Gas deposits fuel old and new rivalries

By Harry van Versendaal

Things have never been too tranquil in this corner of the Mediterranean, and the recent discovery of large deposits of gas beneath the waters off Israel and Cyprus hasn’t made things any easier.

You can almost hear the tectonic plates of regional politics shifting — and Nicosia’s recent decision to drill for hydrocarbons off the divided island’s southern coast has only accelerated the process.

Ankara’s once-hyped “zero-problems” policy with its neighbors these days sounds more like a bad joke as Turkey’s warnings for retaliation against Cyprus and Greece keep coming thick and fast. The dispute has meanwhile deepened Turkey’s rift with Israel, once a close economic and military partner.

Turkey, which does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus in the island’s south, opposes any drilling, insisting the profits from any discoveries must be distributed between the two communities on the island. But Ankara — which alone recognizes the breakaway state established in the north following the Turkish invasion of 1974 in response a Greek-backed military coup — will hardly find any support for its argument away from home.

“If we are talking from a strictly UN legal point of view, the arguments of an occupying country should not count much,” Burak Bekdil, a columnist for the Hurriyet Daily News, told Kathimerini English Edition.

Cyprus has signed an agreement with Egypt and Israel to delineate exclusive economic zones so that the neighboring states can exploit any hydrocarbon deposits within their boundaries. Block 12, the area said to contain the reserves, lies within Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone.

“Even according to Turkey’s logic, there is absolutely no legal basis [for opposing the drilling],” political analyst Stavros Lygeros said.

Noble Energy, a Texas-based company, launched the drilling work this week. Turkey responded with a warning that unless Cyprus halted the project, it would send warships to protect its claims to undersea resources in the area. This was the latest in a series of rough-edged statements that have gone as far as to suggest that Turkey will resort to military action to defend its cause.

Most analysts have downplayed the Turkish warnings as formulaic chest-thumping designed to scare off potential foreign investors (in a not-so-well-disguised attempt at blackmail, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday threatened to blacklist any international oil and gas firms that chose to work on the new Cypriot project) and prop up its image as top dog in the region.

“Turkey will try more to maintain an assertive posture for domestic consumption rather than really try to block the drilling. Physically, harassment may be possible, but intervention with the aim of prevention is not,” Bekdil said.

“I would rather expect a lot of retaliatory moves from Ankara which, in a way, would be a sign of its inability to block the Cypriot drilling,” he added.

After signing a continental shelf pact with the breakaway state so as to conduct drills of its own earlier this week, Turkey on Thursday announced that Piri Reis, a research ship, would leave for gas exploration off Cyprus on Friday. But a senior US official who wished to remain anonymous told Kathimerini that Erdogan assured US President Barack Obama that Ankara has no intention of escalating the situation further.

Hugh Pope, an Istanbul-based expert with the International Crisis Group think tank, also doubts that the tiff will escalate into an actual clash.

“You will observe that Turkey is making its point with military support for its activities in what are effectively Turkish-Cypriot waters — that is, a place where the Turkish armed forces have worked unimpeded for 37 years,” he said.

Turkey is pretty much on its own as the EU (keen to minimize dependence on Russian gas), the US and Russia have all given Nicosia the go-ahead with the drilling. But it may still take action to defend its status as nascent hegemon in the Muslim world — especially since Israel, its newfound antagonist, is part of the equation.

Israel’s relations with Turkey — once its sixth-largest trading partner — have soured as Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted administration has opted to sacrifice the longstanding alliance with the Jewish state for the sake of brandishing Turkey’s image as the primus inter pares in the Arab world. (Much to Washington’s dismay, the Arab Spring seems to have taken a toll on another strategic partnership — that between Israel and Egypt.)

Earlier this month, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador after Tel Aviv refused to apologize for last year’s Gaza flotilla incident that resulted in the death of nine Turkish citizens. Ankara said it would send naval vessels to escort any future aid envoy.

“The ‘zero-problems’ policy has officially collapsed after tension with Syria, Iran, Iraqi Kurdistan, Greece, Cyprus and Israel. Now the Egypt link will flourish for some time, like the Syrian link did once, and it too will collapse,” Bekdil said.

“This volatile region has not spent the last two millennia waiting for [Ahmet] Davutoglu to bring peace. He is a dreamer,” Bekdil said of Turkey’s ambitious foreign minister who likes to see Turkey as the natural heir to the Ottoman Empire that once united the Arab world.

Bekdil nevertheless thinks Ankara will maintain its assertive stance for two reasons: “There is Turkish and Arab demand for that; and Erdogan and Davutoglu see Turkey in a self-aggrandizing mirror,” he said.

Tel Aviv turnabout

Athens has sought to capitalize on the Turkish turnabout and, in a sign of shifting loyalties — and in stark contrast to the late Andreas Papandreou’s pro-Arab legacy — it prevented a fresh group of Gaza activists from sailing from the Greek coast earlier this year.

Greece, says Lygeros, is naturally adapting to geopolitical developments — and to Cyprus’s interests — meaning that support for Palestine is now on the back burner. “After all, no matter how hard it tries, Greece could never be a match for Turkey in the Arab world,” Lygeros said.

Israel has its own reasons to go Greek. From a geopolitical perspective, the Athens-Nicosia route is now the only politically safe and culturally friendly passage to the West. Greece and Cyprus are secular democracies and members of the European Union at a time when reluctance among Europeans to take Turkey on board is soaring.

A closer relationship with the Jewish state comes with an economic reward. For natural gas to be shipped to the West in a cost-effective manner, it has to be condensed to a liquid. Cyprus seems a safe alternative to the Israeli coast, which lies within range of Hamas rockets. An Israeli energy company has reportedly offered Nicosia a deal to build a facility on the island for processing and exporting natural gas.

Greek Cypriots, who recently saw an explosion knock out the island’s main power station, are naturally tempted by the idea of becoming a regional hub for exporting natural gas.

“At the same time, a closer alliance with Israel will allow Cyprus to avoid some of Turkey’s bullying,” Lygeros said.

‘Nail in the coffin’

Recent developments will unavoidably impact on peace negotiations on the island which the UN would — rather optimistically — like to wrap up by mid-2012, when Cyprus takes the helm of the EU’s rotating presidency.

“It is a near nail in the coffin for reunification talks,” Bekdli said of the energy-related squabble, although he admits realpolitik may dictate new parameters next year.

Turning the argument on its head, Pope says the drilling episodes show how the gradual seizing up of the talks is leading to deeper tendencies of divergence between the two communities.

“If the two sides do not choose to work for reunification, the alternative will be a slide towards partition, and while both sides can live with this trend, the long-term costs could be greater than any riches from the seabed,” Pope said.

A fuming Erdogan on Wednesday slammed the drilling as a “sabotage” of the negotiating process.

Bekdil choses to remain cynical. “I never believed Erdogan et al genuinely wanted reunification. They faked, knowing they could deceive a willing chorus of Greeks and EU optimists,” he said.

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