Trouble in Club Med

The showdown between Cyprus and Turkey is a reminder that energy can fuel tensions rather than lubricating better relations.

Colin Moss - Flickr
Colin Moss - Flickr

The increasingly shrill dispute between Turkey and Cyprus over access to offshore gas fields tidily illustrates that the global scramble for energy resources is raising regional tensions everywhere, particularly in the fractious Eastern Mediterranean, where energy is more an irritant than a balm for international relations.

What’s more, the fight between Ankara and Nicosia over who owns the subsea energy riches south of Cyprus sticks yet another burr under the extremely uncomfortable saddle of U.S.-Turkey relations, which are already strained by Turkey’s refusal to fully cooperate in the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State.

"Energy issues that come on top of existing political, diplomatic, and military issues can indeed exacerbate disputes," said Michael Leigh, the director of the Eastern Mediterranean energy project at the German Marshall Fund, who has studied the dispute.

The latest trouble all started at the end of September, when Eni, the Italian firm, and its Korean partner Kogas, got to drilling an exploratory well inside Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone. Previous explorations of the area suggest there could be 5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas tucked away under the sea. Successfully tapping that reserve is a big part of tiny Cyprus’s goal of one day supplying energy to Europe and Asia.

But Turkey, which backs a breakaway Turkish enclave on the island’s north, had other ideas. Last month, it dispatched its own exploration vessel, escorted by a pair of Turkish warships, to shadow the drilling operations.

Cypriot officials quickly denounced the move as a violation of their maritime domain almost akin to an invasion, and broke off talks to resolve the decades-old impasse regarding the island’s unification. The European Union said it had "serious concerns" with Turkey’s moves, and hinted that such aggression could dent Turkey’s hopes of one day joining the EU. Neighbors, including Greece and Egypt, joined forces in denouncing Turkey’s violation of Cypriot waters later in October. The Greek energy minister on Monday reiterated his country’s opposition to Turkish interference, calling Turkey’s actions "illegal and aggressive" at an event in Washington, D.C.

U.S. officials have also tsk-tsked Turkey and stressed Cyprus’s right to explore its own waters for energy, though without laying a full-court press on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Vice president Biden last week called the Cypriot president to express his concern over Turkish actions.

But despite all the international outrage, Turkey just doubled down. The Turkish National Security Council insisted on Friday, Oct. 31, that it would continue shadowing energy operations in Cypriot waters in order to "protect the interests" of the island’s Turkish section.

The State Department’s top energy official, Amos Hochstein, was in Cyprus Wednesday to discuss that country’s hopes of becoming a regional energy player, including the issue of Turkish intimidation of gas-drilling operations. He said the United States supports Cyprus’s right to explore for energy in its own waters, and said he hopes neighbors such as Turkey will use diplomacy, rather than force, to settle disputes over resources. Newfound energy wealth, he said, should offer a "window of opportunity" to resolve long-standing problems.

"If everybody would look at what’s in their interest, I think we would find there is far more common ground to reach" a breakthrough on the political impasse, Hochstein said.

Cyprus’s quest for energy, which began in earnest three years ago when U.S. firm Noble Energy drilled its first well in Cypriot waters, mirrors a broader race across the region to translate buried treasure into tangible wealth. Countries such as Israel and Lebanon have long been conspicuous among their peers for their lack of oil and gas resources; former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir famously complained that Moses led the Jews through the desert for 40 years only to lead them to the "one spot in the Middle East that has no oil." Now, they are rubbing their hands at the prospect of achieving energy independence and becoming big-time exporters.

And although billions in investment and tax revenue already accompany economically viable energy resources, many observers have high hopes that the new energy map can even help ease age-old animosities. Turkey, for example, needs new natural gas sources, while Israel is looking for customers, making for a seemingly natural partnership. Similarly, tapping abundant sources of natural gas south of Cyprus could bring prosperity to the entire island, not just the Greek-speaking southern half.

Indeed, Israel has reached notable deals to export natural gas to Egypt and Jordan — but those are also the only two neighbors with which Israel has peace treaties. (And even those two still have plenty of tensions, as Wednesday’s withdrawal of the Jordanian ambassador to Israel shows.)

But Turkey’s energy minister slammed the door on any sort of energy cooperation with Israel as long as the conflict in Gaza persists. As Turkey’s frigate-rattling shows, there’s little hope of an energy-fired détente in the Eastern Mediterranean any time soon, experts say.

"Energy cooperation can reinforce a political breakthrough in a long-standing dispute, but energy cooperation has never been the means to overcome deep political conflict," said the Marshall Fund’s Leigh.

"It’s really putting the cart before the horse to believe that this can happen when relations are as difficult as they are today between Israel and Turkey or between Cyprus and Turkey," he said.

If energy’s positive dividends in the region appear elusive, the negative effects of regional tussling could prove longer-lasting. The European Union’s warning to Ankara to respect the rights of EU states — including Cyprus — is a reminder of how far Turkey is from becoming one.

And just last week, Sen. Robert Menendez (D.-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, strongly urged Vice President Joe Biden to press the Turkey-Cyprus gas dispute when he visits Turkey later this month to talk about all the other issues Washington and Ankara disagree about.

"This continuing and dramatic escalation of events by Turkey requires an immediate response," Menendez wrote to Biden.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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