x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

As tensions simmer, is there big trouble ahead in the Med?

All signs point to it. Allison Good analyses

Not all is quiet on the eastern Mediterranean front. Turkey’s recent decision to acquire a landing platform dock may seem innocuous at face value, but it might be another sign that the conflict with Cyprus over the boundaries of Nicosia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) has taken on a more aggressive dimension. Escalation into armed conflict is unlikely at this point, but if a similar dispute between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan over hydrocarbon resources in the Caspian Sea is any indication, it has the potential to cause major damage.

When Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, it captured only a small part of the island before a ceasefire was enacted.

In 1983, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus declared its independence, but is not recognised by Greek Cyprus – or most of the international community – as a legitimate state.

When the Aphrodite natural gas reserve was discovered off Cyprus in 2011, the Turkish-Cypriot constituency, which claims most of Nicosia’s territorial waters as its own, immediately challenged the island’s rights to exploration and production in that area.

The issue of who owns offshore hydrocarbons has been a point of contention ever since, provoking both Turkey and Cyprus to flex their muscles.

 As Al-Monitor reported, the amphibious transport dock Turkey wants to buy is no routine piece of equipment. Coming with a price tag between $800 million and $1 billion, it can carry “a battalion-sized unit of 1,000 troops and personnel, eight utility helicopters, three unmanned aerial vehicles and 150 transport vehicles”.

Turkey has repeatedly made it clear it wishes to upgrade its maritime presence by building navy corvettes and purchasing coastal surveillance systems, marine patrol aircraft, and other bells and whistles. 

Greek Cyprus, meanwhile, decided in December to purchase two Israeli gunboats and two navy corvettes from France to protect the island’s EEZ. But Nicosia’s efforts to increase the size of its navy pale in comparison to the Turkish navy’s 14 submarines, 27 gunboats, and 75 aircraft.

The trajectory of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan over ownership of three fields in the Caspian Sea should serve as a warning to Turkey and Cyprus.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Baku and Asghabat have contested their maritime boundaries while developing undisputed areas of the Caspian seabed and turning immense profits. But instead of coming to an agreement on the disputed fields to increase exploitation efficiency, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan chose instead to engage in an arms race, using their hydrocarbon revenues to upgrade their military hardware.

Both have used their growing maritime presence against each other in reaction to perceived violations. WikiLeaks reveals two incidents in 2008 in which gunboats from Azerbaijan’s coastguard threatened international oil company ships working for Turkmenistan, and there are unconfirmed reports that in April 2013 Turkmen naval forces on the Caspian shot at and damaged Azerbaijan’s offshore oil refining infrastructure. These days, however, this simmering rivalry appears to be on track for reconciliation.

Unfortunately, Turkey and Cyprus are not due for a similar rapprochement any time soon. When Cyprus allowed Noble Energy to begin drilling off its southern shore in September 2011, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Greek Cyprus could not drill before a solution to the Cyprus problem had been reached, and threatened to deploy warships to the offshore zone.

The following month, Turkey sent a seismic research vessel – accompanied by gunboats – to the same area. Ankara also claims that Israel scrambled fighter jets to buzz the ship, and reacted by chasing them away.

In November last year, shortly after Cyprus announced the auctioning off of two offshore blocks located in an area that Turkey claims for its own continental shelf, a navigational telex issued by Turkey declared that three seismic research vessels would carry out surveys in the eastern Mediterranean. Nicosia denounced the planned action as an encroachment on its EEZ. 

On Monday, Nicosia said it would complain to the United Nations after a seismic vessel licensed by French oil giant Total was reportedly harassed by the Turkish navy while surveying for offshore oil and gas in the Greek Cypriot EEZ.

This is not to say that the Turkey-Cyprus row will escalate into armed conflict.

Rather, all signs point to past incidents as political posturing, particularly since Cyprus does not have enough funds to actually invest in a significant naval presence. Mr Erdogan would also be wise to prevent Turkey’s posturing from getting out of control.

Allison Good is a freelance journalist based in the US