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Beyond a Turkish-Greek problem

A Turkish oil and gas research ship is exploring off southern Cyprus in an area near the exploration rig operated by U.S. independent Noble Energy Inc., a Turkish foreign ministry official said, in a further escalation of a conflict over drilling rights. Turkish officials said Tuesday the research vessel Piri Reis started its search under military protection in the eastern Mediterranean.Earlier, Turkish Cypriot Prime Minister Irsen Kucuk said the ship had begun exploring, but he did not say exactly where.The departure of the Piri Reis on Friday came after Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots of northern Cyprus signed a deal to explore for oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean. The European Union opposed the deal, which came in response to a similar move by the internationally recognized Greek Cypriots.On Tuesday, the U.N. envoy for Cyprus, Alexander Downer, urged restraint to avoid derailing the ongoing peace talks between the Turkish north and the Greek Cypriot south. He said the United Nations would consider mediating the oil and gas dispute if both sides request it.

The current dispute between Turkey and Cyprus has more to do with Turkey’s greater strategic concerns in the eastern Mediterranean than with its relations with the Republic of Cyprus or with Greece in particular. It has little to do with Turkish-Greek relations which, at least for the Turkish government, hasn’t been considered a security concern for a long time.

First of all, Turkey was one of the fiercest and publicly vocal critiques of a March 2011 suggestion by the German MPs Josef Schlarmann and Frank Schaeffler, who told Germany’s Bild daily that the Greek state should sell stakes in all its assets to raise more cash; this was then rather bluntly made headlines in the Bild as “Sell your islands, you bankrupt Greeks – and the Acropolis too!“. Turkey’s Minister of Energy, Taner Yildiz had rejected the idea, claiming that it would mean “taking advantage of a neighbor in its difficult time”. Then, in August 2011, Turkey had postponed Greece’s 300 million-dollar natural gas purchase debt to Turkey “until Greece gains financial stability“. Again in August 2011, Turkish National Security Council, after a suggestion by some AKP officials had discussed and considered abolishing the Aegean command altogether, arguing Greece can no longer pose a security threat to Turkey in a time of such a deep financial crisis.

Rather than its relations with Greece, the Turkish navy had already been planning to redeploy its ships away from the Aegean into the eastern Mediterranean, based on two important events. First, the so-called flotilla crisis with Israel caused Turkey to act as a self-appointed “international naval police” of sorts to protect what it calls “freedom of navigation in international waters”.

Secondly, the Iranian navy started to sail in larger numbers into the Mediterranean since January 2011, a move which is seen as Iran’s expansion of its military power farther away from the Gulf region. Although Turkey has fairly good relations with Tehran, both sides understand that they have inherited about a half-millennium-old dormant conflict from the Ottoman-Safavid rivalry over the control of the Middle East; this fact has become even more apparent since the Arab Spring.

However, Turkey’s prior strategy of a naval buildup in the Eastern Mediterranean does have a Cyprus component. Sources close to the Turkish government indicate that the AKP leadership is growing increasingly frustrated by the lack of solution to the Cyprus problem and many of them feel the Christofias government is being intransigent in this matter.

Turkey’s current repositioning of its naval forces also challenges Cyprus’ territorial waters – the message is that the Republic of Cyprus shouldn’t start oil exploration or extraction activities before the island’s future is conclusively settled together with Turkey. To that end, the government announced that Turkish oil exploration ships will have navy escort, which raises the stakes and tests the Christofias government mettle to go on with its offshore oil policy without abolishing the unofficial trade embargo over the northern part of the island.

Meanwhile, the Turkish government wishes to bring the Cyprus government to the table to ensure such a revenue-sharing agreement is signed before the actual exploration and extraction starts.


(This post is an extended version of the author’s earlier comment published in Athens News)





Akin Unver
Akin Unver

Dr. Ünver is an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, Istanbul.

Previously he was the Ertegün Lecturer of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, Near Eastern Studies department - the only academic to retain this prestigious fellowship for two consecutive years. He conducted his joint post-doctoral studies at the University of Michigan’s Center for European Studies and the Center for the Middle East and North African Studies, where he authored several articles on Turkish politics, most notable of which is ”Turkey’s deep-state and the Ergenekon conundrum”, published by the Middle East Institute.

Born and raised in Ankara, Turkey, he graduated from T.E.D. Ankara College in 1999 and earned his B.A. in International Relations from Bilkent University (2003) and MSc in European Studies from the Middle East Technical University (2005). He received his PhD from the Department of Government, University of Essex, where his dissertation, ‘A comparative analysis of the discourses on the Kurdish question in the European Parliament, US Congress and Turkish National Assembly‘ has won the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) 2010 Malcolm H. Kerr Dissertation Award in Social Sciences.

Akın also assumed entry-level policy positions at the European Union Secretariat-General, Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Eurasian Center for Strategic Studies (ASAM) and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (D.C.), as well as teaching positions at the University of Essex (Theories of International Relations) and Sabancı University (Turkey and the Middle East).

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