Storm clouds over the eastern Mediterranean

Jerusalem Post

Early this week, the US-based Noble Energy Company began exploratory drilling for offshore gas deposits off the coast of Cyprus. They did so with the agreement of the Nicosia authorities, in an area indisputably located within Cypriot territorial waters. Despite this, there was real concern that the drilling could face interference from Turkish navy ships on maneuvers in the area.

The explorations proceeded undisturbed. The Turkish ships observed procedures from a discreet distance. But Cyprus’s defiance of recent Turkish warnings against beginning the search for natural gas in this area is unlikely to be the last word on the matter.

Muscle-flexing in the eastern Mediterranean forms part of Ankara’s broader combined strategic and economic ambitions. Israel is part of the picture and is drawing closer to the Cypriots.

Turkey challenges the right of the Republic of Cyprus to drill for gas for as long as the island of Cyprus remains divided. Ankara argues that the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus should also benefit from natural gas discoveries. The northern Cyprus state was established unilaterally following a Turkish invasion in 1974. It is recognized only by Turkey.

Since the division of Cyprus is nowhere near resolution, compliance with the Turkish demand would prevent Nicosia from seeking to benefit from the potentially huge revenues that could derive from natural gas deposits in its territorial waters. Cypriot President Demetris Christofias has declared that gas revenues will be shared with the Turkish Cypriots, even in the absence of unification. This is unlikely to prove sufficient for Ankara.

Many observers believe that there is more to the Turkish stance than a mere brotherly concern for the north Cyprus enclave. Turkey is itself a major “energy bridge” for oil and gas transportation from the Middle East and Caspian Sea area to the lucrative markets of Europe. Unsurprisingly, it has no particular desire to see the emergence of competitors in the region.

To prevent the emergence of rivals, Turkey has been prepared so far to use verbal threats and dispatch ships to monitor drilling.

Their efforts at intimidation do not apply only to Cyprus. Israel is also currently engaged in drilling for gas in the Tamar field within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) agreed upon with Cyprus. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan was quoted last week as saying that “the Greek Cypriot administration and Israel are engaging in oil exploration madness in the Mediterranean.”

The joint Turkish adversary is having an effect on Cyprus’s relations with Israel. Amiram Barkat, a journalist for the financial daily Globes who has specialized in reporting on the gas findings in the eastern Mediterranean and their strategic and economic implications, recently published a major article (in Hebrew) on the relationship between the two nations. Barkat noted a number of agreements that have significantly tightened relations between Israel and Cyprus.

The first of these is the December 2010 agreement that set the boundaries of the two countries’ exclusive economic zones in the Mediterranean.

This agreement has been presented to the UN.

But Barkat also pointed to a potentially more far-reaching agreement, not yet signed, for cooperation in “Search and Rescue” activities. This could open the way for Israeli naval and air activity in the Cyprus area.

Implementation of such an agreement could constitute the first steps in a strategic alliance between Cyprus and Israel. This in turn would raise the question of Israel’s response in the event of a Turkish act of military force against the Greek Cypriot republic. The Cypriots appear keen to have this agreement signed as soon as possible.

On the Israeli side, Barkat noted differences of opinion between the political and professional echelons. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has identified AKPled Turkey as irrevocably hostile to Israel, is in favor of the rapid development of closer relations with Cyprus.

Professional elements in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, are arguing for a more cautious policy. They believe that as they are now, Israeli-Turkish relations can still be repaired but that the conclusion of a strategic alliance with Cyprus would make this an impossibility.

The hope-springs-eternal optimism of foreign ministry officials notwithstanding, the weight of the evidence region-wide suggests that the entry of the Turks into the Mediterranean forms part of a larger pattern.

Ankara, which once prided itself on its “no problems with neighbors” foreign policy, now appears to see threats and belligerence as key items in its arsenal. Some observers suggest that Turkey has identified the upheavals of the Arab world as offering it an historic opportunity. The US-led regional alliance is in apparent disarray. Its Iranian opponents are beset by domestic uncertainty and widespread regional disgust at their support for the Assad dictatorship.

Turkey is hoping to step into the resultant vacuum. Tweaking the nose of the Jewish state at every available opportunity is thought to help win popularity among Arab publics.

The AKP is an Islamist party, and its leaders’ hatred for Israel is surely sincere. But they are currently in the pleasant situation whereby ideological conviction and assertive self-interest take them in the same direction – toward ever-deteriorating relations with Jerusalem. Cyprus is the context in which this process could become truly dangerous.

In the latest development, Turkey has signed a Continental Shelf agreement with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Ankara is set to begin its own explorations for gas within this area. The Turkish Piri Reiss and a Norwegian seismic ship are to commence exploration, accompanied by ships of the Turkish Navy. There are reports that Turkish F-16s will be stationed on Northern Cyprus to provide protection for this activity.

It is at the overlapping point between the two economic zones that the potential for friction will be at its highest.

Exhibiting the boundless confidence of a group of people convinced that their hour has come around at last, the AKP leaders of Turkey are sailing into confrontation with a list of long-demonized enemies. Israel is near the top of the list. Economic ambitions and rivalries are combining for Turkey with strategic goals and ideological visions. The storm clouds are gathering over the eastern Mediterranean.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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