaliate militarily in Syria, the likelihood that long-standing tensions between Turkey, Cyprus and Greece could erupt into violence is much greater.
Cyprus has its own quarrels with Turkey; quarrels which pull the island westward towards Greece in an intertwined narrative. The small island of Cyprus sits about 50 miles from Turkey’s southern Mediterranean coast and has a
of 1.2 million. Foreign manipulation and international division has triumphed in Cyprus’s modern history. Following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, the island is ethnically divided. Turkish support of a breakaway Turkish-Cypriot state in Northern Cyprus challenges the Greek-Cypriots and the internationally-backed government residing in the south. Greece naturally allies with the south, which has repeatedly tried to join the Greek state.
While talks to resolve tensions have been unsuccessful following the Turkish invasion, the de facto divided country has remained relatively peaceful. However, renewed Turkish aggression threatens to ignite hostilities once again on the island, and the already tenuous relationship between Greece and Turkey is facing new challenges.
Turkish warships in the Mediterranean blocked a Saipem 12000 vessel contracted by the Italian energy conglomerate Eni on February 9 as the vessel was heading toward Cyprus to begin exploring for natural gas off the island’s southern coast. Italy’s state-controlled Eni operates alongside France’s Total in Block 3 of Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). A diplomatic standoff has ensued over the competition for natural resources.
“Our warships and security units are following all developments in the region with the instruction to do whatever is necessary,” said Erdoğan to members of his ruling AK Party in the Turkish parliament. “We warn those who overstep the mark in Cyprus and the Aegean.” Erdoğan claims that Turkey, or Turkish-Cypriots, have the rights to some areas of Cyprus’s offshore maritime zone and the natural resources it holds.
Eni, Total and Exxon Mobil are all licensed by the Greek-Cypriot government to explore the southern coast of Cyprus for natural gas.
to operate in Blocks 2, 3, 6, 8, 9 and 11 in Cyprus’s EEZ. In what has emerged as a test of Turkish resolve, Eni announced on February 8 the discovery of a promising gas field in Block 6 off the southern Cypriot coast, which was geologically similar to Egypt’s
. Erdoğan claims that the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has rights to Cyprus’s offshore maritime zone and the natural resources it possesses, and that the Cypriot government has no right to issue drilling contracts without the consent of the Turkish-backed north. Unfortunately for Turkey, no other countries recognize its claim to so-called Northern Cyprus, and
of its Cypriot ally.
“Our goal is to fully explore Cyprus’s hydrocarbon potential, in the best terms possible, so as to maximize the benefits for all the people of Cyprus,” said Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades. On February 21, Cyprus said it would
with its oil and gas exploration, after the vessel was anchored 30 miles from its drilling target.
However, Cyprus’s impulse was short lived, as
of threatening to use force on February 23. "The drillship was halted by five Turkish warships, and after threats of violence…was compelled to return back," said deputy government spokesman Victoras Papadopoulos.
The Turkish response was predictably confrontational. Turkey will not allow the “unilateral exploration” of natural resources off the Cypriot southern coast, and it must “be effective” in preventing exploration as long as Turkish-Cypriots will not reap the benefits, according to Turkish Energy Minister Berak Albayrak.
Turkish warships, citing military exercises in justification, have prevented Eni from conducting its exploratory drilling. Turkish hostility with the Greek-Cypriot south has intensified adjacent Turkey’s relationship with Greece in the Aegean Sea and has prompted Turkey to
in the eastern Mediterranean until March 10.
offshore natural gas rig in the Mediterranean Sea - REUTERS/ Gustav Nacarino
Cyprus has long been the focal point for conflict between the so-called East and West. Part of the Ottoman Empire since 1571, the newly formed Turkish Republic ceded control over the island as was stipulated in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. However in keeping with the complex nature of Turkish Cyprus’s status, it was also resigned to several decades under British rule. In 1878, the United Kingdom received the island of Cyprus as a protectorate from the Ottoman Empire to ensure British support in case of Russian incursions into Ottoman territory in Asia. Cyprus severed as part of the British Empire from 1914-1925 under military occupation after the Ottoman Empire declared war against the Triple Entente, and from 1925-1960 as a crown colony.
Turkey’s aggressive maneuvering off the coast of Cyprus and
follows a trend of
. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has relied on the state’s military capabilities to exert influence over neighboring states and much of the Middle East. While Turkish provocation in Cypriot waters fails to make an impact on Western media, the Turkish air force has undertaken an aggressive campaign in Greek skies. In a blatant violation of international aviation law, February has seen an uptake in Turkish aircraft violating Greek airspace, which has now become a daily occurrence;
reportedly violated Greek sovereignty in January. On February 19 alone, four Turkish aircraft violated Greek airspace
There is a fear in Turkey that if Cyprus looks westward to harness its newfound natural resources, then Greek and thus EU leverage over the island would increase and Turkey would face an uphill struggle in establishing actionable influence. It is likely that Turkey would become alienated. However, the current altercations are unlikely to lead to imminent conflict, but instead will lead Turkey to push for concessions in order to renew unification talks. Thus far,
stand with Cyprus, and
will be an important moment in shaping Cyprus-Turkey-EU relations in the coming years.