Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1381, (15 - 21 February 2018)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1381, (15 - 21 February 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Idle threats from Turkey

Sayed Abdel-Meguid reports on Turkish-triggered tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean


The discovery of the Zohr Natural Gas Field off the coast of Egypt has prompted a scramble in the Eastern Mediterranean as countries have begun to search for oil and gas deposits leading to fears that the area’s complex maritime borders could result in disputes that last for decades.

On 7 February, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid warned Turkey against any violation of the Maritime Border Demarcation Agreement that Egypt signed with Cyprus in 2013. Turkey recently declared its rejection of the agreement between Egypt and Cyprus that allows for exploration for gas in the area.

Turkey’s position has been slammed by Cairo as an infringement of Egypt’s economic rights in its Eastern Mediterranean Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) established by an Egyptian-Cypriot treaty in 2003.

The warning came in response to a statement by Turkish chief of staff Hulusi Akar in which he said that “the Turkish armed forces are determined to protect our country’s rightful interests, in accordance with international law and conventions in all our territorial waters,” which was interpreted in Cairo as a reference to the EEZ.

Ankara’s statement may well have been prompted by the discovery by Italy’s Eni and France’s Total of a promising natural gas field off Cyprus, 80 km from Zohr. Turkey has few oil and natural gas resources, while Cyprus has major offshore reserves.

Ankara, it appears, is attempting to use the northern part of the divided island, where it has maintained a military presence since it invaded and occupied it 40 years ago, as leverage in staking a claim to a share of these reserves.

On 6 February, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlat Cavusoglu told the Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini that his country considered the Demarcation Agreement between Egypt and Cyprus “null and void according to international law.”

“After thorough examination, we can clearly state that the agreement violates Turkey’s continental shelf,” he claimed.

Cavusoglu reiterated his government’s opposition to the agreement concluded between Cairo and Nicosia, which Ankara claims has no legal status in spite of the fact that it is consistent with international law and has been deposited with the UN as an international convention.

He accused the Greek Cypriots, who do not recognise the Republic in the north of the island, of “unilaterally engaging in oil and gas exploration activities in the disputed area.”

“No foreign country, company or even ship may undertake illegal scientific research or oil and gas exploration in the Turkish continental shelf and its associated maritime zones,” he said.

Quickly translating these Turkish statements into action, Turkish naval vessels intercepted a ship leased by the Italian-based Eni company, preventing it from reaching its destination in Cypriot waters east of Larnaca. The Turkish navy cited “naval manoeuvres” as a pretext. Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides registered his country’s anger at this “irresponsible” step with the EU.

The government of the Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised by no other capital apart from Ankara, responded that it would not hesitate to respond in kind, in coordination with “the sisterly Turkish Republic,” to the attempts on the part of “Greek Cyprus” to drill for oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean.

As “co-owner” of the divided island, Northern Cyprus had “inalienable rights to the natural resources in the vicinity,” a senior Northern Cypriot official said.

Observers may think they are seeing the signs of another war being cooked up by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. However, this is unlikely even if the current tensions bring to mind a similar incident several years ago.

In November 2014, commander of the Turkish naval forces Bulent Bostanoglu told reporters during the “Blue Whale” naval manoeuvres that he had been ordered to implement new rules of engagement in the Eastern Mediterranean if Turkish vessels encountered Greek, Egyptian or Israeli ships.

This, in military jargon, meant a readiness to go to war over the hydrocarbon wealth in the area. Yet, the clamour from Ankara faded without incident, and the Greeks, Cypriots and Israelis eventually resumed their negotiations over oil and gas exploration. The talks became more intense a couple of summers ago when the extent of the wealth became clearer.

Although threats resounded again from Ankara as warships set off from the naval base in Marmaris, the ships soon returned to port. Moreover, in spite of the fury of his invective, the Turkish president quickly shifted tack. He had other plans in mind, and he wanted to mend fences with Israel after a six-year freeze in Turkish-Israeli relations.  

Ankara has been working to up its support for Northern Cypriot President Mustafa Akıncı in order to sustain Ankara’s position should negotiations between Southern and Northern Cyprus succeed in unifying the island.

Ankara is determined to avoid losing the Cypriot Turks. But the feeling may not be reciprocated among the latter, considerable segments of which believe that Ankara stands in the way of unification with their Greek co-islanders and membership of the EU.

Meanwhile, the Turkish public is not very interested in what is happening above and below the Mediterranean. Their attention remains fixed on northern Syria, where attrition is the operable word and Turkish soldiers are dying at the rate of one to two a day in the early days of that Turkish campaign in Afrin.

As close as the Eastern Mediterranean may seem, Ankara’s rhetoric about “rules of engagement,” “situational awareness,” and the Turkish army’s power to wage battle on multiple fronts is essentially an idle threat, especially given the mounting gap between Turkey and its allies.

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