Can Natural Gas Put Cyprus Back Together Again?

As Cyprus ramps up its own energy exploration, and hopes prevail of an Israel-Turkey pipeline, there is growing optimism that natural gas will help finally unify the divided island.


The emerging energy boom in the eastern Mediterranean could be just what’s needed to finally reunify Cyprus after the island has spent more than 40 years bitterly divided between a Greek south and a Turkish north.

The discovery in recent years of natural gas fields in waters belonging to Egypt, Israel, and even Lebanon has galvanized the attention and investment of energy companies, including big ones from Europe and the United States. On Wednesday, Cyprus itself took a big step toward realizing its own energy promise, announcing that a spate of major-league players, including ExxonMobil of the United States, Total of France, and Eni of Italy, have bid to drill for gas off the southern coast of the divided island.

Cyprus’s latest effort to jump-start interest in its offshore resources — after several false starts and spats with Turkey as recently as 2014 over disputed waters where some of the natural gas is found — comes just as Turkey and Israel are mending fences after six years of antagonism.

That reconciliation is driven, in part, by Turkey’s desire to import Israeli natural gas, which would likely have to come via a pipeline that would almost certainly have to pass through Cypriot waters — and Nicosia has said it will block any pipeline if the island stays divided.

In other words, Ankara’s appetite for Israeli gas might just give it reason enough to back the reunification of Cyprus some 42 years after Turkish troops invaded and tore it asunder.

“Gas might provide an incentive to Turkey to support the process” of reunification, said Michael Leigh, a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Turkish officials have been all over the map with their public statements. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Tuesday, in his first comments after the coup attempt, that Turkey supports reunification talks. But he also called the current round of talks the “last chance” for Greek Cypriots to be flexible. Turkey’s ambassador to the EU, Selim Yenel, told Politico this week that the island’s reunification was not a prerequisite for Ankara to start importing gas from Israel, though energy experts believe it is.

A spokesman at the Turkish Embassy in Washington told Foreign Policy, “Turkey strongly believes that hydrocarbon resources in the Eastern Mediterranean should serve as a source of peace, cooperation and welfare for the region.” While the energy aspect is a new twist in the decades-old talks over the island’s future, he said that “we believe both Turkish and Greek Cypriots have equal and inherent rights to the resources.”

The Cypriot embassy did not respond to requests for comment. Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades has repeatedly said energy development in the eastern Mediterranean, including in Cyprus itself, could be a “catalyst” for peace, stability, and regional integration. But any export pipeline that passed through its waters on the way to Turkey would require a unified island, Cypriot officials have made clear.

In July 1974, Turkish troops invaded the northern part of the island and established a breakaway republic in the north that only Turkey recognizes. The Greek-speaking south is a member of the European Union and is internationally recognized. The divided island has, for decades, soured Turkey’s relations with fellow members of NATO, including Greece, as well as the EU and the United States.

Reunification talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriots have been ongoing for years, and both sides say 2016 represents perhaps the best chance to reach a deal to end the island’s artificial division. On Tuesday, the United Nations agreed to extend its peacekeeping force on the island, where it has been since 1964, for another six months.

Cyprus’s own possible energy resources could also act as a spur to reunify. The interest of major international firms like ExxonMobil and Total are a testament to the potential resources buried deep in the Mediterranean, and the discovery last year of a huge field off the coast of Egypt raised hopes of a similar find in Cypriot waters. That, in turn, has fueled the island’s dreams of turning itself into an energy hub and a regional exporter of natural gas.

But even if all the fields put out for tender this month are developed, the country is unlikely to be awash in gas, relatively speaking. Though estimates vary widely, the best available data on gas reserves estimate that Cyprus has about the same volume that Turkey consumes annually, or a bit more: 50-70 billion cubic meters.

“In a part of the world where we supersize every issue, it doesn’t surprise me that 50 [billion cubic meters] in Cyprus becomes a ‘major’ source of gas,” said Brenda Shaffer, a Mediterranean energy expert at Georgetown University.

Rather, she said, it is the Turkish desire to reduce its reliance on Russia for energy supplies, and especially Ankara’s hunger to start importing gas from its new friend Israel, that puts Cyprus in an advantageous position.

“The bargaining position of the south is better than most times, because there is Turkish interest in a pipeline and there is Turkish interest in showing that they are mending fences with everyone, so the timing is probably one of the best for Cyprus to” reach an accord on reunification, Shaffer said.

There are still loads of obstacles, though, energy promises notwithstanding. It’s not clear exactly where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stands on some thorny issues, Leigh said, where “Ankara’s green light is essential” to reach an agreement. That pertains to territorial questions arising from decades of division and especially the withdrawal of the estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Turkish troops still in Cyprus, he said.

And in the wake of this month’s failed coup attempt by elements of the Turkish army and Erdogan’s subsequent draconian crackdown on perceived enemies, it’s not clear if Turkish leaders even have the bandwidth to push forward a solution to the Cyprus question right now, Leigh said.

Photo credit: TOMS/Flicker

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

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