Cyprus: Yet another crisis on the horizon

Cyprus: Yet another crisis on the horizon

Last week’s meeting of Turkey’s National Security Council (MGK) dealt with the country’s important domestic and external issues and thus determined its policy priorities for the immediate future.

It made history for several reasons. It was the longest to date, lasting over 10 hours, and it was the first under President Tayyip Erdoğan and Professor Ahmet Davutoğlu as the head of a new government. Both are now occupying the country’s top positions at a particularly problematic period greatly influenced by the upheavals in Turkey’s immediate neighborhood. It is a period that needs skillful management and imaginative solutions.

Judging from the order of issues discussed at the MGK, the situation in Cyprus will be among the top priorities of the new government. Its placement as the third item in the order of national security priorities above the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) issue was highly significant. The phrasing was careful but full of meaning: “The developments in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean and primarily the issue of the areas of maritime rights were discussed. It was underlined that during the following period, all measures will be taken decisively for the protection of the rights and interests inside Turkey’s own continental shelf and in the sectors for which the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus gave Turkey permission as a guarantor country.”

With the exception of a few commentaries in this newspaper and elsewhere in the Turkish media, the latest news over Cyprus has not attracted much attention. 

But this is not so for the media and public opinion in Greece and the Republic of Cyprus (RoC). For them, by refusing to accept the sovereign rights of the RoC, and by sending a Turkish exploration vessel to inside its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), Turkey is fuelling a major crisis in the eastern Mediterranean.

The situation came to a peak last month when Turkey issued a maritime warning order (NAVTEXT) for the area and sent its seismic exploration vessel, the Barbaros, into Cyprus’s EEZ where the RoC has been conducting oil and gas searches. Israel’s Noble Energy is actively involved in the exploration work after agreements with the Cyprus government. The move resulted in Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades suspending his participation in the ongoing U.N. negotiations for a solution to the Cyprus issue and refusing to return until Ankara withdraws its presence. He also threatened to block any further efforts for Ankara to revive its own dialogue with the EU.

Last week the foreign ministers of Cyprus, Greece and Egypt met in Nicosia and agreed on close cooperation while warning Turkey to respect international law and the sovereign rights of Greek Cypriots in their EEZ. Even more significant would be the meeting between Anastasiades, Samaras and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo, due this Saturday (Nov. 8), when they will discuss the delineation of their countries’ EEZ.

The latest developments stirred the Greek American community, too.

Leading Greek Americans met with White House and State Department officials and asked them to intervene to reduce the tension in the eastern Med, citing Turkey as the main culprit. The Americans assured them that they would work for a de-escalation of the tension, they claimed, and that they supported the sovereign rights of the RoC over its EEZ.  U.S. Vice President Joe Biden telephoned Anastasiades to express his concern over renewed tension with Turkey.

The short and strong reference of the MGK’s statement shows that Ankara, too, is determined to follow a tough line. 

Both sides may have additional reasons for that. Anastasiades and Samaras are facing a tough domestic front with an ongoing economic crisis. In particular Samaras’ government may not survive in an early general election that might take place if the required parliamentary majority is not secured to elect the country’s next president in March. For Ankara, there are enough domestic and external challenges that may increase the pressure on the new government.

Biden is expected to visit Turkey later this month. Let’s hope that this may turn out to be a very useful visit for the sake of peace in our region.