By Sir Michael Leigh
WHILE the world’s attention is focused on the conflict between fighters from the Islamic State and Kurds on the Turkish-Syrian border, a terrorist attack in Ottawa, and the Ebola outbreak, the eastern Mediterranean is going through a more low-key but worrying bout of energy-fuelled tensions.
An Italian-Korean consortium (ENI-KOGAS) began drilling for gas in sea areas to the south of Cyprus last month, having received a licence from the government of the Republic of Cyprus. Turkey responded by the dispatch of two warships and has begun its own seismic surveys in areas overlapping Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Its research vessel Barbaros, accompanied by a warship, entered the Cyprus EEZ and began prospecting about 40 nautical miles south of Limassol and Larnaca.
Israel and Cyprus launched joint military exercises nearby including aerial maneuvers by Israeli Air Force fighter jets in Cypriot airspace; Cypriot anti-aircraft technology was utilised.
Meanwhile, Russia conducted its own long-planned naval maneuvers to the east of Cyprus.
Turkey justifies its show of force by the argument that the Republic of Cyprus should not develop its offshore resources in the absence of a settlement of the 40-year dispute over the division of the island.
It also contests the right of Cyprus, as an island in an enclosed sea, to generate an exclusive economic zone on what Turkey claims to be its own continental shelf.
However both the United States and the European Union consider that Cyprus is within its rights under the Law of the Sea to establish an EEZ and to exploit the resources there.
In response to the intrusion of Turkish vessels into the Cyprus EEZ, the President of the Republic of Cyprus and leader of the Greek Cypriot community, Nicos Anastasiades, reacted sharply and suspended his participation in talks with the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, Derviş Eroğlu, aimed at reaching a comprehensive settlement of the problem of the division of the island. His government has also announced that it will block the extension of Turkey’s faltering EU membership talks into new policy areas.
EU leaders meeting at a summit in Brussels expressed “serious concern” and called on Turkey “to show restraint and to respect Cyprus’ sovereignty over its territorial sea and Cyprus’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone.” They stressed that it was important to establish a climate in which settlement talks could go ahead.
It did not have to be this way. The energy discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean could bring benefits to all the countries in the region, including Turkey.
Israeli and Turkish companies have held talks on the construction of a pipeline from the gas fields to Turkey, if political and commercial conditions permit.
Agreements have been signed to sell Israeli gas to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt. Cyprus, too, has signed energy cooperation agreements with Jordan and Egypt.
In the future, gas from Israel, and possibly Cyprus, could help overcome shortages in neighboring countries and, if sufficient quantities are available, be sold on to other markets in the region.
Lebanon has begun seismic surveys to determine the size of its energy reserves, which may also include oil. However, exploration has been delayed by administrative and political obstacles.
When Syria eventually emerges from its destructive sectarian conflict it, too, could begin to develop its offshore oil and gas potential.
Gas from the eastern Mediterranean could strengthen the energy security of all the countries in the region. There is scope for cooperation in trade and investment, environmental protection, offshore safety and, in the event of an accident, search and rescue.
These benefits could be lost, however, if long-standing conflicts are exacerbated by tensions over ownership of the resources.
Turkey’s decision to escalate existing disputes by the dispatch of warships seems calculated to torpedo the already difficult Cyprus settlement talks and its own problematic EU membership negotiations. Cyprus’s response, which was particularly harsh, will make a return to the negotiating table even more difficult.
The EU, the United States, the United Nations, the United Kingdom and, indeed, Russia should exercise their leverage with the parties to wind down tensions. This will reassure investors and give a chance for stalled diplomatic processes to address the underlying causes of conflict.
Michael Leigh is Senior Advisor to the German Marshall Fund of the United States since 2011. Dr. Leigh was Director-General DG Enlargement at the European Commission and Council of Ministers from 2006 to 2011 and as such served as chief European Union negotiator with candidate countries. From 2003 to 2006 he served as Deputy Director-General DG External Relations