Calming eastern Mediterranean requires Cyprus solution

Solving the knotty Cyprus problem has become more distant and complex as more players have joined the race for energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean, yet a resolution for the divided island may be necessary to unlock the vast potential of the region’s gas reserves.

In July 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus following an Athens-backed Greek Cypriot coup. Turkish forces captured the northern third of the island, leading to an arrangement that still stands today: The Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, recognised only by Turkey, and the Republic of Cyprus, a European Union member, separated by a United Nations-controlled Green Line that runs through Europe’s last divided capital, Nicosia.

The discovery of the Tamar gas field off Israel in 2009 sparked a gas rush in the eastern Mediterranean. Two years later Cyprus made its own gas find, Aphrodite, and hope began to emerge that significant energy discoveries around the island might lead to reunification as both sides would be driven by the desire to cash in. Instead, both Greece and Greek Cypriots, and Turkey and Turkish Cypriots, felt their foe had more incentive to negotiate and neither gave much ground.

“Each side was hoping that the other side had a bigger incentive to come to a deal and in the end it’s actually gone in the opposite direction,” Fiona Mullen, director of the Cyprus-based consulting firm Sapienta Economics, told Ahval in a podcast. “We now have all of this blow-up in the eastern Mediterranean, which is partly related to the fact that the Cyprus problem still isn’t solved.”

Cyprus and Turkey have staked competing claims in the waters surrounding the island, reaching into the other’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Backed by Greece and the EU, Cyprus has handed out drilling licenses to a number of oil giants, while in the wake of a 2016 failed coup, Ankara embraced a more nationalist and aggressive foreign policy.

A year ago, the Cypriot, Egyptian, Greek, Israeli, Italian, Jordanian and Palestinian energy ministers agreed to set up the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMFG), a joint platform to oversee the emerging regional gas market. The deal excluded Turkey, although Greek officials said membership remained open to any country willing to behave.

The forum met again in July, with the United States joining, and earlier this month Greece, Israel and Cyprus committed to build a $15-billion pipeline that would link Israeli and Cypriot gas fields to Italy, via Greece.

But in November, Turkey signed a maritime borders deal with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) that largely ignores Greek territorial claims around its islands, including Rhodes and Crete.

The United States called the deal provocative, while Cyprus, Greece, Egypt and France described it as null and void. Crucially though, the Turkish territory claimed in the Libya deal blocks the route of the proposed pipeline taking eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe.

“The Greek Cypriot narrative has been this is going to make us really strong and stop Turkey from pushing us around, which has clearly not been the case,” said Mullen. “It seems to have provoked Turkey rather than anything else.”

Around Cyprus, Turkey has in the past two years blocked an Italian vessel from drilling, urged ExxonMobil not to drill in its own block, and sent at least four Turkish drill ships, accompanied by naval vessels, into areas claimed by Cyprus.



Cyprus and Greece have vowed now that they would block any resolution to the Libyan conflict that failed to cancel Turkey’s maritime deal. Mullen said the Turkey-GNA deal had left Cypriots on the outside looking in - pointing to the absence of any Cypriots, and of Greece, at Libya peace talks in Berlin this month - and potentially facing a Greek betrayal.  

“Greece’s priority is to get that Turkey-Libya maritime agreement cancelled,” Mullen said. “If they’re faced with the choice of getting that deal cancelled and don’t have to go to war for Crete, I think they’ll go for that, [even] if it means that they might have to hang the Cypriots out to dry.”

The EU also seems to have other priorities. Earlier this month, Turkey dispatched its fourth drillship to block 8 of Cyprus’ EEZ, an area for which Eni of Italy and Total of France paid Nicosia millions of euros for drilling rights. An editorial in the Cyprus Mail called it “another humiliation inflicted on the Cyprus Republic by Turkey”.

Competing blocks

The EU has said for weeks it is planning to sanction Turkey. It has yet to do so, likely because Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened to allow the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to flood Europe.

“Drilling in a block of an internationally recognised country, it should be going beyond the pale, but the EU doesn’t seem that willing to do much about it,” said Mullen. “You join the EU, you think the EU can protect you from Turkey. It turns out it can’t, or it certainly can’t protect your gas ambitions.”

Last week, Cypriot officials blocked new EU sanctions on Russia-annexed Crimea, in what many analysts viewed as an attempt to force the EU to sanction Turkey. Mullen said Greek Cypriots’ unwillingness to compromise - the Greek Cypriot side is widely blamed for the failure of a 2004 referendum and 2017 reunification talks - combined with Turkey sanctions demands, had begun to drive a wedge between Cyprus and its crucial ally, the EU.

“They’re losing a certain amount of goodwill,” said Mullen. “They’ve sort of backed themselves into a corner.”

Turkey has a sizable naval fleet, while Cyprus is without even a boat to take to sea and monitor what Turkey is doing. France is expected to dispatch an aircraft carrier into the eastern Mediterranean in the next few months, in a show of force and support.

This helps explain why Cyprus has gone in search of new friends. Saudi Arabia, Turkey’s geopolitical foe, recently declared its support of full Cyprus sovereignty, a move that Lehigh University international relations professor Henri Barkey wrote last week “may one day prove to have been the harbinger of a significant change in the strategic balance of the eastern Mediterranean”.

Makarios Drousiotis, former special assistant to President Nicos Anastasiades and author of several books about Cyprus, including “The Cyprus Crisis and the Cold War”, largely blamed Nicosia for the increasing tensions today. He argued that Cyprus had misunderstood Turkish policy, negated its own advantages and created the conditions for conflict.

“The backdrop to Turkey’s recent actions in the eastern Mediterranean is her publicly stated position that a broader anti-Turkish alliance is being created in order to encircle Turkey and cut it off from the region’s energy sources,” he wrote on Sunday in the Cyprus Mail. “People have been stopping me in the street and asking me, genuinely worried, if war is going to break out.”

The outlook has rarely looked so bleak. Yet Mullen said a forthcoming survey found the highest-ever support for a resolution among Greek Cypriots. “I think they realise that they just keep losing without a solution,” she said. “But unfortunately, at the political level, I think they’re really just risk-averse.”

This is why the April 26 Turkish Cypriot presidential election could be crucial. Turkish Cypriot President Mustafa Akinci appears to have lost favour with Ankara, and a new leader could inject new energy into talks - or push them even further into the distance.

“The Cyprus problem is becoming more painful for everyone,” said Mullen, pointing to the EU, Turkey, Israel, Greece and all Cypriots suffering as a result. 

“Greek Cypriots thought that they could be the great energy hub in the region,” she said. “It’s not impossible, but you can’t do it without solving the Cyprus problem.”

© Ahval English 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.
This block is broken or missing. You may be missing content or you might need to enable the original module.