Stepping on the Gas toward a Cyprus Partition

Despite eastern Mediterranean states’ new readiness to talk and act tough, navies of the region are unlikely to clash any time soon over oil platforms, aid flotillas, maritime boundaries or exclusive economic zones. But newly assertive Turkey, Israel and Cyprus are making the region’s interlocking disputes more intractable, most notably setting back hopes of a reunification of the divided island of Cyprus.

The Israeli front, while tense, is less dangerous than it appears. Angered by the killing of eight Turks and a Turkish-American by Israeli commandos on the high seas last year, on a Turkish ship which originally aimed to break the Gaza blockade, Turkey has vowed to ensure “freedom of navigation.” It says its navy will protect any future aid flotillas to Gaza. But Ankara’s actions speak louder than words. Learning from the disastrous 2010 experience, it stopped its pro-Islamic charities from attempting to sail to Gaza again this year. Given Ankara’s focus on good relations with the U.S., it is hard to imagine that it will seek an armed clash with the Israelis, and Turkish officials have told Crisis Group they have no argument with Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zone or its exploitation of gas resources there.

Turkey has also revived a potential dispute with Greece about exactly where the Aegean ends and the Mediterranean begins, or, more specifically, where the maritime boundaries of these two countries might meet if and when there are talks on the subject. Turkey rejects apparent Greek arguments that the easternmost island of the Dodecanese – Meis, or Kastelorizo – give it a claim to a large share of the eastern Mediterranean. Indeed,Turkey, a rare non-signatory of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, believes the whole concept of Exclusive Economic Zones of up to 200 nautical miles is inappropriate to the east Mediterranean’s crowded neighbourhood. To make its disagreement clear,Ankarahas chartered a Norwegian seismic survey ship to look into the area southwest of Antalya.

This particular Turkish-Greek dispute is unlikely to lead to the near-wars seen in the Aegean Sea, most recently in 1996 and 1987. It will however undermine the past decade’s normalisation between Greeceand Turkeyand what are still positive-looking talks on resolving the Aegean dispute (see Crisis Group’s Time to Settle the Aegean Dispute). It will also stoke fears among Turkey’s neighbours that in recent months it has switched to an assertive and nationalist policy in the region, rather than its previous, much heralded “zero problem” approach.

The real long-term threat, however, arises from unilateral decisions by the Greek Cypriots, and by the Turkish Cypriots and the Turks, to define maritime boundaries and drill for oil and gas around Cyprus. Turkey is talking threateningly, fanning rumours of conflict in Greek Cypriot media. But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has publicly ruled out the use of force (even while condemning Greek Cypriot and Israeli “oil exploration madness”). Turkish officials also told Crisis Group that they have no claim to the Greek Cypriots “Block 12” south of the island (although they do contest a strip of Greek Cypriot-claimed continental shelf to the west of Cyprus).

Even if there is no open conflict, the decisions to start exploiting or prospecting for natural resources whose ownership is still under dispute is a slap in the face of the UN-facilitated reunification talks that restarted with great hopes in 2008. Mainly due to the great mistrust and lack of communication between the Greek Cypriots and Turkey (which does not participate directly in the talks, but has some 30,000 troops on the island), the glass is now said by one person close to the talks to be “three quarters empty”. Indeed, the readiness to start drilling unilaterally is yet more evidence that while two of the key players may be talking about reunification, they are in fact planning for separate futures.

The U.S.and the EU are so far supporting the Republic of Cyprus’s go-ahead to a U.S. company to drill into the apparently large gas field. Greek Cypriot authorities have also now usefully stated that they will ensure that Turkish Cypriots get a share of any income. However, as it now stands, the initiative is hardly sensible. First, it forces Turkish Cypriots further into Ankara’s embrace. Second, one of the rare points of agreement between both Cypriot communities is that the territorial waters should one day be a federal, joint competence. Third, without normalisation with Turkey and access to its large market, export of any gas found will need far more expensive pipelines or liquification plants.

On Cyprus, major studies have shown that the real economic prize for both sides is reunification, security for all and normalisation with Turkey. Crisis Group has long argued that if either side wants to take unilateral steps, they should be to build confidence and to open communications. Crisis Group set out several ideas for this in our June 2011 briefing (Six Steps to a Settlement), but since our January 2008 report (Reversing the Drift to Partition) we have also underlined how continued division carries a huge price in lost commercial opportunities, insecurity and social isolation.

Turkey, too, will suffer. As long as Cyprus remains divided, Turkey can never truly revive its stalled EU membership negotiations. As Turkey enjoys a wave of popularity in the Middle East, its leaders have turned their backs on Brussels. But only time will tell if the Middle East and its uncertainties are truly a good substitute for the EU – once the locomotive of Turkey’s reform (now lagging), the source of two thirds of its foreign direct investment, and its primary partner in commerce, cultural exchanges and tourism.

While all sides can survive the current choppy waters in the eastern Mediterranean, and most attention is focused on the Turkey-Israel spat, the divergent trends in Cyprus are the most likely to have a real long-term negative effect. If left unchecked, they will drive a wedge deeper between the two communities on Cyprus, between the EU and Turkey, and thus, in the long term, between Turkey and its hopes of being an open crossroads between Europe and the Middle East.

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