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Turkey drills in troubled waters

The deployment of the Yavuz in a section of the Mediterranean claimed by Cyprus pushes the region closer to open conflict

Turkey announced this week that it is “tearing up the maps” in the eastern Mediterranean, with a drillship now searching for gas deposits south-west of Cyprus.

The Yavuz, operated by state-owned Turkish Petroleum (TPAO), is stationed in an area already claimed by the Cypriot government. At stake are massive gas deposits discovered by Egypt, Cyprus and Israel, with Turkey insisting it has a right to share in the region’s hydrocarbons boom.

Turkish vice president Fuat Oktay said the ship’s deployment was a declaration of intent. “We are tearing up maps in the eastern Mediterranean that were drawn up to imprison us on the mainland.”

Turkey has long claimed an area of the Mediterranean it names the Blue Homeland, stretching from Crete and Rhodes in the west to the Cypriot coast and extending south to the mid-point of the sea.

Early in June, it announced additions to that claim, staking out maritime zones stretching south of Cyprus. The Yavuz is operating in the south-east quadrant of the earlier Blue Homeland claim. Both claims are rejected by Cyprus, Greece and many signatory states of the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The convention, ratified by 168 nations, gives each state an economic exclusion zone (EEZ) stretching 200 miles from its coast. Turkey has not ratified the convention, conscious that the location of Cyprus and a string of Greek islands to the south would severely limit its exploration rights in the Mediterranean.

Its claims to territory coveted by Cyprus come on top of a second claim unveiled in November. Turkey and the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya—which has similarly not ratified the convention—staked-out new EEZ claims off their coasts that meet in the middle. Their joint claim acts as a barrier to a proposed Cypriot-Israeli pipeline that would carry gas to Greece and on to European markets.

Stoking tension

Turkey’s new sea claims have drawn the ire of Greece, which this month staged elaborate naval exercises in the Mediterranean. “We are prepared for any scenarios. Among them is military intervention,” says Greek defence minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos. Meanwhile, the EU has announced all three Turkish claims are incompatible with the Law of the Sea.

"We are prepared for any scenarios. Among them is military intervention" Panagiotopoulos, Greek government

The possibility of a military showdown over rival claims has been in the offing for months. In December, Turkish warships intercepted and chased away an Israeli ship working on a combined Israeli-Cypriot gas exploration project south of Cyprus.

Ankara’s boldness in the East Mediterranean comes as it also faces possible military confrontation with Egypt over control of Libya’s eastern oil fields. Turkish military support for the GNA has turned the tide in Libya’s civil war. Turkish air power broke a year-long siege of the Libyan capital by the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, pushing his army out of western Libya. 

Haftar’s forces have regrouped at Sirte—gateway to the Sirte Basin, home to two-thirds of Libyan oil production—with Turkish-backed forces vowing to capture the town.

But Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has threatened military intervention to hold Sirte, calling it a ‘red line’ and moving tanks to the border. He has been supported by French president Emmanuel Macron, who has accused Turkey of playing a “dangerous game” in Libya and said France “would not tolerate” Turkish domination there. 

Turkey, for its part, has accused Macron of “an abdication of reason”, insisting it has the right to give military support to the GNA.

Libyan licences

The GNA, grateful for Turkish military heft, has already granted TPAO seven oil and gas drilling licences, but neither party is saying where they are located nor whether they were approved by Libya’s National Oil Corporation as would usually be required.

Among those standing to lose from Turkey’s claims south of Cyprus are France’s Total and Italy’s Eni, both of which have existing exploration operations near territory where the Yavuz is now stationed.

It is unclear what will happen if Ankara strikes gas. Most countries have signed UNCLOS, which may limit which IOCs are willing to get involved and freeze out key markets. And defying international conventions can work both ways. While Libya and Turkey have no limitations to which parts the sea they can claim as their own, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel are free to ignore their claims.

This story was amended on Friday 26 June 2020 at 10.27 BST to reflect the arrival date of the Yavuz in the area where it is currently stationed.

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