Amidst growing concerns about the escalation of Turkish-Israeli tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, Ankara’s decision to undertake seismic exploration for oil and gas – in retaliation for the Greek Cypriot administration’s ongoing exploration activities – further raised tensions in the region. Recently, the Greek Cypriots issued a license to a US firm, Noble Energy, to launch exploratory offshore drilling for gas off Cyprus. Turkey condemned immediately this development, viewing it as an attempt to undermine the rights of Turkish Cypriots. Moreover, since the resumption of reunification talks on the island has recently reappeared on the agenda, Turkey believes this move will be potentially damaging to further diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict. Therefore, the Greek Cypriot side should avoid such unilateral provocative actions, and delay discussing drilling projects until after a political solution to the existing division is found (Hurriyet, September 13).
Later, Ankara went as far as issuing warnings that it would undertake its own exploration work and boost its military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, should the Greek Cypriots proceed with their plans. Energy Minister Taner Yildiz also added that the Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO), in cooperation with a Norwegian firm, was preparing to carry out seismic surveys off Northern Cyprus. To this end, Turkey started talks with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) to conclude a continental shelf delineation accord to determine the areas for exploration (Anadolu Ajansi, September 19).
Despite Ankara’s threats of retaliation, the first phase of Noble’s drilling activities started on September 18. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted harshly to this development, adding that Turkey would dispatch naval and air force assets to the area. While in New York to attend the UN General Assembly, Erdogan raised the issue during his talks with President Barack Obama. More significantly, he signed the continental shelf agreement with the leader of the TRNC, Dervis Eroglu. Erdogan argued “to caution international oil/natural gas companies that have and will undertake business with Greek Cypriots. Our Ministry of Energy is working to ban admission of these companies from energy projects in Turkey and impose a series of sanctions upon them” (https://www.mfa.gov.tr/statement-by-prime-minister-erdogan-following-the-signing-of-continental-shelf-delimitation-agreement-between-turkey-and-the-tur.en.mfa, September 21). The Greek Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias described Turkey’s actions as provocations and sought to highlight the issue during his address at the UN General Assembly (Hurriyet, September 23).
In a demonstration of determination, a Turkish ship set off for seismic exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean sea, escorted by frigates and submarines (www.haberturk.com, September 23). As the issue was internationalized and risked militarization, especially coinciding with the UN General Assembly, efforts were made to cool down the tensions. While the Greek side seemed disinterested in Erdogan’s proposal for the simultaneous renouncement of the exploration work, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also intervened to resolve the dispute. As a more concrete proposal, Eroglu presented to Ban Ki-moon another plan which would involve mutual suspension of such exploration (Anadolu Ajansi, September 25). While Ankara expressed support for this proposal, the Greek Cypriot side has yet to accept it.
A promising step toward achieving a diplomatic solution was the telephone conversation between Erdogan and his Greek counterpart Yorgo Papendreu. While discussing the agenda for the next high level strategic cooperation council, the two leaders expressed their desire to address bilateral tensions (Anadolu Ajansi, September 26). However, in the absence of any concrete steps by the Greek Cypriots to halting their exploration plans, Yildiz said that the Turkish seismic exploration ship will start its operations today (September 27). Yildiz also added that the TPAO was in touch with the firms interested in carrying out drills in partnership with Turkey (Cihan, September 27).
Exploration of the underwater energy resources around Cyprus has been a matter of controversy for some time, as it has been intermingled with the unresolved Cyprus issue and, by implication, Turkey-EU relations. The EU admitted into membership the government on the Greek part of the island as the sole representative of the Republic of Cyprus in 2004, but Turkey has protested against this decision because it ignored the rights of Turkish Cypriots who established the TRNC as a separate state. Turkey remains the only country to recognize the TRNC, though the Turkish government has supported talks for the reunification of the two communities on the island. However, at least since the collapse of the Annan plan in 2004, which was backed by Turkey, there is a line of thought in Turkish politics that views a two state-formula as the most viable solution for the Cyprus dispute. If the current tensions continue to escalate, with each side carrying out unilateral drilling projects, this development might de facto pave the way for a two-state solution. Whether the Turkish government has moved in the direction of adopting such a position remains to be seen.
At the same time, Ankara’s refusal to recognize the Greek Cypriot administration’s claim for full sovereignty over the island poses a major obstacle to the Turkish bid for EU membership, further complicating the issue. Turkey has sought to delay the exploration of energy resources by linking it to the resolution of the dispute, which has angered the Greek Cypriot side. For instance, in protest over what it viewed as Turkey’s veiled threats against exploring their energy resources in the Mediterranean, the Greek Cypriot administration has been vetoing the opening of the Turkish-EU accession talks in energy and other chapters. As Turkey reacts to such policies, Turkish-EU relations have already become deadlocked.
Only recently, Erdogan threatened to freeze Turkey’s relations with the EU, if the Greek Cypriot government is allowed to assume the EU presidency in 2012 before a political settlement is found on the future of the island (Anadolu Ajansi, July 20). Such statements by Turkish leaders continue to present obstacles to Turkey’s EU accession process, which is already stalled due to numerous issues. However, Ankara’s brinkmanship over the drilling issue shows that it is increasingly unconcerned with the EU’s negative reactions, perhaps indicating the degree to which Turkey is keen to pursue unilateral policies in the Eastern Mediterranean.