Despite its bombast, Turkish leaders, however, did not carry through with their threats of force to halt exploration and have only engaged in intimidation tactics. A few days before Greek Cyprus announced the gas discovery, Turkish warships shelled the narrow strip of international waters separating the Greek Cypriot and Israeli natural gas fields. And when Noble Energy moved its drilling rig from Israeli waters into position off Cyprus’s south-eastern coast last September, Turkish naval vessels and warplanes wisely limited their actions to shadowing the transfer operation, keeping outside of Greek Cypriot waters and airspace. Turkey obviously knew anyone attacking an American oil rig would pay a heavy price courtesy of the US Mediterranean fleet.
This is also probably the reason why Turkey has been very quiet as of late concerning earlier threats to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza by having its warships escort the next convoy of aid ships. In such a case, Israel’s powerful military would be the one to call Turkey to account. If Turkey came out second best in such a confrontation, the Turkish government would wind up suffering a huge lost of face at a time it is trying to establish a leadership position in the Arab world by confronting Israel. So it has most likely decided it is better just to stick to empty rhetoric for the time being.
Turkey, however, did send its own exploration ship into Greek Cypriot waters, close to Israeli gas fields, after drilling began last September. But this move sparked an immediate military response. Two Israeli warplanes flew through Turkish Cypriot airspace and over the Turkish ship while an Israeli military helicopter hovered above it. Turkey sent two warplanes to shadow the Israeli planes.
By insisting that northern Cyprus’s Ankara-controlled government should be part of any Israeli-Greek Cypriot gas exploration deal, it is obvious an energy-poor Turkey wants a share of the wealth that lies beneath the Mediterranean in an area known as the Levant Basin. This geographical feature stretches from Egypt to Syria, encompassing Israeli and Greek Cypriot waters, and contains, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and unknown quantities of oil.
The Turkish government’s threat to escort aid convoys to Gaza is also said to be motivated in part by the $4 billion in gas reserves believed to be lying off Gaza’s shores. Besides increasing its prestige in the Islamic world, by challenging Israel and threatening to break the blockade with its warships, Turkey hopes to receive a share of those energy deposits from a grateful Palestinian government after statehood is declared.
But the Erdogan government’s hostility to the Cyprus-Israeli alliance consists of more than just a hunger for new energy sources. According to columnist Robert Ellis, Turkey also regards the eastern Mediterranean as “mare nostrum” (our sea) and sees Israel’s expanding influence there as a threat to its perceived predominance. A Turkish minister even said “that any project in this region requires Turkey’s approval.” But by proceeding with its gas exploration venture with Cyprus, Israel is not only defying the Turkish government’s claimed sphere of influence, it is also challenging Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman policy to re-establish Turkey as the major power in the Middle East. To what extent the Islamists in Ankara intend to take up Israel’s challenge remains to be seen.
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