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Why is Turkey increasing tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean?

On September 23, the drill ship SAIPEM 10000 — built in South Korea at the cost of $250 million and flying the flag of the Bahamas — arrived in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Cyprus to begin exploring for gas under a license awarded to an Italian-South Korean consortium, ENI-KOGAS. The Cyprus government hopes that additional discoveries over the next 18 months in its EEZ will be sufficient to make its plans to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant on the island, to condition gas for export, commercially viable, writes Michael Leigh.

The Turkish authorities declared that the drill ship violated Turkey’s area of maritime jurisdiction and sent the Corvette Bafra to monitor operations. Another Turkish warship, the Gelibolu, engaged in planned maneuvers south of Cyprus ostensibly to ensure maritime safety in the eastern Mediterranean. The Cyprus foreign minister, Ioannis Kasoulides, said that exploration would continue despite Turkey’s “potential harassment.”

On October 3, a Turkish NAVTEX (navigational warning) notified mariners that Turkey would conduct its own seismic surveys starting on October 20 in sea areas that encroach on Cyprus’s EEZ. The Cyprus president, Nicos Anastasiades, asked UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to persuade Turkey not to violate Cyprus’s EEZ. Anastasiades also announced that he would not participate in further talks with the Turkish Cypriot leader Derviş Eroğlu, aimed at ending the division of the island, as long as Turkish activities, which he deemed unlawful and threatening, continued offshore.

Why has Turkey escalated tensions at this moment, when the two Cypriot leaders have begun renewed, albeit wearisome, efforts to find a solution to the division of the island?

The simplest explanation, offered by observers close to the Turkish foreign ministry, is that Turkey is following its consistent policy of opposing explorations offshore pending such a solution. Others suggest that Turkey is seeking to move the offshore energy issue into the settlement talks, a step opposed by the Greek Cypriot side. Eroğlu may also wish to look tough in the run-up to the April 2015 leadership election in the northern part of the island.

But the broader geopolitical context may also be relevant. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may be signaling that Turkey remains a power to be reckoned with at a time when he is facing a number of serious setbacks. On Tuesday, a curfew was declared in six Turkish provinces following demonstrations against the government for inaction over the advance by fighters from the Islamic State (ISIS) on Kobane, just over the border in Syria. Twenty-three people are reported to have been killed during these demonstrations. There has been a further outpouring of refugees into Turkey as a result of fighting over Kobane. Erdoğan claimed that “ISIS and the PKK (The Kurdistan Workers’ Party) are the same for Turkey,” implying that Turkey would lose from the struggle along its border, whatever its outcome. His position on Turkish involvement in the Iraq-Syria conflict remains ambiguous despite a pledge from the new NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that the alliance would protect Turkey from any spillover of the conflict with fighters from the Islamic State.

Other developments this week may also have irked Ankara. The outgoing European Commission has just issued its annual report on Turkey’s progress toward fulfilling the conditions for eventual EU membership. While constructive in tone and recognised by the Turkish EU minister as objective, the report expresses serious concerns about attempts to ban social media in Turkey, limitations on press freedom, inadequate guarantees of minority rights, and the lack of independence of the judiciary, especially in its handling of allegations of corruption. As in the past, the Commission pointedly “urged Turkey to avoid any kind of threat or action directed against a member state, or source of friction or actions, which could damage good neighborly relations and the peaceful settlement of disputes.”

Ankara has chosen not to heed this advice and has ramped up its rhetoric, denouncing the Greek Cypriot side for suspending its participation in Cyprus settlement talks. Turkey also holds Cyprus responsible for blocking progress in several chapters of its EU membership talks. Greek Cypriot leaders have confirmed that offshore energy resources will benefit all Cypriots, but Turkey distrusts this commitment given the present stalemate in the settlement talks. The conservative European Peoples Party in the European Parliament and the U.S. Department of State have taken Turkey to task for escalating tensions. Although Cyprus may seem like a sideshow compared with the challenges in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine, the EU, the United States, and the UN should use their influence to prevent an escalation of this longstanding offshore dispute. Their goal should be to ensure that the offshore energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean benefit all the countries in the region, including Turkey, and that they do not become an additional source of conflict.

The German Marshall Fund of the US first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Takes series. Sir Michael Leigh leads GMF’s project on energy in the Eastern Mediterranean.

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