The Story of Turkey’s Theft of Cyprus’ Gas
by Nikola Zukalová
By Nikola Zukalová - On 8 July 2019, the Turkish drilling ship, Yavuz, dropped anchor off the east coast of Cyprus’ Karpasia Peninsula—in search of natural resources. This despite the fact that the area falls within the Republic of Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), guaranteed by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as an area of state’s sovereignty over the use and exploration of natural resources below the sea level . Yavuz is the second drilling ship dispatched by Ankara to Cyprus’ EEZ over the past two months. The first, Fatih, has been working off the west coast of the EU island state since May, prompting Nicosia to issue arrest warrants on the crew for breaching its sovereign territory. Legally, the Republic of Cyprus retains full sovereignty over the entire island and its territorial waters (including the EEZ), despite Turkey’s 45-year occupation of the north (where it declared the still unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus [TRNC]). Ankara’s drilling in Cyprus’ EEZ violates international law. Despite the chorus of condemnation from the international community, Ankara seems determined to further increase tensions and further alienate its traditional allies in the EU and NATO through its theft of Cyprus’ resources.
Searching for Natural Resources Offshore Cyprus
The Eastern Mediterranean is believed to be rich in natural resources. Since its first gas discovery in 2011, Cyprus has been working to develop its offshore deposits to ensure economic profitability of the proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) onshore plant, which would turn it into a regional hydrocarbons hub. New gas reserves may also provide a diversification opportunity for the EU as it could supply southern Europe through the EastMed Pipeline; delivering gas from Cyprus and Israel to Greece and Italy. Since the 2011 Aphrodite Gas Field discovery by US Noble Energy, Cyprus has attracted the attention of major energy giants and it has awarded offshore exploration rights to companies such as Italy’s Eni, France’s Total and US ExxonMobil. Another significant discovery, estimated at 5-8 trillion cubic feet, was made in early 2019 by a Consortium of ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum. However, the search for gas around the island has repeatedly met with protests from Turkey, which claims part of Cyprus’ EEZ due to its illegal occupation.
Turkey’s Claims and Escalation
Turkey is the only state not recognising the Republic of Cyprus and it has repeatedly warned energy companies working with Nicosia to stop drilling around the island. In early 2018, Turkish warships blocked Eni’s drillship from entering Cyprus’ EEZ. Ankara claims that it needs to ‘protect’ Turkish Cypriots’ rights and justifies it by the 2011 exploration license granted to the state-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) by the self-proclaimed Turkish Cypriot government, which is recognised only by Turkey and has no legal authority over the island or its natural resources.
Following reports about ExxonMobil’s successful exploration in January/February 2019, Turkey sought to actively secure a share of Cyprus’ potential energy wealth and deployed a seismic research vessel, Barbaros, to Cyprus’ EEZ. On 28 March, the TRNC ‘government’ sent a letter through Turkey’s Permanent Representative to the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, claiming a ‘right’ to have a share in the hydrocarbon resources in Cyprus’ EEZ, arguing it would lead to a cooperation mechanism and interdependence between the two divided parts of the island, using the sensitive Cyprus issue for economic gains. However, for Nicosia, this would mean ceding sovereignty over its offshore natural resources and legitimising the Turkish occupation. It agrees that the natural resources should be shared by the entire island but only after the resolution of the Cyprus issue.
The situation escalated with the start of Fatih’s drilling operations in Cyprus’ western EEZ in early May and strong rhetoric from the Turkish authorities that earned them international condemnation. Speaking at NATO’s North Atlantic Council Mediterranean Dialogue in Ankara in May, Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said that he expected NATO’s support for Turkey in the dispute, adding that ‘[t]he legitimate rights of Turkey and the Northern Cypriot Turks over energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean are not open for argument.’ While Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, affirmed on 9 May that Turkey ‘will continue to take all kinds of necessary steps without hesitation’ to get its way. Indeed, Ankara has tried to enforce its own interpretation of international law and decided to continue the escalation by sending the second Turkish drilling ship reaching Cyprus on 8 July.
The Timing of Turkey’s Actions
Turkey has threatened — over exploration around Cyprus — in the past but moved into offensive-mode only recently. Ankara’s increased assertiveness in the Eastern Mediterranean stems from its fragile domestic political and economic situation. Turkey decided to reduce its dependence on energy imports to limit the negative impacts of the 2018 currency crisis on prices and new reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean would add an extra boost to its domestic initiatives. Moreover, the episode also provided an opportunity to divert attention away from the country’s domestic political issues and to flex muscles. The results of the March 2019 local elections confirmed the decreasing support for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in major cities. Nevertheless, the AKP maintained majority due to an alliance with the conservative Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which also contributed to the hardening of Turkey’s stances towards the West. Bullying Cyprus is a common manifestation of a hardened position in Ankara.
International Responses and the Changing Alliances in the Region
The episode provoked international outcry in support of Nicosia. EU officials denounced Ankara’s actions as ‘illegal’ and urged it to stop or face appropriate measures from EU28, suggesting the possibility of targeted sanctions. Options were discussed by the European Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) on 10 July. The same day, Council President, Donald Tusk, Tweeted that the body agreed and the EU will respond in full solidarity of its member state. However, the measures remain to be specified. Meanwhile, Turkey rejected the assertion that the drilling was illegal and countered that the EU was biased. It vowed to continue its activities in Cyprus’ EEZ. The arrival of the second Turkish drillship reinforced the wave of solidarity with Nicosia—officials from Athens, Cairo, Paris, Moscow to Washington urged Turkey to cease drilling in Cyprus’ EEZ. Washington, seeing that Turkey has become an unreliable partner that will soon face US sanctions over the purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems, began enhancing ties with others states in the region. A bipartisan bill — set to lift a 32-year-old arms embargo on Cyprus, while authorising military assistance to Cyprus and Greece and supporting their Eastern Mediterranean partnership with Israel — is waiting for US Congressional approval.
EGIC will continue to follow the developments in the Eastern Mediterranean as Turkey has shown no intention of easing tensions in and around Cyprus. What happens in Turkey will have resounding affects across the Middle East and Europe and understanding the origins of crises is vital for their deescalation.
15 July 2019
 See the coordinates and an illustrative map of Cyprus’s north and north-western outer limit of its EEZ submitted by Cyprus’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the UN Secretary General on 4 May 2019: https://www.un.org/Depts/los/LEGISLATIONANDTREATIES/PDFFILES/DEPOSIT/Cyprus_Deposit.pdf