Turkey has begun exploring for gas off the Cyprus coast in a move that is sharpening a dispute over resources and may threaten Turkey’s desire to join the EU as well as peace talks between the two countries.
The Turks say the exploration ship is being escorted by naval vessels.
Cyprus was divided by a Turkish 1974 invasion of the north. While the ethnic Greek south is internationally recognised, only Turkey recognises the Turkish Cypriot north. There is the constant worry that violence could flare up and ruin UN-sponsored peace talks, staggering on since 2008. So why is Turkey taking such a forceful approach now?
“Turkey can not just sit back and observe what is happening. We also have economic interests. We will use our right to search for oil in these waters,” says Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc.
The discovery of huge gas deposits in the waters of Cyprus saw the Turkish research ship Piri Reis put out from Izmir a few days ago. The vessel aims to explore further off the northern shore of the island, some 80 kilometres from where the Greek Cypriots are drilling.
This was Ankara’s response to a decision by the Nicosia government of Cyprus, which alone represents the divided island as a member of the European Union, to forage in the exclusive economic zone. This was established following a deal struck with Israel. The company in charge of the job is Texas-based Noble Energy.
Cyprus has been split since Turkey invaded in response to a short-lived coup by Greek Cypriots, and has stationed a permanent garrison there for more than 30 years.
Turkey opposes internationally recognised Cyprus exploiting the gas find in the absence of an agreed unification plan.
Israel made the discovery with the US firm, between its and Lebanon’s coasts and Cyprus, naming the undersea find ‘Leviathan’, after a Biblical sea monster. Noble started working on it earlier this month.
The question of who has the right to the gas is keenly disputed. The head of one of Noble’s Israeli partners, Delex Energy, explained the impact Leviathan could have: “It’s the largest natural gas off-shore discovery in the world in the last decades. And obviously, talking about the state of Israel it’s even more significant because that could be the foundation for an export project of natural gas from the state of Israel either to Europe or to Asia.”
Right now Cyprus and Israel’s relations with Turkey are bad. Turkey’s EU accession process is blocked over Cyprus. Ankara has said unless this is solved by the time Cyprus takes the rotating EU presidency next year, Turkey will stop dealing with the EU.
The gas find is economically and politically volatile in an already unstable region.