Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean have been rising in recent years as regional countries’ hunt for oil and gas has provoked fierce competition.
Finding energy sources in the Mediterranean would be a step of crucial importance for Turkey, which is currently almost completely dependent on oil and natural gas imports.
“Turkey has set its main goal as independence in energy” Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Dönmez said on Wednesday , and Ankara has its eye on the potentially huge hydrocarbon reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean for this purpose.
However, Turkey faces stiff competition from its neighbours, who have differing ideas on how to share the hydrocarbon wealth. There is huge competition for energy resources around Cyprus in particular, and not only the countries in the region but also the international giant oil companies are involved in this competition.
The political division holding the Turkish and Greek communities in Cyprus apart add another layer to the controversy. Turkey is the only country to formally recognise the Turkish administration in Northern Cyprus, and strongly opposes Greek Cypriot exploitation of the island’s resources which it says are done at the Turkish Cypriot population’s expense.
Turkey, Greece and Southern Cyprus hold very different viewpoints on delineation of maritime jurisdiction zones. Turkey and Greece base theirs on the continental shelf, while Southern Cyprus’s claim is based on an EEZ.
Turkey says that islands do not generate full maritime zones when they are competing directly against continental landmasses, and argues that its own continental shelf therefore extends all the way to Egypt’s.
A number of the blocks claimed in Southern Cyprus’s EEZ have crossed its continental shelf. This explains the vast difference between Turkish claims (dark blue) and the Greek Cypriot claims (light blue in the diagram). The two sides are therefore unlikely to agree.
On October 18, Turkish survey vessel Barbaros started conducting oil and gas exploration in an area off western Cyprus that overlaps with the EEZ claimed by Southern Cyprus.
Turkey’s first deep-sea drilling ship, Fatih, set sail on Tuesday drilling for natural gas and oil 60 nautical miles off the Turkish coast in the Bay of Antalya.
Last week, the state-owned Turkish Petroleum (TPAO) acquired another drillship, Deepsea Metro-I, for $262 million.
These attempts to exploit hydrocarbons in the Mediterranean have been stoking tensions between Turkey, Greece and Southern Cyprus. A Greek warship, Nikiforos Fokas, was sent near Turkish survey vessel Barbaros by Athens on the grounds that Barbaros would be conducting seismic research on a segment of the Greek continental shelf.
According to Turkey, this Greek frigate attempted to harass Barbaros, however she was prevented from doing so by Turkish warships escorting survey vessel.
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar issued a strong statement after the incident warning that Turkey would tolerate no further harassment.
“We have (taken) all kinds of measures. I want everyone to know that we will not tolerate a fait accompli of any sort on this subject,” Akar added .
After claims of harassment, Ankara issued a navigational telex (NAVTEX) to announce it was reserving an area surrounding the Greek island of Kastelorizo in the Mediterranean on October 31, for a 4-hours search and rescue exercise. But, there has been no official response to Ankara’s move from Athens.
Both Barbaros and Fatih are conducting their activities in the protection of Turkish warships at the moment.
The Barbaros’ and Fatih’s deployments, however, bring to a head ongoing maritime jurisdiction disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Greek Cypriot administration has agreed the delimitation of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) with Egypt, Israel and Lebanon, and for years since has been awarding international oil and gas companies offshore exploration blocks within what it claims is its EEZ.
The negotiations over delineation of the EEZ between Greece and Egypt, too, are about to come to a close. Greek government sources claimed that Tsipras and Sisi may sign an agreement by the end of the year.
Turkey, meanwhile, signed a continental shelf delimitation agreement with Northern Cyprus on September 15, 2011, in response to Southern Cyprus’s offshore drilling activities near the south of the Island. TPAO has been conducting survey and drilling activities according to licences granted by Turkish and Northern Cyprus governments, but the other countries consider these to be illegal.
As rich hydrocarbon reserves are believed to lie under the sea floor near Cyprus, the island has become a hotspot for international companies. The Turkish Navy twice blocked the course of an exploration vessel leased by Italian energy firm Eni off Cyprus in February 2018, forcing it to divert its course despite protests from the European Union and the United States. However, it did not attempt to block the surveying vessel hired by ExxonMobil and escorted by the U.S. warship Donald Cook.
Charles Ellinas, CEO of the Nicosia and London-based EC Cyprus Natural Hydrocarbons Company Ltd, claimed that U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil is due to start drilling in November.
Although Turkey is determined to protect its interests and exploit nearby natural resources, it is an isolated country in the Mediterranean when it comes to its vision of maritime delineation. It may therefore experience run into new crises with other countries like Egypt and the United States as well as Greece and Southern Cyprus as it pursues a share of the hydrocarbon wealth in the region.