Turkey’s top priority is to consolidate its presence and its claims in the East Med, and it is doing so methodically under a plan
By Charles Ellinas
2019 may become a defining year for Cyprus hydrocarbons. ExxonMobil, Eni and Total are planning to resume drilling at the end of 2019 to 2020. Aphrodite gas is about to be sold to Shell’s Idku liquefaction plant in Egypt, marking the beginning of gas exports by Cyprus. But getting there is becoming increasingly challenging. Turkey has sent its drilling ship Fatih in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) west of Paphos, threatening to drill, and will not back off.
The Cyprus’ government is taking all measures available to it to confront this and rightly so. Keeping Turkey’s action in the limelight and explaining its unreasonable demands and Cyprus’ rights to its EEZ to the rest of the world is very important. So is the drive to convince the European Commission (EC) to take proactive action, not just supportive words.
But words alone will not deter Turkey. Even limited action by the EC is not likely to deter Turkey. Given past experience, we should not be under any illusions about Turkey’s determination to pursue and realise its claims, however unreasonable these are.
This may also be driven by Turkey’s domestic politics. Given the state of the country’s economy, which if anything is becoming more precarious, and the turmoil caused by the recent mayoral elections, an assertive position in the East Med plays well with President Erdogan’s followers. The vote for Istanbul’s mayor will be on June 23.
But the longer this situation lasts, the greater the risks that Turkey will create a fait accompli and seek to create grounds for compromise – in other words pressure on Greece and Cyprus to cede to some of Turkey’s demands in the Mediterranean.
What are Turkey’s priorities?
Certainly not just drilling in Cyprus’ EEZ. There are press reports attributing delays in drilling due the lack of know-how and problems with the personnel of the drilling ship. These are missing the point.
Turkey’s top priority is to consolidate its presence and its claims in the East Med, and it is doing so methodically under a plan. The first stage involves creating ‘grey zones’ through the physical presence of its drilling ships. Zones where it disputes Greece’s and Cyprus’ rights based on disingenuous arguments, defying the commonly accepted international law and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) – which, in any case, it does not recognise.
The next step Turkey has taken is to publicise its claims, through a diplomatic campaign to convince the international community of its claims in the East Med, and then wait and listen to international reactions. So far these, even though highly critical of Turkey and supportive of Cyprus, are not strong enough to influence or deter Turkey from its plans. If anything, the balanced response by the UN, the response by the US calling Turkey’s actions provocative but asking “all parties to act with restraint”, the fact that the EC other than strong words is not taking – yet – any other action and the statements by British Minister of State for Europe Sir Alan Duncan about disputed areas, have emboldened Turkey.
Turkey has managed to create a case, even without proceeding with drilling. Just by being there, it is creating a new situation, casting doubts on Cyprus’ rights, ownership and control of its EEZ. The longer this is allowed to linger the more difficult it may become. Many in the international community see this as a dispute that needs to be resolved through negotiations between the two sides, rather than just Turkey violating Cyprus’ rights. As and when Turkey drives this to a crisis situation – at its chosen time – which is likely, effective international support may be found to be wanting.
In the meanwhile Turkey is escalating tension by combining this with a major naval exercise near Cyprus, involving over 130 ships. “Our aim in military exercises is to show that the Turkish Armed Forces are extremely determined, committed and capable of ensuring the security, sovereignty, independence, maritime rights and benefits of Turkey,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Sunday. “We take all necessary measures to protect the rights and the law of our country in the Aegean, the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus.”
This is hardly the sign of a country prepared to exercise restraint. It is also increasing risk in a volatile region, which surely must be alarming the EU, the US and Nato.
Turkey’s aim is to create grey zones and use these to ‘turn the negotiating table’ in a bid to push Greece and Cyprus to compromise on the EEZ – and probably all other outstanding – issues, under its own terms and its own chosen time.
Regarding the eventuality that Fatih will proceed with drilling, and press statements that it has problems, it should be noted that Turkey never makes hasty moves. With the arrival of the second drilling ship ‘Yavuz’, Turkey is expected to eventually proceed with drilling within the Cyprus EEZ. But Turkey will choose its time for maximum effect – probably just before mayoral elections in Istanbul.
However, timing may also depend on how far the reaction of major players such as US and France will go, and whether the EC will proceed with sanctions against Turkey.
Much hangs on this. The initial responses by the EC have sent strong messages. Donald Tusk said: “The EU stands united behind Cyprus and expects Turkey to respect the sovereign rights of EU member states,” followed by Frederica Mogherini who accused Turkey of engaging in an “illegal act”.
EC officials have indicated that the EU is ready to go further, with appropriate measures, presumably sanctions. Given the state of the Turkish economy, this would be more serious, even if initially dismissed by Turkey’s foreign minister Melvut Cavusoglu.
But first, the EU and international powers should increase pressure on Turkey not to drill and, if needed, further isolate Turkey.
Should this situation persist beyond June (to avoid clashing with elections in Istanbul), this must be the next step, while urging Turkey to pull back and rely on negotiations to find solutions. But will the EU act? The next European Council meeting on June 20-21 will be crucial.
So the way forward must be to continue political action, but also to push for a solution. This should not be just left on the hope that Turkey will see reason or that it will respond to international pressure.
Solution should be pursued on two fronts. First to address the issues related to exclusive economic zones based on international law, and separately to restart negotiations on the Cyprus problem.
The two are not linked and Cyprus must not be driven into dealing with this as a package. As I warned in earlier articles, even with a solution of the Cyprus problem, Turkey is very likely to carry on pursuing its continental shelf claims.
Turkey is not likely to negotiate directly with Cyprus on the exclusive economic zone issues. As this has wider implications, involving also Greece, Europe should take the lead. Together with Greece it should talk directly to Turkey to determine what needs to be done to diffuse the situation and seek – and arrive to a solution.
Once such a step is taken, separately, urgency must be given to the resumption of the Cyprus problem negotiations.
Allowing these problems to fester carries many and increasing risks for Cyprus.
Sadly though, it seems that restarting negotiations on the Cyprus problem – a key to a longer term resolution of the problems – is receding into an uncertain future.
Dr Charles Ellinas, @CharlesEllinas, is a senior fellow of the Global Energy Centre at the Atlantic Council