Turkey’s gas exploration moves off the coast of Cyprus unlikely to yield results

If Turkey continues its policies in the eastern Mediterranean, which is most likely to happen, Erdogan will find himself more isolated and Turkey’s economic crisis will intensify.
Sunday 12/05/2019
Turkish Navy vessels cross the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, March 9. (DHA via AP)
Turkish Navy vessels cross the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, March 9. (DHA via AP)

Turkey started yet another controversy by announcing it would explore for natural gas, 60km west of Cyprus’s Akamas Peninsula and 150km from the Turkish coastline — inside Cyprus’s economic zone and continental shelf.

The Turkish declaration was strongly criticised by the United States, the European Union, Greece, Cyprus, Russia, Egypt and others for violating the territorial waters of a sovereign state. The critical reactions only compounded Ankara’s challenges at home and abroad.

Recent Turkish moves came as the country faces serious economic difficulties. Since the end of last year, and for the first time in ten years, Turkey has been experiencing an economic recession, with an inflation rate of about 20% and skyrocketing food and medicine prices. The Turkish lira is under tremendous pressure but the biggest blow is the repayment in the next 12 months of about $18 billion in foreign currency loans.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to be betting on the natural gas riches of the eastern Mediterranean to overcome the economic crisis and to ensure he stays in power. He’s also apparently hoping that Turkey will become a hub for exporting natural gas to European markets.

What makes matters related to gas reserves of the eastern Mediterranean more complicated is that Turkey seems to be an undesirable partner in most of the regional cooperation frameworks in the sector.

In January, Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Jordan, Italy and the Palestinian Authority established the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum with the intention of creating an international organisation that respects the rights of its members to their natural resources in accordance with the principles of international law and strengthens their efforts to build the right infrastructure.

Ankara was not invited to participate in the forum because its activities in the region were seen to be destabilising. Ankara also rejects Cyprus’s claims over its maritime economic zone, arguing that parts of it were within the jurisdiction of Turkey or Turkish Cypriots.

Furthermore, it rejected agreements broached by Cyprus to define its maritime borders, including its agreements with Egypt and Israel, based on which the economic zones of those countries were determined in the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkish naval forces modified their rules of engagement in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey dispatched exploration ships to Cypriot territorial waters, accompanied by warships to protect them. Turkey has been harassing Cyprus’s exploration vessels and last year it intercepted Italian drilling vessels off Cyprus while its own ships were exploring for gas within Cypriot territorial waters without clear and internationally recognised legal grounds.

It is estimated that Turkey’s bid for natural gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean will not come to fruition in the short term.

US Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, and US Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, submitted a bill in the US Congress titled “Security and Partnership for the Eastern Mediterranean” with the view of lifting the arms embargo on Cyprus that’s been in place for decades. The measure suggests that political, military and economic circles in Washington are willing to further isolate Turkey if it goes ahead with the S-400 missile defence deal with Russia or if it continues following policies that hinder US interests in the region.

In addition, some countries — Iran and Qatar, for example — may increase instability in the region by supporting terrorist movements interested in disrupting gas exports from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe since that trade goes against their interests. It is easy to see the complexities involved in the strategic environment for the development and export of natural gas from the region.

Such moves increase the likelihood of military confrontation between eastern Mediterranean countries, especially considering the tendency of the Turks to use all possible means, including military options, to defend what they say are their legitimate “rights” to resource discoveries.

If Turkey continues its policies in the eastern Mediterranean, which is most likely to happen, Erdogan will find himself more isolated and Turkey’s economic crisis will intensify. On the other side, there will be a tendency towards closer cooperation between the other players in the region to achieve positive returns quickly and as a tool to deter Ankara.

This shows the importance of encouraging and promoting the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum as a vital grouping that serves the interests of the participating countries in accordance with the principles of international law and respect for international conventions.

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