In October 2015, my analysis article titled “War in Syria today could spell war for Cyprus tomorrow” was published in the Cyprus Mail newspaper. In the article, I argued that the war in Syria was actually about control of the Eastern Mediterranean, where hydrocarbon reserves were recently discovered. I said the situation could give rise to a new Russian-led axis in the region which would test Turkey’s allegiances, and warned of proxy conflicts emerging in Cyprus between Turkish and Greek Cypriots.
Much has changed since then, but tensions over the Eastern Mediterranean’s offshore gas reserves remain. As regional players move to exploit those reserves, the threat of war returning to Cyprus is the closest it’s been since 1974, when a Greek-inspired coup triggered a Turkish military intervention that split the island into a Turkish Cypriot north and Greek Cypriot south.
Turkey has warned the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot administration not to act unilaterally until a satisfactory agreement is reached with the Turkish Cypriots in the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. As the co-owners of Cyprus, Turkish Cypriots should be equal partners in any deal made over the gas, Turkey argues. The Greek Cypriots, however, say the Turkish Cypriots will benefit from the profits made from the reserves only after a peace deal is agreed.
Despite Turkey’s warnings, the Greek Cypriots contracted Italian energy giant Eni, which in mid-February sent its Saipem 12000 drillship to the region to search for gas in Block 3 of the island’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In response, Turkey deployed its navy to intercept the drillship, saying it could not allow the ship to pass because of maneuvers taking place in the area. After a standoff lasting many days, Eni withdrew its ship and postponed its mission.
Following the incident, a statement made by the UN on February 14 said Secretary General Antonio Guterres “regrets that tensions over hydrocarbons exploration have escalated once again." The UN chief "recalls that the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot leaders in negotiations had previously agreed that natural resources in a unified Cyprus would lie within the competence of the future federal government," Guterres’ deputy spokesman Farhan Haq added.
This was a small victory for Turkey, especially when the spokesman underlined the UN Secretariat will not "take a position on the rights of member states under the treaties to which they are party or under general international law,” in reference to the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee, signed by Turkey, Greece, Britain and Cyprus. It was under the auspices of this treaty that Turkey exercised its right as a guarantor of peace in Cyprus and sent its troops to the island to overturn the Greek-led coup.
This is the same treaty the Greek Cypriots want to tear up under a new peace deal. UN-endorsed talks to reunite Cyprus as a bizonal federation collapsed last July precisely because of the Greek Cypriots’ refusal to accept Turkey as a guarantor, while the Turkish Cypriots insisted there could be no deal otherwise.
The collapse of the talks had a negative impact on morale on both sides, as the bizonal plan had long been hailed the last chance Cyprus had for peace. Nonetheless, Turkish Cypriots demonstrated their desire for reunification in parliamentary elections held in the north on January 7. Although the right-wing, pro-status quo National Unity Party (UBP) won the largest share of votes with 35.6 percent, the pro-reunification parties won enough seats to form a four-way coalition. Three weeks later, incumbent center-right Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades was re-elected in the south, indicating public support for the peace process, albeit with his hardline approach.
But, as has always been the case, the solution to the Cyprus problem also relies on external factors. Considering gas now plays a major role in negotiations, neighboring countries Israel, Egypt and Greece are increasingly interested in how the talks unfold. Having already started work on the Aphrodite reservoir in Block 12, the Greek Cypriot administration is currently in talks with Israel and Egypt on how to combine their resources to export gas directly to Europe via Greece, bypassing Turkey.
This would not only be a blow to Turkey’s ambition to become a regional energy hub, but also isolate the country and limit its hydrocarbon exploration rights to a narrow strip of sea along its southern coast. According to an agreement between the Greek Cypriot administration in Nicosia and Athens, Cyprus is able to link its EEZ with that of Greece thanks to the tiny Greek island of Kastellorizo, just two kilometers off Turkey’s southwestern coast. The agreement, which was made without consulting Turkey, sees the size of Turkey’s claimed EEZ west of Cyprus significantly reduced.
In February, while Turkish warships were blocking the Eni ship, Greece sent its own ships to the disputed Aegean islets of Imia/Kardak, provoking a confrontation with Turkey. Tensions between the two NATO neighbors have persisted since they almost went to war over the islets in 1996. The European Union weighed in after these incidents, with EU Council President Donald Tusk calling on Turkey to “terminate” its activities, without admonishing Greece.
To add, Egypt has also adopted an anti-Turkish stance, rejecting Ankara’s objection to a maritime demarcation agreement between Cairo and the Greek Cypriots. Meanwhile Israel, which in February secured a multi-billion dollar deal to export gas to Egypt, has suggested a decision on a proposed 2,000-kilometre undersea pipeline linking the Eastern Mediterranean directly to Greece could be made in 2019.
However, irrespective of the position of the regional players, experts have dismissed Eastern Mediterranean gas as uneconomical when compared to Russian gas, upon which both Turkey and the EU are heavily reliant. Experts have also said the proposed undersea pipeline is not feasible due to extreme depths and seismic activity in the region.
Even then, the failure to topple Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria has not only allowed Russia to remain in the warm waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, but expand its presence in the region. Greece and the Greek Cypriots are increasingly dependent on Russian money, and under President Abdel Fattah el Sisi, Egypt’s relationship with Russia has been improving as Moscow seeks a foothold in what under former leader Hosni Mubarak was once solely a Western playground.
Russia is also in a position to mediate in the event of a proxy conflict between Iran and Israel. So, for those in Europe hoping to diversify their gas imports away from Russia, it appears that they will still have to play by Russia’s rules, especially if they want easy shipping access to the strategically vital choke point that is the Suez Canal.
Where this leaves the people of Cyprus depends on how, or if, Turkey will fit into this new status quo. If the U.S. continues to support the PKK-linked YPG in northern Syria while EU members harbor suspects connected to a coup attempt in July 2016 to forcibly oust Turkey’s democratically elected government, Turkey may align itself with Russia. Then again, such a move wouldn’t be without its risks and possible concessions. But if the West acknowledges Turkey’s geo-strategic significance in breaking the Russian-led Eastern Mediterranean axis, Turkey may realign itself with the West.
Either way, conflict appears to be closer in Cyprus than peace, despite the sincere will of its people to achieve it. While Turkish and Greek Cypriots discuss reunification, the dispute between external players may end up splitting them further apart.