Turkey fires up row over natural gas resources in eastern Mediterranean

The eastern Mediterranean contains an estimated 3.5 trillion cubic metres of natural gas and 1.7 billion barrels of oil.
Saturday 13/07/2019
Angering neighbours. Journalists walk next to the drilling ship Yavuz at the port of Dilovasi outside Istanbul, June 20. (AFP)
Angering neighbours. Journalists walk next to the drilling ship Yavuz at the port of Dilovasi outside Istanbul, June 20. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - The international row over vast natural gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean is heating up as Turkey muscles in on efforts by Cyprus to exploit rich hydrocarbon deposits off the coast of the divided island.

The Turkish ship Fatih started drilling last month 67km off Cyprus’s west coast. A second Turkish vessel, Yavuz, reached a target area off Karpas Peninsula on Cyprus’s east coast the second week of July. The two ships are accompanied by Turkish Navy frigates.

The European Union has backed its member, the internationally recognised republic in the Greek part of Cyprus, in condemning the Turkish moves. Cyprus said it would defend with all diplomatic and legal means its rights against Turkey’s encroachment in waters where the island claims exclusive economic rights.

Brussels threatened to impose sanctions against Turkey. Reuters reported that a draft list of sanctions includes measures to put high-level talks with Ankara and negotiations on an air transport agreement on hold, as well as freeze funding for Turkey next year. The United States, Israel and Egypt also expressed concern.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry rejected the criticism from Cyprus and the European Union, stating: “It has become clear that the European Union is incapable of taking on a role as an impartial mediator in negotiation processes regarding a resolution to the Cyprus problem.”

Ankara argues that efforts by Cyprus’s Greek republic to exploit the gas deposits violate Turkey’s rights in the area and those of the Turkish sector of the island. Cyprus has been divided between Greek and Turkish parts since 1974 when a coup in Nicosia aimed at uniting the island with Greece sparked a Turkish military invasion.

Turkey, which doesn’t recognise Cyprus as a state, said parts of the maritime region claimed as an exclusive economic zone by Nicosia off the island’s southern coast fall within its continental shelf. Turkish Cypriots claim areas in the east.

More broadly, the dispute is about Turkey’s concern that regional rivals want to exclude Ankara from an energy bonanza off its southern shores. The eastern Mediterranean contains an estimated 3.5 trillion cubic metres of natural gas and 1.7 billion barrels of oil.

The biggest gas fields have been detected off Israel, Egypt and Cyprus — countries that have been at odds with Turkey for years. One plan is to build a $7 billion pipeline through the Mediterranean to move gas to Europe, bypassing Turkey.

Progress by Cyprus to make money by selling liquefied natural gas (LNG) escalated the row, said Tareq Baconi, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

“Cyprus is closer to its goal of sending gas for re-export through Egypt’s LNG terminals,” Baconi said via e-mail. “This moves Cyprus closer to monetising its offshore gas reserves, which was not an entirely clear prospect in the past. Such a development is threatening to Turkey, as it heightens its fears that it, and Turkish Cypriots, are being marginalised from these gains.”

Turkish Vice-President Fuat Oktay said Ankara was determined to safeguard what it regards as its rights in the eastern Mediterranean.

“Those who move against the legitimate rights of Turkey or the Turkish Cyprus and discount Turkey in the region will not be able to reach their aims,” Oktay was quoted in Turkish news reports as saying.

Ankara is determined to use naval power in the dispute. Last year, Turkish warships forced a drillship of the Italian energy company Eni, which was working for Nicosia, to abandon exploration for gas in disputed waters off eastern Cyprus.

Zenonas Tziarras, a researcher at the PRIO Cyprus Centre in Nicosia, said Turkey was right in pointing out that the maritime areas where its ships are operating had not been delimited. However, Turkey was wrong in arguing that the rights of Ankara and of Turkish Cypriots were being violated, Tziarras said in an e-mail.

Cyprus “officially declared that natural resources belong to all Cypriots and that all Cypriots will benefit once the conflict is resolved,” Tziarras wrote. Nicosia has created a fund into which all gas revenues will flow.

Baconi said Cyprus defined its maritime borders in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which meant that “it has international support to pursue these goals. However, in the absence of a political resolution between Turkey and Cyprus, any activities that Cyprus carries out within its waters can be seized on by Turkey as a matter of dispute.”

Tziarras pointed out that Cyprus had invited Ankara to talk about the issue of maritime zones.

“Ankara has thus far disregarded Cyprus’s efforts and calls and decided instead to use coercive diplomacy. It is not willing to discuss with the Republic of Cyprus as it does not even recognise it,” he wrote. “No doubt, the solution should be dialogue.”

Years of international efforts to overcome the division on Cyprus have failed to produce a deal for reunification. In the absence of a negotiation process, relations between Ankara and Nicosia remain strained. EU support for Cyprus means that ties between Turkey and the bloc could be affected as well.

Threats of international measures are being shrugged off in Turkey.

“The EU can’t go beyond threats especially because it has its own problems, which can only be solved with Turkey’s help such as the potential risk of a new refugee influx,” Merve Sebnem Oruc, a columnist for the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper, wrote in May.