Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the southern province of Mersin last week to launch his country’s newest and largest hydrocarbon drillship, the Abdulhamid Han. The ship left port with much fanfare and soon reached its first drilling destination, Yorukler 1, in undisputed waters 55 kms off the Turkish coast, with plans for additional stops.
The leader of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) welcomed the new mission, while EU members Greece and Cyprus – which have for years asserted that Turkey’s hydrocarbon exploration in its territorial waters is illegal – claimed that Turkey sought to stoke tensions with this latest operation, some 60 kms northwest of Cyprus.
Major gas finds by Egypt and Israel, and around Cyprus, have led to many observers thinking that eastern Mediterranean waters are resource-rich, which has sparked an access race among littoral states. Following its recent 540-billion-cubic-metre gas find in the Black Sea, Ankara hopes to make another sizeable discovery and begin to become less reliant on energy imports – mainly Russian oil and gas. Thanks to a maritime deal with Libya, Turkey has carved out a vast area for gas exploration that crosses the maritime boundaries of Greece and Cyprus.
Greece has complained to the US and EU allies about perceived Turkish infringements, while Turkey has endeavoured to keep the issue bilateral. “Greece is only harming itself by antagonising Turkey with petty calculations or by turning to third countries,” Mr Erdogan’s Communications Director Fahrettin Altun said in an interview last week.
This is rather disingenuous, as Turkey and Greece are Nato members and thus must keep Aegean and eastern Mediterranean waters secure and discuss relevant matters with Nato allies (Turkish drillships are accompanied by naval vessels). More to the point, Turkey and Greece have already accepted US involvement in Aegean negotiations, as detailed in the US’ Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019.
Yet Ankara may be concerned about historical precedent. The new drillship is named after Sultan Abulhamid II, who ruled the Ottoman Empire when Greece ceded border areas and agreed to major reparations in a peace treaty signed 125 years ago.
The Greco-Turkish War of 1897 centred on Crete, a large eastern Mediterranean island, like Cyprus, with a significant Muslim Turkish population and a Greek-speaking majority with a history of rebellion against Ottoman rule. Appointed by Abdulhamid, the Greek governor of Crete began to institute broad autonomy, which spurred members of a secretive Greek nationalist society to call for enosis, or annexation by the mainland.
A Greek naval vessel landed in February 1897 and joined the rebels in proclaiming Crete’s union with Greece. European powers blocked Athens from sending reinforcements, so Greece instead launched an assault on the Turks in Thessaly, along its eastern coast. Greek forces were quickly overwhelmed, which is why it’s often called The Thirty Days War.
Yet the Ottoman victory was short-lived. As part of the peace treaty, Greece agreed to pay the Turks four million lira and commit to international financial oversight by Russia, the UK, Italy, France and the German and Austro-Hungarian empires. When these powers saw the continued instability on Crete in 1898, they intervened to evict Ottoman forces and create an autonomous Cretan state overseen by Prince George of Greece and Denmark.
The tables had turned. Greece, humiliated in defeat, suddenly seemed a rising power. The overconfident Turks went to war with four Balkan states in 1912, including Greece, and promptly lost more territory. Greece formally annexed Crete the next year.
Today the outcome on Cyprus might take a similar shape. If Turkey continues to push Athens and Nicosia into defensive postures or even open conflict, the US and the EU may not stand idly by and are likely to intervene, presumably in favour of the Greek side.
Thus, the best route for Turkey is to not merely accept outside involvement, but to embrace it. As part of that 2019 East Med security act, US president Joe Biden already has Congressional approval to mediate the Cyprus dispute. Ankara and Athens should publicly welcome it.
A recent State Department statement made clear that the US has been urging allies to diversify their energy sources away from Russia and begun working with Turkey to enhance its energy security. Cyprus presents the perfect opportunity to do both.
"Solving the Cyprus problem and solving the energy crisis go hand in hand," Charles Ellinas, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council with decades of experience in regional oil and gas, wrote this week in the Cyprus Mail.
EU states, most notably Germany, have been scrambling to find new energy sources after vowing to end their reliance on Russian oil and gas. The likeliest sources are Central Asia, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Gulf. Already, Germany plans to set up floating terminals to receive liquified natural gas (LNG) and hopes to secure a steady supply from Qatar.
Much of this aligns with Turkey’s goal of becoming an energy hub. Ankara is closely aligned with Qatar, one of the world’s top LNG producers, and could likely help secure a favourable deal for Germany and the EU more broadly. Turkish officials have been talking with the Israelis about building a pipeline to carry Israeli gas to Europe through Turkish territory. That pipeline could of course pass through Cyprus and deliver the fruits of Cypriot finds.
Turkey is already helping bring non-Russian energy to Europe, as its Trans-Anatolian Pipeline is a key node on the Southern Gas Corridor. Among Turkey’s objectives in backing Azerbaijan in the late 2020 war for Nagorno-Karabakh was gaining greater access to Azerbaijani gas and to Turkmenistan gas via the proposed Trans-Caspian pipeline.
The US has some leverage in this dispute. Turkey is in the market for its F-16 fighter jets, as well as financial aid to stave off a currency collapse. To help move opposing sides toward agreement, the US could agree to sell Turkey F-16s, as promised by Mr Biden, while the EU could offer to re-up Turkey on refugee financing.
Washington has vowed to support European moves away from Russian energy and could also help push through and fund the Trans-Caspian route, delivering Turkmen gas to Europe via Turkey. In return, Ankara could commit to no more Russian arms purchases and agree to begin weaning itself off Russian energy and approve Sweden and Finland as Nato members, while Greece could permanently pull all troops from Aegean islands.
None of this would be easy. There is a reason Cyprus has confounded top negotiators for generations. But it is not as if the Biden Administration is new to such talks. US officials are right now mediating an eastern Mediterranean maritime dispute between long-time rivals Israel and Lebanon, and that effort seems headed toward success.
More importantly, the rewards would be worth it: resolving a far-reaching, decades-old territorial dispute, boosting regional gas supplies when energy is at a premium, and uniting Nato allies at a defining moment for the alliance. “From the moment we extract the natural gas,” Mr Erdogan predicted last week, “you will see how the weather changes in the whole region.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.