Eastern Mediterranean countries are incrementally heading towards a crises as claims over energy heat up.
The geo-strategic importance of the eastern Mediterranean Sea is as high as it has ever been. The region is rife with competition and tension that has the potential to spill over into conflict. It also has the possibility to serve as the next flashpoint in the struggling US-Turkish relationship.
It does not take much thought to see why the region is ripe for geo-political confrontation.
Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Northern Cyprus and Cyprus all share maritime borders in the eastern Mediterranean. In some cases, these maritime borders are still disputed.
Competing claims over oil and gas deposits under the sea exacerbate an already tense situation in the region—especially around the island of Cyprus.
Due to the ongoing civil war in Syria, Russia has essentially militarised the eastern Mediterranean and uses the region to support its operations in support of Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad. Conversely, the US Navy also has a major presence in the region to support its counter–ISIS (Daesh) operations in Syria.
Of course, there is the situation on the island of Cyprus itself.
The Republic of Cyprus gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1960. A deterioration in the political situation on the island started in 1963 when Cypriot President Makarios III proposed constitutional changes that empowered the majority Greek-Cypriot community at the expense of the Turkish Cypriot minority.
The tension culminated in 1974 when the military junta in Athens backed the National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters, or EOKA, a Greek Cypriot paramilitary organisation, in a coup against Makarios III. The result of this coup was a radical and ultra-nationalists leader installed, with the goal of uniting the island of Cyprus with Greece.
In response to this Turkey sent a military force to protect the Turkish Cypriot community in northern Cyprus. In 1982 the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus unilaterally declared independence, but today is only recognised by Turkey.
A fragile peace remains on the island as the two sides remain divided by a UN buffer zone. Talks to resolve the island’s division have stalled and it does not seem likely that a solution will be found anytime soon.
Complicating the matters even more, large deposits of oil and gas have been discovered under the waters off the coast of Cyprus. Predictably, this has led to a new round of regional tensions.
When it comes to energy, Turkey has become a regional leader and is quickly becoming a major oil and gas hub for Europe. Major oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian region transit Turkey to the rest of the world. Thousands of oil tankers carrying nearly 3 million barrels of oil pass through the Bosphorus every year.
Turkey’s dominance as an energy hub will become solidified once the Southern Gas Corridor project comes into fruition. So it should be no surprise that Ankara is keen to get involved with energy production in the eastern Mediterranean.
Herein is where the problem lies. Turkey believes that the Turkish Cypriot community deserves a fair share of the recently discovered resources and that the Greek Cypriot government lacks any legal authority over affairs pertaining to the entire island.
Conversely, The Republic of Cyprus argues that as member of the United Nations and European Union they enjoy full authority to claim the resources and issues licenses for international companies to exploit the energy.
It does not take much imagination to see how this situation can quickly boil over.
The issue of energy exploitation could also become the latest flashpoint in US-Turkish relations. With relations already at an all-time low, it would be in the interests of both sides to avoid this.
Earlier this year Italian state-owned energy company ENI had to abandon a scheduled drill south of Cyprus allegedly due to the presence of the Turkish Navy.
After this incident, there were rumours that the US Navy deployed assets to the region to protect ExxonMobil survey ships, although this claim has been denied by US authorities. Thankfully, when ExxonMobil survey ships operated off the coast of Cyprus earlier this year there was no incident. But this autumn ExxonMobil is expected to start drilling for the first time and it remains to be seen how, or if, this will impact the situation in the region.
The best way to lower tensions in the region would be for Cyprus and Turkey to get around a table and talk.
The Republic of Cyprus refuses to discuss any energy related issues until there is a comprehensive Cyprus settlement—but this is unrealistic considering the state of negotiations.
Earlier this year Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed a “joint committee for drilling activities.” Right now confidence building measures are needed from both sides and perhaps the issue of energy is the best place to start.
It is time for common sense and cooler heads to prevail over the eastern Mediterranean. There is too much at stake to risk a regional confrontation.
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