There was reason behind Turkey’s invasion in 1974 of northern Cyprus, an area largely inhabited by ethnic Turks. Turkey was reacting to a coup, masterminded by the then military junta in Greece, aimed at overturning the Cypriot government and substituting one favoring Enosis, or union with Greece.
But strong-arm tactics, no matter how justified, had fallen out of favor. Turkey eventually seized nearly 40 percent of the island, and set up the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), but the world has never accepted its legitimacy. It has been recognized by no international organization and no country other than Turkey itself. Despite many attempts over the years to re-unify Cyprus, a political accommodation has never been achieved. As for dislodging the illegal Turkey-backed regime by military force, that has never seemed a viable option. No nation or international body has been prepared to take on Turkey’s formidable military machine.
So for most of the past 45 years the issue has been one of those many unresolved political problems that the world seems content to view with a blind eye, like Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014. But the discovery around 2010 of vast reserves of liquefied natural gas (LNG) off the coasts of Israel and Cyprus was bound to bring equally vast consequences in its train.
Among the first, and perhaps the least anticipated, has been the creation of a new geopolitical entity in the eastern Mediterranean – a tripartite alliance of Greece, Cyprus and Israel that promises to bring both stability to the region, and the prospect of enormous technological, economic and environmental advances.
The next, and even more surprising development, was the foundation in January 2019 of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) by a consortium consisting of Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Energy ministers from each met in Cairo in July 2019 to discuss how to accelerate the development of the region’s vast gas resources and to increase cooperation. The aim was to pave the way for a “sustainable regional gas market” by fostering regional energy cooperation.
Turkey is not a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and does not recognize the government of Cyprus, its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), its maritime border agreements with Egypt, Israel or Lebanon, or the licenses that Cyprus has awarded to foreign energy companies. Having positioned itself outside the international agreements, Turkey has been drilling for some years in waters internationally recognized as being part of Cyprus’s EEZ. Accordingly, it was not invited to participate in the new Forum.
The EU has repeatedly said it considers Turkey’s drilling offshore Cyprus as illegal and, together with the US, has warned Turkey to halt its operations. In July the EU suspended all EU-Turkey high-level dialogue, and asked the European Investment Bank to review its lending activities in Turkey. In November 2019 the EU imposed new sanctions on Turkey, saying they would be lifted as soon as Turkey ceased its unauthorized drilling operations.
Turkey is driven by a sort of illegal logic. Having seized and occupied northern Cyprus, it is now claiming a share in the vast oil and liquefied natural gas bonanza that has unexpectedly appeared off the coastline of its unrecognized Republic. It describes the areas in question as part of the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot EEZs. Turkey does, of course, have a Mediterranean coastline, but it runs to the north of Cyprus, while the gas reserves are in the so-called Energy Triangle south and east of the island.
On December 15 Turkey racked up tension in the region by sending a military drone to Cyprus to protect its two ships drilling for oil and gas. The drone flew from the southern coast of Turkey, landed in an air base in Turkish-occupied north Cyprus, and was immediately deployed on its first mission. Reacting to the immediate objections from the EU, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to close two key US bases on Turkish soil – Incirlik, from where American jets target Islamic State targets, and Kurecik, home to a NATO radar station.
In adopting an obviously aggressive stance, Erdogan is reacting to the US threat of sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles. He is also angry about recent votes in Congress recognizing the 1915 mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide. Erdogan is also making a pre-emptive strike against Washington’s plans to establish a security organization in the eastern Mediterranean based on the cooperation of countries like Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Jordan – a project reported to be discussed at the trilateral summit between Greece, Cyprus and Israel scheduled for December 19 and 20.
Meanwhile the vast potential of the oil and gas reserves in the Energy Triangle is beginning to be realized. Israel is to start pipeline exports to Egypt before the end of 2019, while Cyprus has also reached a provisional deal to pipe gas to Egypt from its Aphrodite field. A key infrastructure project in the region is the EastMed pipeline, planned for completion by 2025. With the political backing of Cyprus, Greece, Israel and Italy this ambitious 2100 km pipeline is designed to link the offshore gas resources of both Cyprus and Israel to Greece and Italy. Turkey’s frustration at being excluded from these highly lucrative enterprises is understandable, but it is not likely to win a share by way of a maverick effort directed against the combined will of the rest of the world.