(September 30, 2011) Greece, Israel and Cyprus clash with Turkey over resource rights in the Mediterranean.
The Middle East has moved north, with the Mediterranean emerging as home to some of the world’s richest deposits of energy. And as in the Middle East, rights to resources will be settled less by law than by force, or by the threat of force.
Much of the conflict involves the island nation of Cyprus, situated in the eastern Mediterranean close to Turkey to the north, Israel to the south, and Greece, its cultural cousin, farther to the west. The 200-kilometre stretch of sea between Cyprus and Israel — believed to hold hundreds of billions of dollars worth of hydrocarbons — is now a checkerboard of prospective drilling sites that have begun to be exploited by Israeli, Cypriot and American oil and gas companies.
These companies and their three governments have no intractable conflicts with each other — in fact, they’re developing their resources in close co-operation. Neither does Greece, which stands to become a major European hub for these energy finds, and longs to develop resources of its own in Greek waters to the west of Cyprus. According to a study for Economist Conferences, a business unit of The Economist, Greece could eradicate its debt by exploiting its Mediterranean hydrocarbons.
The spoiler in the Greek-Cypriot-Israeli plans to exploit the Mediterranean is Turkey, which in the 1970s invaded and seized the northern part of Cyprus, which since the 1980s has threatened Greece, and which in recent years has become belligerent towards Israel.
Turkey disputes Cyprus’s rights to develop what’s known as its Exclusive Economic Zone — a designation under the United Nations Law of the Sea that grants offshore rights to signatories of up to 200 nautical miles. Turkey claims that the residents of what is now Northern Cyprus — officially the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a state no country but Turkey recognizes — are entitled to a share of the spoils of the waters off the south part of the island.
To further muddy the waters, Turkey is the only country in the world that doesn’t recognize the state of Cyprus, an EU member, and Turkey has not signed the Law of the Sea treaty. To demonstrate its seriousness, Turkey often characterizes Cyprus drilling in bellicose terms such as “provocation” and “madness,” deploys war ships and jet fighters to the area, and engages in retaliatory gas exploration off the south coast of Cyprus.
Turkey’s relations with Greece are no less complicated, or confrontational. Although Greece signed the Law of the Sea treaty almost three decades ago, and has been entitled to claim an Exclusive Economic Zone in the Mediterranean ever since, Turkey threatened war if it did so. As a result, an intimidated Greece — Turkey’s million-man army is the Middle East’s largest — has refrained from developing its offshore resources, which are believed to include major oil deposits as well as natural gas.
Turkey, meanwhile, has been exploring in Greek waters, and, to everyone’s surprise, claimed sovereignty over Gavdos, a tiny Greek island near the major Greek island of Crete and far from the Turkish mainland. Turkish possession of Gavdos, population 98, would transfer much of Greece’s Exclusive Economic Zone to Turkey.
Enter Israel, whose massive energy finds in its own Exclusive Economic Zone made it Greece’s answer to Turkish force. Greek leaders instantly recognized that Israel would want to export its gas to European markets through Greece, and that Israel’s military is strong enough to give Turkey pause. Quicker than they could say “Eureka!,” the Greeks and Israelis began defence talks, culminating in the deployment of a mutual defence pact in September.
The Greeks, meanwhile, have been sufficiently emboldened to announce that they will soon be establishing an Exclusive Economic Zone in the Mediterranean. Even without a formal Greek announcement, however, a de facto Exclusive Economic Zone is in place, as seen in Israel’s published map of a proposed Israel to Cyprus to Greece natural gas pipeline. This pipeline, which follows a route within delineated Greek and Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zones, will carry Israeli and Cypriot gas to Greece and then to markets in Italy and Germany.
Although terms of the Israeli-Greek mutual defence pact are not public, it would surely envisage protection for Cyprus, with whom they have an economic alliance. To underline this point, Israel this week reportedly sent low-flying jets and a helicopter over a Turkish ship exploring south Cypriot waters. For good measure, Israeli jets also flew over North Cyprus, despite warnings not to.
None of this sits well with Turkey. It is not only seeing its dominance over Greece and the eastern Mediterranean challenged but also its plans to control much of Europe’s natural gas supply — before the pipeline through Greece materialized, Turkey saw itself as a gas gateway through which Iranian and Central Asian gas would reach Europe, a position that would have given it leverage in its long-held desire to be accepted in the European Union. Turkish pride at being trumped by Greeks and Israelis is also at stake.
Will Turkey resort to force to obtain what it views as its right? Not likely, assuming an incident doesn’t spark an unintended war in the Middle East tinderbox. Last week, the European Parliament issued a press release condemning the Turkish government for its threats against Cyprus, and the previous week U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov warned Turkey to tone down its belligerence. To punctuate the message, Russia also sent two nuclear-powered submarines to the eastern Mediterranean as its way of tamping down Turkish aggression.
The Turks, for now, are at bay.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe.
This article first appeared in the Financial Post.
For a striking assessment of Greece’s offshore potential, click here.