A showdown over natural gas and oil deposits in the seas off Cyprus is set to intensify, with Turkey announcing it is to send a drilling ship to the region days after the US energy company ExxonMobil dispatched its own survey vessels to the area.
As tensions flare over the potential spoils off the coast of the divided island, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has declared he will not tolerate the prospect of reserves being exploited by Greek Cypriots at a time when his country is engaged in conflicts elsewhere, not least against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.
Last month, Turkish warships were ordered to prevent drilling operations by ENI, an Italian energy company commissioned by Cyprus’s government, in what was seen as a brazen act of brinkmanship.
Turkey argues the self-proclaimed Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus should also be allowed to exploit the region, although others claim that areas designated for drilling fall under Ankara’s maritime jurisdiction or that of the Turkish Cypriots.
“Hopefully it has been instructive for some who saw an opportunity to act unilaterally when Turkey is engaged in anti-terrorism operations elsewhere,” Erdoğan said on Tuesday, adding that Ankara would be deploying its own newly acquired drillship to the waters off Cyprus imminently.
The sabre-rattling is causing growing concern. Optimism had mounted over the region’s potential as a gas-producing hub after geological surveys pointed to vast reserves around Cyprus. If unlocked, the resources could reshape energy geopolitics, transforming the region economically and lessening Europe’s – and Turkey’s – dependence on Russia for gas.
“Our approach is to keep calm and go on,” said a Cypriot government spokesman, Prodromos Prodromou. “We cannot accept Turkey interfering and creating problems in what, as underlined by the EU, is a sovereign right to exploit our natural wealth.”
As ExxonMobil’s two ships began work, Wess Mitchell, the US state department official in charge of American policy in Europe, visited Nicosia for talks.
But euphoria over an energy bonanza has run up against old enmities and the failure to reunite the island – divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded in response to a coup aimed at creating a union with Greece.
“We are heading for a full-blown crisis in the eastern Mediterranean,” said Hubert Faustmann, professor of political science at the University of Nicosia. “And that is because Turkey is determined not to allow exploitation of any resources without its consent and participation of Turkish Cypriots.”