2019 epitomised the cat-and-mouse game over hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean, with Ankara chipping away at Cyprus’ maritime sovereign rights and Nicosia losing the initiative, left to react to increasingly aggressive and assertive encroachments into its exclusive economic zone.
The year saw Turkey grow bolder and bolder, creating faits accomplis in the sea, whereas Cyprus fell back on citing international law and seeking to drum up support from its European allies, who did oblige, albeit half-heartedly.
In the space of two months – May to June – Ankara delivered a powerful hook and jab, sending Nicosia reeling.
The first blow came with the dispatching of the Turkish drillship, the Fatih, to waters west of Cyprus and not too far from the shoreline.
Responding with whatever means at its disposal, Cyprus issued arrest warrants for the crew of the Fatih and auxiliary vessels.
Unfazed, Turkey landed its jab in late June, when it sent a second drillship – the Yavuz – to the Karpas peninsula to the northeast of Cyprus.
The provocative actions prompted EU foreign ministers in mid-July to suspend negotiations on the Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement and agree not to hold the Association Council and further meetings of the EU-Turkey high-level dialogues for the time being.
In early August, Cyprus signed an agreement with Greece, Israel and the United States to enhance cooperation in energy, cyber and infrastructure security.
By late September, the Yavuz drillship completed operations off the Karpas. The vessel returned briefly to Turkey, but was back in Cypriot waters days later.
The drillship set course for an area inside Cyprus’ offshore block 7.
The move saw Turkey raise the stakes – it was the first time it was conducting exploration in an offshore block already licensed by Cyprus.
What’s more, the Yavuz is set to linger in block 7 until January 20, 2020 – at which time Turkey may simply extend the vessel’s stay by issuing a new marine advisory.
Only days earlier, on September 18, the government had awarded oil and gas exploration contracts on block 7 to a consortium of Total and ENI.
Turkey was thus demonstrating not only determination to throw its weight around, but its response time was becoming faster and faster.
Amid fractious US-Turkey relations over the F-35 jet and also Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, in early October US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Turkey not to engage in drilling activity that was “illegal” and “unacceptable”.
And by mid-November the EU finally got into gear, the bloc’s foreign ministers agreeing to slap economic sanctions on Turkey as a result of its illegal drilling operations off the coast of Cyprus, setting up the legal framework for travel bans and asset freezes.
A little earlier, on October 3, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu telegraphed that any potential agreement among eastern Mediterranean countries delineating their respective maritime zones, without including Ankara in the discussions, would be invalid.
He was alluding to Cyprus, Greece and Egypt, officials of which had recently met in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
The Turkish diplomatic machine duly took note of the meeting in the Big Apple, perhaps sensing a flanking manoeuvre from its Mediterranean neighbours.
By late November, Turkey neutralised any such move – if there ever was one – by striking an accord delimiting its maritime borders with Libya’s internationally recognised government.
The deal between Ankara and Tripoli carves out a slanting sea corridor of maritime boundaries at the closest points between Libya and Turkey, potentially clearing the way for oil and gas search there.
The pact also skirts the Greek island of Crete, which according to Turkey has no continental shelf.
Again, Nicosia and Athens were left denouncing the Turkish moves as illegitimate, with European leaders following suit.
Against this backdrop of hard power projection by Turkey, efforts to restart Cyprus reunification talks made little, if any, progress.
All in all, it would be no exaggeration to say that in 2019 Turkey checkmated Cyprus.