While world attention has been focused on a Turkish-Israeli military showdown over aid flotillas to Gaza, a possibly even more dangerous dispute is unfolding between Turkey and Israel-allied Cyprus. Tensions between the two countries are at their highest level in years, as the Greek Cypriot government in the divided island’s southern half went ahead with plans to have Texas-based Noble Energy start offshore exploration for natural gas in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
As Noble moved its drilling rig last Thursday from Israeli waters, where it had also been exploring for natural gas, to Cyprus’ 800,000-acre Aphrodite field, located off its south-eastern coast, Turkish warships and aircraft shadowed the transfer. The Turks, however, stayed outside of Cyprus’ territorial waters and airspace and did not interfere with the American company’s operation.
Noble received an exploration license for the Aphrodite field from the Greek Cypriot regime, and test drilling was expected to start on Monday. The Aphrodite field borders Israeli waters where “massive gas fields” were discovered.
Turkey strongly opposes the Greek Cypriot exploration plan, ostensibly because it does not include, and therefore will not benefit, Turkish northern Cyprus. It has called on the Greek Cypriots to halt all exploration.
“We will be very cautious in this process; all of our steps will be taken as retaliation and [in response] to Greek Cypriot moves,” a Turkish foreign ministry official said.
Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 after a Greek Cypriot-mounted coup sought unification with Greece. The island had previously experienced inter-communal violence. As a result of the invasion, more than 180,000 Greek Cypriots were evicted from the island’s northern half, while 50,000 Turkish Cypriots were also forced from their homes. The island was then divided in two, and the UN patrols the boundary, called the “Blue Line,” that was established between the two communities.
In the Turkish northern zone, a seperate government was set up. Called the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC), it is only recognised by Turkey, which exercises control over it. Since 1974, Turkey has moved thousands of settlers into the island’s northern half.
The Greek Cypriot regime in the southern part of the island, with its capital in Nicosia, is the internationally recognised government. Called the Republic of Cyprus, it has a seat at the UN and was granted European Union (EU) membership in 2004. Since Turkey embarked on a confrontational course with Israel two years ago, Greek Cyprus and the Jewish state have drawn closer together. Greece, the other member of this new, eastern Mediterranean partnership, has said it “will throw its weight” behind Cyprus’ gas exploration project.
Last year, as an indication of Israel’s and Cyprus’ close co-operation, they signed an agreement delineating their economic zones for exploration purposes. According to one report, Israel has also offered Cyprus two modern warships and is rebuilding Cyprus’ only naval base after its near destruction by a munitions explosion. An Israeli company, Delek, a partner of Noble’s in exploring Israeli waters, also has an option to drill in the Aphrodite field.
In calling on the Greek Cypriot regime to halt exploration, Turkish officials did not engage in the kind of incendiary language their prime minister, Recep Erdogan, did last week on his so-called ‘Arab Spring’ tour of North Africa. At a meeting of the 22-member Arab League in Cairo, he said Israel “must pay a price for its crimes and aggression it has committed.” In Tunisia last Thursday, Erdogan continued his bellicose statements and issued Israel a warning.
“Israel cannot do whatever it wants in the eastern Mediterranean. They will see what our decisions will be on this subject. Our navy attack ships can be there at any moment,” he said.
Before leaving on his ‘Arab Spring’ tour, Erdogan grabbed the world’s attention by threatening to have Turkish warships escort the next aid flotilla to Gaza, challenging the Israeli blockade. The Turkish government, however, has refrained from a military challenge in the Cyprus dispute – so far. But a German newspaper reports that in an interview with the government-friendly Turkish newspaper Zaman, Turkey’s EU minister, Egemen Bagis, had earlier threatened military action to stop Cyprus’ exploration plans.
“It is for this that we have a navy,” said Bagis. “We have trained our soldiers for this; we have equipped a navy for this. All options are on the table; anything can happen.”
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