Cyprus at the crossroads
What the Arab geographer al-Muqaddasi noted a thousand years ago still holds true today: “The island of Qubrus is in the power of whichever nation is overlord in these seas.” However, there seems to be some disagreement as to who is overlord.
Turkey considers the eastern Mediterranean as “mare nostrum” and Turkey’s Transport Minister Binali Yıldırım has made it clear that any project in this region requires Turkey’s approval. Nevertheless, the Republic of Cyprus (ROC) has exercised its sovereign right to exploit its offshore natural resources and has agreed with Lebanon, Egypt and Israel to delimit their respective exclusive economic zones (EEZ).
Despite widespread international support for the ROC, Turkey has sent a research vessel into Cypriot territorial waters escorted by Turkish warships. In September Turkey also concluded a continental shelf delimitation agreement with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a political entity only recognized by Turkey.
The Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yıldız has also announced that the Turkish Petroleum Corporation is ready to start drilling for oil and natural gas in Famagusta in northern Cyprus.
In September an American company, Noble Energy, began drilling in Block 12 (the Aphrodite field) of Cyprus’ EEZ. Last month Noble Energy announced the block would yield between 3 and 9 trillion cubic feet of gas with a 60 percent probability of success. Sixteen trillion cubic feet have been discovered in the adjacent Israeli block (Leviathan).
According to the U.S. Geological Survey there are 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas in the Levant Basin between Cyprus and Israel. By comparison all the EU countries combined hold 86.2 trillion cubic feet of gas.
In geopolitical terms this is a real game changer, and as one EU diplomat put it, “the most importance change to the geopolitical significance of this part of the world since the Suez Canal.”
ROC has now announced a second round of licensing, which opens up for an interesting strategic perspective. Cyprus was off the U.S.’ radar screen until the discovery of natural gas. Not any longer. There are now signs of a strategic alliance between three of the major protagonists in the region: Greece, Cyprus and Israel.
Greece has confirmed its long-standing defense pact with Cyprus and in the past year has upgraded its relations with Israel. Last month an official visit to Cyprus by Israeli President Shimon Peres was concluded by the signing of bilateral agreements. The Cypriot defense minister has also indicated that defense cooperation and security agreements are in the offing.
Relations between the two former allies, Turkey and Israel, have been bedeviled by the Mavi Marmara incident last year. In 2007 Turkish and Israeli officials held initial talks on constructing a 460 km oil and gas pipeline from Ceyhan to Haifa. But now Yıldız has said Turkey will not allow Israel to export natural gas to Europe through Turkey.
There is another major player, Russia, which has also had a long-standing alliance with Cyprus and has ruled out any recognition of a Turkish state in northern Cyprus.
The economy of Greek Cyprus is underpinned by Russian investment and a recent loan of 2.5 billion euros might save Cyprus from the embarrassment of an EU bailout. Russia is one of Turkey’s major trading partners and supplies Turkey with natural gas through the Blue Stream project.
Turkey’s role as a regional energy hub would be threatened by an alliance between Cyprus and Israel, but the open question is what action Turkey can and will take. In view of the deadlock in reunification talks, menfaat (mutual benefit) might act as a greater incentive to reach a solution. Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.