Ankara threatened to send its navy yesterday (15 September) to intervene in a dispute involving oil and gas exploration around Cyprus, an EU member state whose northern territory is occupied by the Turkish military. EurActiv Turkey reports.
Ankara’s warning came after Cyprus President Demetris Christofias announced that a US firm, Noble Energy, would begin exploratory drilling to confirm deposits beneath the sea bed off Cyprus’ southern coast.
The Cypriot press reported that the drilling rig took place in the Republic of Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone, under the watchful eye of Turkey’s navy and air force.
According to a Cyprus Defence Ministry source, Turkish navy ships and planes watched from a distance as the rig was moved from Israeli offshore field Noa to Cyprus’ Aphrodite field.
The source clarified that the Turkish ships and planes did not violate Cyprus’ territorial waters or air space.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry released a statement yesterday saying it would defend the rights of the island’s northern part should Cyprus go ahead with the drilling, in what it described as “disputed waters”.
“It has been agreed that Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus will conclude a continental shelf delimitation agreement should the Greek Cypriot administration proceed with offshore drilling activities in the south of the island,” said Turkey’s Foreign Ministry.
Speaking yesterday, Turkey’s EU Minister Egemen Bağış said that 70% of the energy sources Europe needs are either in the north, south, or east of Turkey.
“If [Europe] thinks that it can reach these sources bypassing Turkey, it is mistaken. If they think they can take steps about energy in disputed waters of the Mediterranean as they please, they are mistaken,” Bağış is quoted by Cihan News Agency as saying.
Bağış had issued a similar warning earlier this month, saying that Turkey’s navy stood ready following Cyprus’ refusal to step back from exploration.
Turkey’s Mediterranean warships have played an increasingly visible role in Turkish diplomacy in recent days. On a visit to Tunis on 15 September, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned Israel about its activities in the eastern Mediterranean, saying Turkish warships could be on the spot at any moment.
His warning came as Israel withdrew its ambassador to Jordan over fears of violent demonstrations against its embassy in Amman.
A few days ago, Ankara said it was prepared to provide military naval escort to any future Gaza-bound aid mission, following an Israeli attack on a humanitarian aid flotilla to Palestine in which nine Turkish activists were killed in May 2010.
International relations expert Dr. Harry-Zachary George Tzimitras from İstanbul’s Bilgi University suggested that Turkey’s stance towards Cyprus’ exploration for oil and gas did not only result from economic concerns, but also from Turkey’s changed self-image and ambition to become the leading country in the region.
Speaking to EurActiv Turkey, Tzimitras argued that the Turkish government felt much stronger now, both at home and abroad, and argued that opposition to Israel in Europe was growing stronger. Against this background, he said that the timing of efforts by the Republic of Cyprus and Israel to strengthen cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean coincided with Ankara’s gravest warnings yet to the Jewish state.
Athens praised for being cautious
Tzimitras, meanwhile, welcomed Greece’s soothing attitude in the dispute. “Keeping in mind Greece’s special relationship with Cyprus, the Greek government had a mature attitude which did not endanger improvements in relations with Turkey,” he said.
“The current government respects the relations between Turkey and Greece more than the previous ones did. Greece also avoided putting its potential interests in the Aegean at stake,” he said.
Moreover, the government in the Republic of Cyprus is also “a crumbling one,” Tzimitras added. On 5 August, Christofias appointed a new government, led by economist Kikis Kazamias, charged with leading the island’s drive to avoid bankruptcy.
“Papandreou avoided bonding with such an unpopular government. Given the financial troubles present, Papandreou also does not want to have more on his plate,” Tzimitras explained.
Greek Cypriot daily Simerini reported that during a Greek cabinet meeting on the dispute, the government agreed not to intervene in the region unless “Cypriot territory were in danger”.