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Turkey turns up the Cypriot heat

Cyprus hopes international pressure will stop Turkish drilling in the country's offshore

Turkey has deployed two drilling vessels in the waters around Cyprus, as the Ankara regime ups the ante in another game of high-stakes militant diplomacy.

One ship, Fatih, is anchored just to the west of the island. Until recently a second, Yavuz, was close to the eastern coast of Cyprus. Now, Yavuz is set to drill in Block 7 in Cyprus’ economic exclusion zone (EEZ). In September, the Cyprus government granted a licence to a consortium of Total and Italy's Eni to explore for hydrocarbons in that block.

The Turkish move confirms the declared determination of the Ankara government to press its interpretation of how the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean should be shared. Turkey asserts that its continental shelf extends to the median line with Egypt. This in part overlaps with the Cyprus EEZ—in Block 7 and four other blocks.

Turkey also does not recognise the Cypriot EEZ and insists that the largely internationally unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has the right to drill off its coast.

The redeployment of the Yavuz drill ship increases tension, and has been criticised by governments in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. European Council president Donald Tusk said Turkey’s “continued illegal drilling activities only undermine good neighbourly relations between the European Union (EU) and Turkey—the EU stands united behind Cyprus”.

The US and Russia are among other states expressing their backing for Cyprus. President Trump has already aimed yet another of his Twitter outburst at Turkey for its build-up of troops on Turkey's eastern border with Syria, perhaps in response to domestic criticism that the erratic US leader had once again caved to a military strongman by his decision to move US troops from the frontier and perhaps even nodded through a Turkish incursion into Syria. The US assistant secretary of state for energy resources, Frank Fannon, has been a visitor to the regional cooperation effort the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, so the Turkish move will definitely attract the Trump administration's attention and be seen as another provocation in the Mena region.  

For Cyprus, with drilling operations expanding fast, the Turkish deployments are unwelcome developments. “Under the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, the Turkish action is unjustifiable and increases political risk in the region,” says Cypriot energy expert Charles Ellinas at an Institute of Energy for Southeast Europe conference in London. “International oil companies (IOCs) do not like risk, nor do banks providing investment for infrastructure.”

Source: Petroleum Economist


While Cyprus remains divided and the Cypriot republic and Turkey lack diplomatic relations, it is hard to imagine how the current crisis can easily be defused. Ellinas believes a bold solution should be a UN attempt to restart negotiations to reunite Cyprus, adding that the initiative needs strong international support: “If we are left to our own devices, we will never solve these problems. We need some forceful intervention from outside—the UN, the US and Europe.” 

Scant leverage

Such intervention would not necessarily be successful. “The US and Europe have never had less leverage over Turkey,” says Harry Tzimitras, head of the Cyprus branch of Norwegian thinktank Peace Research Institute Oslo. “Turkey’s actions [in the waters off Cyprus] are less to do with energy and more about power projection,” he adds. In the absence of negotiations and a “possible platform for cooperation, Turkey is there to stay”.

Thus far, there is certainly no sign of international criticism making Turkey think twice about its Cyprus strategy. The whole world should “understand Turkey’s determination and seriousness in the Mediterranean," says Turkish energy minister Fatih Donmez. "Turkey is not a country that can be excluded or pushed aside in this region. We shall continue to pursue our rights stemming from international law.”

In early 2018, the Turkish navy stopped an Eni drilling vessel reach its target zone in Block 3 to the southeast of Cyprus. IOCs have several exploration programmes planned for the months ahead. They will hope that diplomacy can prevent a repetition of the Block 3 incident in Block 7 where Yavuz is located, or in any of the other areas that are contested by Turkey.


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