Turkish Incursion in Cypriot Gas Fields: Provocation or Strategy?

Turkish Drillship Incursion in The Eastern Mediterranean

In 2019 and in the first half of 2020, Turkey has sent some drillships in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, in particular in the south of Cyprus, in order to look for new gas and oil fields without asking permission from Cyprus and the EU. The problem is that the area where Turkey has sent its drillships is an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Cyprus, an area which cannot be violated by another country and whose resources can be only exploited by the country to which it belongs. It is for this reason that the EU, especially Cyprus and Greece, has strongly condemned Ankara’s incursion. The situation is very complicated and, as well as the never-ending fight for energy resources and the different aims of involved countries, the decennial problem between Cyprus and Turkey has been brought back into the spotlight.

The Cypriot Question

During the centuries, the population of Cyprus has been composed both of Turkish and Greek ethnic groups, which have never got on well. After the independence of Cyprus from United Kingdom in 1960, the tension between these two ethnic groups increased until 1974, when a group of Greek nationalists, supported by Greek government, made a military coup to take definitive possession of the island. In response Turkey invaded Cyprus, and after few months of war between the Turkish army and Greek nationalists, the situation ended up in the creation of two separated zones, both with their own government; the northern side was controlled by Turkish Cypriots and the southern one by Greek Cypriots. In between these areas there is a buffer zone separating the two ethnic groups. Northern Cyprus is a self-proclaimed State, where it is controlled and recognized only by Ankara; due to this reason, the Turkish Government considers the huge gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean as also belonging to Turkey and, therefore, believes its actions are absolutely legitimate.

Ankara’s Aims

In order to understand the Turkish moves, it is necessary to understand the geopolitical objectives Ankara wants to pursue. Primarily, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to bring back Turkey to the significance and power it had during the Ottoman Empire, especially in the international scene. With the aim of creating a central role for Turkey in relation to Europe and western Asia, Erdogan wants to make his nation a huge energetic hub controlling a large part of oil and gas transported in the Mediterranean Sea. Controlling such a great amount of energy resources would consequently allow Turkey to have a huge influence over surrounding countries and also to considerably enrich itself. With this purpose, Ankara has obviously considered the Cypriot gas fields, located in an area so near to its territory, and sending the drillships can be interpreted both as a way to take information about the resources of the area and also as a provocation to Cyprus, Israel, and the EU. From the Turkish point of view, these countries want to cut off Ankara from this rich business by exploiting these resources through their companies already active in the area, like Total or Eni.

What Is EastMed?

The key to understand this geopolitical scene is EastMed, the project of the longest gas pipeline in the world which would bring gas from the huge Eastern Mediterranean gas fields directly to European Union countries. The pipeline should take gas from Cypriot and Israeli natural gas fields, located in the Eastern Mediterranean, an area considered to have one of the biggest unexploited gas fields in the planet, and bring it to the EU, passing through Cyprus, Greece and, finally, Southern Italy. This solution is strongly supported by the EU, given that it would allow European countries to become more independent from Russian gas and, consequently, it would reduce Russian power over Europe. In this context, Turkey is strongly opposing EastMed, aware of the fact that the presence of this huge gas pipeline could surely hinder Turkish aims to become the most important energetic hub of the Mediterranean area, as this new pipeline would promote the objectives of competitor countries and could possibly prevent Turkey from having a central role in the European chessboard in the long term. Further complicating this situation, there is the different position of the two superpowers, Russia and the USA. In fact, Russia is in line with Turkey’s point of view, aware that the presence of EastMed would inevitably compromise its influence over Europe, on the other hand, the US supports Cyprus and the EU, given that EastMed construction would damage both Russia and Turkey, which are both8 political rivals of the United States.

The Role of Libya

In this context, another element to take in consideration is the role of Turkey in Libya. In fact, Ankara decided to militarily support the leader of the Libyan GNA, Fayez Al-Sarraj, in the dispute against General Haftar. Behind this decision, as well as the intention of improving relations with Libya with the aim of accessing its oil, there is the precise purpose of hindering the EastMed project. By supporting Al-Sarraj, Erdogan has the aim of creating a huge Exclusive Economic Zone in the Mediterranean Sea between the South-West of Turkey and the North-East of Libya. The existence of this great united EEZ would considerably compromise the EastMed project, given that this zone between Libya and Turkey would be an area where the gas pipeline passes through and, consequently, it would hinder its construction and eventual functioning. 

Conclusion

To conclude, Turkey has serious and precise plans for its future strategy and is ready to put every measure it can in place in order to prevent other countries from impeding on its objectives or from realizing enriching infrastructures which do not include itself. By taking into consideration all these aspects, it is evident that sending those drillships in Cyprus’ EEZ has been mostly a provocation. However, this has to represent a clear warning about Turkey’s intentions to protect its interests and pursue its objectives, even if it means going against international institutions and violating previously concluded contracts. Finally, the EU response to this series of Ankara’s provocations has been too soft and quite irrelevant. In fact, so far, there have only been some formal condemnations without any practical consequence for Turkish actions. It is for this reason that the EU has to take a strong position in this situation in order to not passively endure Turkey’s provocations and to defend its interest in the Mediterranean Sea by completing the EastMed pipeline, allowing itself to take needed gas from mostly its territory and to become energetically independent from Russia. By pursuing these aims, EU would be able to make choices more freely and improve its position on the international scene.

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