The discovery of massive gas reserves off the coast of Cyprus threatens to destabilize the entire region.
The island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean has for centuries been the cat’s paw of foreign powers, including the United States. But now, with the discovery of vast deposits of natural gas, the tables have turned. The strategic balance of power has shifted and is a threat to stability in the region.
For the Crusaders, Cyprus was a place d’armes, guarding the route to the Holy Land, and for a hundred years it protected Venetian trade until the Ottomans conquered the island in 1571. For the British, who took control in 1878, it protected the sea route through the Suez Canal, and with the Cold War Cyprus took on a new significance.
In 1960, Cyprus became independent with a constitution that shared power between the Greek Cypriot majority and Turkish Cypriot minority. However, Britain retained two sovereign base areas, which, together with intelligence-monitoring facilities, were crucial in tracking Soviet missile launches and, now, in monitoring Iran. The Akrotiri air base plays a key role in freighting men and material in and out of Afghanistan and recently in support of operations in Libya. The two bases are the last vestiges of colonial rule, but the British Ministry of Defense has dismissed reports that the government is planning a downgrade.
In 1961, Cyprus became a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, and the Greek Cypriot president Archbishop Makarios sought the support of the Soviet bloc in pursuit of his ambition of enosis (union with Greece). In 1964, the prospect of war between the two NATO partners, Greece and Turkey, and the threat of Soviet intervention led to a new Cuba crisis. Washington’s conclusion that there was only one solution to the conflict: partition.
The division of the island was achieved in 1974, when an attempt by the Greek junta to overthrow Makarios was countered by Turkey’s invasion and the occupation of northern Cyprus, ostensibly to protect the Turkish Cypriot population. Despite a number of UN Security Council and European Parliament resolutions calling on Turkey to withdraw from the island, Turkey has refused to comply.
The architect of the present Turkish government’s foreign policy, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, has in his key work, Strategic Depth, explained why. “Even if there was not one single Muslim Turk over there, Turkey would have to maintain a Cyprus question. No country could possibly be indifferent to an island like this, placed in the heart of its vital space.”
This now leaves the U.S. on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, a key foreign policy objective is to secure Turkey’s membership of the European Union. On the other hand, it cannot fly in the face of public opinion and continue with its tacit support of the occupation of an EU member state. (Cyprus became a member in 2004.)
The balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean has been in Turkey’s favor, but the discovery of new resources off the coast of Cyprus has introduced a new factor into the equation. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are 122 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas in the Levant Basin between Cyprus and Israel. By comparison, all the EU countries combined hold 86.2 tcf.
Cyprus has delineated its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in agreements with Egypt,
Israel, and Lebanon, but Turkey has refused to acknowledge Cyprus’ right to exploit its own natural resources as long as the dispute over the island’s division is not resolved.
The latest round of talks, which began in 2008, shows no sign of success and will probably collapse before Cyprus becomes term president of the EU in July.
Cyprus accused Turkey of behaving “like the neighborhood bully” when, in 2008, Turkish warships harassed Norwegian exploration vessels off the southern coast of Cyprus, escalating the conflict. In December, Houston-based Noble Energy, which received a concession to explore for hydrocarbons in Block 12 of Cyprus’ EEZ, announced the discovery of between 5 to 8 tcf of natural gas. Now Cyprus has opened for a second round of licensing. Turkey has threatened to “take all necessary measures” to protect what it consider its rights and interests in the area. Cyprus has responded by forming a new alliance with Israel, which has found considerable reserves of natural gas in its adjacent field. This alliance not only includes the development of Cyprus as an energy hub in competition with Turkey but also security and defense.
In a recent interview in Time, U.S. President Barack Obama stated that he had forged a bond of trust with Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan. The question is whether this bond is sufficient to be able to exert pressure on Turkey and avert a looming conflict.
Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and European press.
Photo courtesy of Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts via Flickr.