President Erdoğan says he will not let natural reserves be exploited by Greek Cypriots.
A showdown over natural gas and oil deposits in the seas off Cyprus is set to intensify, with Turkey announcing it is to send a drilling ship to the region days after the US energy company ExxonMobil dispatched its own survey vessels to the area.
As tensions flare over the potential spoils off the coast of the divided island, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has declared he will not tolerate the prospect of reserves being exploited by Greek Cypriots at a time when his country is engaged in conflicts elsewhere, not least against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.
Last month, Turkish warships were ordered to prevent drilling operations by ENI, an Italian energy company commissioned by Cyprus’s government, in what was seen as a brazen act of brinkmanship.
Turkey argues the self-proclaimed Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus should also be allowed to exploit the region, although others claim that areas designated for drilling fall under Ankara’s maritime jurisdiction or that of the Turkish Cypriots.
“Hopefully it has been instructive for some who saw an opportunity to act unilaterally when Turkey is engaged in anti-terrorism operations elsewhere,” Erdoğan said on Tuesday, adding that Ankara would be deploying its own newly acquired drillship to the waters off Cyprus imminently.
The sabre-rattling is causing growing concern. Optimism had mounted over the region’s potential as a gas-producing hub after geological surveys pointed to vast reserves around Cyprus. If unlocked, the resources could reshape energy geopolitics, transforming the region economically and lessening Europe’s – and Turkey’s – dependence on Russia for gas.
“Our approach is to keep calm and go on,” said the Cypriot government spokesman, Prodromos Prodromou, told the Guardian. “We cannot accept Turkey interfering and creating problems in what, as underlined by the EU, is a sovereign right to exploit our natural wealth.”
As ExxonMobil’s two ships began work, Wess Mitchell, the US state department official in charge of American policy in Europe, visited Nicosia for talks. Four foreign energy firms have been licensed to explore for oil and gas in areas off Cyprus’ southern coast.
But euphoria over an energy bonanza has run up against old enmities and the failure to reunite the island – divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded in response to a coup aimed at creating a union with Greece.
“We are heading for a full-blown crisis in the eastern Mediterranean,” said Hubert Faustmann, professor of political science at the University of Nicosia. “And that is because Turkey is determined not to allow exploitation of any resources without its consent and participation of Turkish Cypriots.”
Talks aimed at uniting Cyprus’s feuding communities collapsed last summer and it had been hoped discovery of hydrocarbons would help re-energise negotiations. The island’s president, Nicos Anastasiades, insists the offshore wealth will be shared by both communities once a solution is reached. But many now fear worse is to come.
The brinkmanship coincides with already strained relations ties between Greece and Turkey. Warning foreign energy companies not to “overstep the mark” last month, Erdoğan said Turkey would be prepared to take military action, just as it had done in Syria, if required.
“We recommend that foreign companies operating in Cypriot waters not trust the Greek [Cypriot] side and become a tool for business that exceeds their place and powers,” he said. “The Greeks and Greek Cypriots would stop swaggering when they saw the Turkish military with its ships and warplanes approaching.”
Erdoğan, whose Islamist AKP movement has teamed up with the nationalist MHP party in the run-up to the elections, has increasingly spoken of the need to protect Turkey from its “bad neighbours”, triggering fears among western diplomats in Athens, Ankara and Nicosia that tensions will be further stoked over Cyprus.
Despite drawing a strong rebuke from the EU, which says it is the island republic’s sovereign right to exploit the resources, the Turkish government appears unfazed by criticism of its gunboat diplomacy. Several weeks after warships sabotaged ENI’s drilling efforts, Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, repeated that “provocative actions will be met with the appropriate response”.
“There is a real danger of a Turkish confrontation with international drill ships,” said John Roberts, energy security specialist at the Atlantic Council. “The Turkish government does not recognise the government of Cyprus in the way the rest of the world does and that means its does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus has an exclusive economic [maritime] zone. If it pursues this argument to its logical end, it will use force to keep uninvited visitors at bay, which would put it at odds not only with the EU but partners in Nato.”
The best way to resolve the crisis speedily, he said, was for Anastasiades to come to some agreement that whatever is found is shared equitably. Even if extracted, experts have cautioned that it may take decades for the offshore resources to be commercialised at a time when markets are flooded by cheap gas. But in a region riven with competing claims over maritime boundaries, the spectre of Cyprus teaming up with Egypt and Israel to become an alternate supply hub has further incensed Turkey, itself keen to remain a major transit hub.
Egypt, which has the eastern Mediterranean’s biggest gas reserves, and has signed a key agreement with Cyprus, has also exchanged angry barbs with Ankara. With some fearing Ankara could take on ExxonMobil, officials have sought to downplay the prospect of the two survey ships running into trouble. Addressing reporters, the US ambassador to Nicosia, Kathleen Doherty, said activity would be limited to environmental and archaeological research in an area south-west of Cyprus.
Exploratory drilling – which Ankara has vowed to stop – would follow later this year. “I sincerely hope that both sides use that time to find a way to resume negotiations to reunify the island,” she said.