Turkey’s Big Energy Grab

Ankara is eyeing the gas reserves around Cyprus, causing yet more international tensions.

Turkey’s Yavuz drillship, seen from shore of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, is one of several operating in Cypriot waters, sparking a rebuke from the European Union.
Turkey’s Yavuz drillship, seen from shore of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, is one of several operating in Cypriot waters, sparking a rebuke from the European Union. Iakovos Hatzistavrou/AFP/Getty Images

The Strait of Hormuz isn’t the only waterway plagued with rising tensions, and Turkey’s purchase of Russian missiles isn’t Ankara’s only mischief-making of late. Rather, Turkey is escalating its conflict with Cyprus over undersea energy riches, sending warships and exploration vessels into disputed Mediterranean Sea waters in a bid to keep Cyprus from developing natural gas discoveries.

In the last two months, Turkey dispatched several drilling and exploration ships into the waters around Cyprus, searching for gas discoveries of its own in areas that are claimed by Nicosia. The drillships have been escorted by a growing flotilla of Turkish naval vessels, submarines, drones, and patrol craft. Turkey’s posture prompted a stern rebuke from the Greek Cypriot southern half of the divided island, as well as the European Union, which called Ankara’s actions “illegal” and last week levied symbolic financial penalties on Turkey.

Turkey’s aggressive behavior, which comes as the country is in a worsening showdown with NATO ally the United States over its purchase of Russian weapons, is hardly new. It’s the culmination of more than five years of steadily increasing harassment of companies and ships carrying out energy exploration around Cyprus, which first discovered a sizable natural gas field off its southern coast almost a decade ago and has been trying to make it pay ever since.

That back-and-forth among Turkey, Cyprus, and other countries around the Eastern Mediterranean tended to stay at a low simmer, since the energy projects were plagued with technical challenges and have taken years to develop.

But Turkey is ramping up the pressure, now that big oil companies are finding more and more gas around Cyprus—ExxonMobil made a big discovery earlier this year—and the divided island nation seems closer than ever to actually figuring out how to get the potentially valuable gas out of the ground and to market. Earlier this month, Cyprus and Egypt agreed to build a pipeline to take gas from the first big discovery to Egypt for eventual export.

And it’s coming at a time when Turkey seems to be moving away from the West, risking an outright breach with the United States, moving closer to Russia, and antagonizing nearly every one of its neighbors in the Eastern Mediterranean.

“The closer we get to a potential exploitation of offshore resources prior to a reconciliation between the two Cypriot communities, the bolder Turkey’s actions are going to be,” said Mona Sukkarieh of the Beirut-based Middle East Strategic Perspectives, a risk consultancy.

The Eastern Mediterranean is in the midst of an energy renaissance, with big gas discoveries off Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt, and prospects for more off the coast of Lebanon. Taken as a whole, the undersea gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean are sizable, have already had a big impact on Egypt’s energy security and economic stability, and helped clean up Israel’s electricity system. Provided booming local demand doesn’t gobble up all the gas that’s produced, the next big goal is to further develop the fields to be able to export natural gas, whether through a pipeline to Europe or by ship around the world.

And most of the region is on the same page. Earlier this year, Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, and others formed a gas forum to jointly develop the infrastructure needed to push the energy revolution forward; the grouping pointedly excluded Turkey, which hasn’t made any gas discoveries in waters of its own yet.

That dearth of energy riches is one reason Turkey is pressing ahead with its aggressive stance around Cyprus. Clinging to a novel interpretation of international law, one that is at odds with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Turkey argues that islands like Cyprus can’t claim exclusive economic rights in swathes of water off their coasts. Instead, argues Turkey, ownership of offshore waters should be determined by the continental shelf, meaning that those waters—and any hydrocarbons that might be discovered there—are mostly Turkish.

The first Turkish drilling ship was dispatched to disputed waters, about fifty miles off the western coast of Cyprus, well inside that country’s exclusive economic zone. “Half of this is Turkey staking their claim on the continental shelf, and sending a drillship there is their way to remind the world that they have a claim,” said Nikos Tsafos, an energy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Another drillship is operating on the other side of the island, under a concession supposedly granted by the breakaway Turkish Cypriot republic that has occupied the northern half of the divided island since Turkey’s invasion in 1974. Tsafos noted that in some areas, Greek Cyprus and Turkish Cyprus have issued “overlapping licenses” to oil companies to explore the same stretches of water. That’s why Turkey, brandishing a Turkish Cypriot license, last year chased away drill ships operating for Italy’s Eni oil and gas company, working under a license granted by the Greek Cypriots.

But more than the waters are in dispute. The continued division of Cyprus is still a major irritant in relations among Ankara, Nicosia, and Athens, especially after the breakdown of reunification talks in 2017. That acrimony has only gotten worse now that there are potential offshore riches to exploit—if a way can be found to divvy them up.

Ankara argues that any resources found around the island should be shared by Greek and Turkish Cypriots alike. Nicosia, the only internationally recognized government on the island, counters that it has the right to develop energy resources in its own territory and can talk about how to share them only after reunification. Cyprus earlier this month rejected out of hand a Turkish Cypriot proposal to cooperate on energy ventures now, saying reunification must be the priority.

Turkey’s recent aggressive behavior is in part a reflection of concern that the closer Cyprus gets to successfully developing energy resources, the stronger a hand it will have whenever reunification talks do resume.

“Reaching a stage where the exploitation of offshore resources is possible would give Greek Cypriots notable leverage at the negotiation table, and less incentive to make the sacrifices needed to find a solution to the Cyprus dispute,” Sukkarieh said.

“This is the advantage Turkey wants to deny the Greek Cypriots, and Turkey has decided that Cyprus’s faits accomplis will be met with faits accomplis of its own.”

Turkey’s behavior isn’t helping calm tensions in the region at a time of rising confrontation between Iran and the United States, threats of another tanker war near the Persian Gulf, and the ongoing fallout from the Syrian civil war. Some regional experts, such as Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute, have highlighted the potential for Turkey’s actions toward gas exploration to embroil additional countries in conflict.

So far, Turkey hasn’t interfered with the really big discoveries well to the south of Cyprus, in waters that are not even remotely plausible for Turkey to claim. That gives some experts hope that Turkey’s actions won’t ultimately derail the region’s broader efforts to fully develop its gas resources, such as through pipelines between Israel and Egypt, or from Cypriot waters to Egyptian gas-export terminals.

“From the energy perspective, has gas development really been affected by Turkish behavior? The answer is probably not—so far,” Tsafos said.

“It fundamentally comes down to, how much does Turkey want to push this? Turkey is the one whose movements are determining the tempo of escalation, or not.”

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

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