By Evita Souri
With regional crises spanning the fighting in the Kurdish Syrian border town of Kobane between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Syrian Kurds, the violent Kurdish protests which broke out at the beginning of October, and heightening fears of a Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) resurgence, Turkey already has a lot to worry about. Yet, increasing tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean over natural resources have opened a new front of equal importance in Turkish foreign policy.
The origins of the tensions
Much of the hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean went undiscovered until the past decades, given that the resources lie in very deep waters in some locations – a fact that has made explorations risky and costly to be carried out. However, technological advances as well as increasing (until recently) oil prices gave companies further incentive to invest in the exploration of natural resources in the region at the beginning of the century. Exploration drillings unearthed huge reserves of natural gas of about 122 trillion cubic meters near the coasts of Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip, triggering disputes over their exploitation and compounding existing tensions in the region on maritime borders.
The discovery of hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean by countries that previously had no natural resources is changing the geopolitics and economics of the region, threatening Turkey’s role as the region’s burgeoning economic powerhouse.
The Cyprus issue
While exploration drillings are being carried out at the southern part of the Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the situation escalated quickly when, in early October, Ankara decided to carry out seismic surveys within offshore blocks of the Cyprus’s EEZ. Surveys on the part of Turkey are being conducted by the Turkish vessel ‘Barbaros’, in areas including block 9 where Italian ENI and Korean COGAS, already licensed by the Cypriot government, are currently conducting explorations. Turkey’s moves severely irritated the Greek Cypriot President Mr. Anastasiadis, who immediately froze the latest attempt to negotiate a settlement with Turkish Cypriot leader D. Eroglu for the reunification of the island.
Turkey’s decision to send the ships into disputed waters has already drawn criticism from the U.S. and theEuropean Union, while its accession to the EU was questioned once again, given that Turkey is openly challenging the sovereignty of an EU Member State. The international community supports the right of the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) to explore oil and gas, but it has also strongly recommended that the potential benefits be shared with the Turkish minority in the island. Greek Cypriots, on their side, agree to share potential benefits only in case a peace deal is reached.
Yet Turkey continues offshore activity relying on the argument that the Cyprus government is attempting to “unilaterally” exploit the island’s natural resources without conferring with the Turkish Cypriot minority. Still, many believe that Turkey uses further engagement into Cypriot controversy as a ruse for political gain.
Why is Turkey rattling its sabre at this very moment?
While the two Cypriot leaders had begun renewed efforts to find a solution to the division of the Mediterranean island, by following a consistent policy of opposing offshore explorations before an agreement is reached, Turkey is attempting to move the energy issue into the reunification talks – a step opposed by the Greek Cypriot leader. In their attempt to further question Ankara motives, many also stress the likelihood of President R.T. Erdogan intending to serve political interests ahead of the April 2015 Turkish-Cypriot community leadership election in the occupied part of the island.
Nonetheless, one should not underestimate the economic importance of the Mediterranean Sea for all coastal countries – a fact that makes states quite assertive in advancing their perceived maritime interests. Regional power politics do play a significant role in interpreting Turkey’s foreign policy, particularly at a time when new partnerships are being developed, in line with the changing national interests.
Emerging system of alliances
Israel, whose relations with Turkey were severely damaged in 2010 after the Freedom Flotilla incident, has become strongly entangled with Greece and Cyprus. Cooperation with Cyprus has flourished through political and economic support, especially in the field of offshore drilling, while the Greek government opened an international tender to assess the feasibility of a proposed pipeline connecting Israel’s Leviathan gas field to Europe via Greece.
Egypt, which badly needs natural gas imports, seeks to boost cooperation in the field of energy and marine policy with Cyprus and Greece – a fact that triggers Turkey’s frustration, as poor relations with Egyptian authorities add to the traditionally hostile relations with Cyprus and Greece.
Economic implications of geopolitical risks for Turkey
Thus, the ‘zero-problems-with-neighbours’ policy, strongly supported by the governing Turkish Justice and Development Party (A.K.P), has given its place to a number of regional rivalries leading to the development of external vulnerabilities, the economic implications of which are yet to be seen. So far, both Moody and Fitch have cautioned Turkey that the recent rise in geopolitical risks would affect foreign capital inflows putting pressure on its banks and corporations.
Unlike those who believed that the discovery of oil reserves would facilitate a solution to Cyprus’s division, recent developments show that energy may fuel tensions as well. However, finding a solution to this long – term conflict would be of the benefit of both sides. Yet, geopolitical developments in the region leave Turkey with limited diplomatic clout, rendering the country’s position in the Eastern Mediterranean vulnerable.
Evita Souri previously worked with the European Commission, dealing with EU external relations as well as with other governmental institutions. Her expertise is in European Union affairs and the former Soviet Union countries. Evita graduated with an MSc European Political Economy from the London School of Economics (LSE). She also holds a 1st - class honours Master's degree in Economics from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki where she also completed her undergraduate studies in Economic Science.
First appeared in Global Risk Insights.