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Turkish resentment sours East Med gas mood

A municipal election setback for Turkey’s governing party could trigger a more aggressive energy policy towards Cyprus

Turkey feels increasingly like an outsider on the East Mediterranean natural gas scene and is not happy about it. And a surprise threat to president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's grip on power may encourage him to do more about it to distract from the domestic agenda.

Several developments have contributed to Turkey's mood. Firstly, Ankara insists that the Republic of Cyprus has no right to explore for or develop offshore hydrocarbon resources while the island remains divided and the Turkish Cypriot community in the north is excluded from the process. Moreover, Turkey does not recognise Cyprus' economic exclusion zone (EEZ), in part because it claims that the EEZ infringes part of Turkey's continental shelf.

In addition, earlier this year, leaders of Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Jordan, Italy and the Palestinian Authority met in Cairo to form the East Med Gas Forum to foster regional cooperation. Turkey, pointedly, was not invited.

Turkey is also concerned by US moves to bolster relations with Israel, Greece and Cyprus-as it scales back its physical and diplomatic presence in the region. Even more alarming for Ankara, a senior member of the US Senate foreign relations committee is proposing lifting a long-imposed arms embargo on the internationally-recognised Republic of Cyprus. This would gravely concern the self-declared state in the north, where Turkey has a strong military presence.

"Hostile forum"

The combination is too much for Turkey to stomach. "The discovery of large natural gas resources off the south coast of Cyprus and the creation of a new regional energy alliance perceived to be hostile to Turkey have already generated deep resentment in Turkey," says Firdevs Robinson, a London-based Turkish commentator.

Turkey has already shown that it is not prepared to ignore operations off southern Cyprus. Early in 2018, the Turkish navy prevented the Saipem 12000 drill ship, operated by Eni, from reaching Block 3. Since then, the Turkish authorities have frequently said that international firms should refrain from operating in those waters. Most recently, when ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum drilled in Block 10, Ankara warned "the Greek Cypriot administration to halt its unilateral hydrocarbon activities", adding that "the natural resources around the island of Cyprus belong not only to the Greek Cypriot side, but both sides".

In the meantime, Turkey is planning to send drill ships to explore for hydrocarbons both off northern Cyprus and in areas it claims are on its continental shelf to the south. Erdoğan has long been determined to step up the search for oil and gas to ease his country's overwhelming dependence on imported oil and gas (90pc oil and 99pc gas). He has described those searching for gas in areas deemed off limits by Ankara as "bandits of the sea".

Cyprus: unifying cause

Today, with his AK party surprisingly losing control of Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey's major cities, in recent elections, he might decide that an even more aggressive stance towards the Cypriot energy issue could rally popular support. In Robinson's view, even now, when Turkish politics is sharply divided, the issue of Cyprus still remains "a unifying cause". "If the geopolitics of energy in the East Med is presented as a national security threat, it is highly likely that both the opposition and public opinion would align themselves with the government," he says.

For now, Turkey's main foreign policy concern is Syria. But, according to a European diplomat based in Ankara, "senior officials here say that once the Syria file has been closed, the East Med file will be the biggest one on the table".

The AK party has succeeded in having a re-run of the Istanbul election on 23 June. Even so, Ankara and other cities are lost. So with the AK party "still licking their wounds after electoral defeats, we cannot rule out miscalculations and sharp responses", says Robinson. "Whether that would be limited to torpedoing plans for the region's energy landscape or more aggressive measures, it is difficult to say."

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