You may have encountered some reporting about the latest example of Turkey’s destabilizing, even warmongering, actions in the Mediterranean Sea. Ostensibly, the cause of this behavior is the exploitation of undersea natural gas (methane) reserves found in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (the waters off its coast). But, that is far from being the only reason.
About a decade ago, methane reserves were discovered in Cyprus’ territorial waters. This was after permission to explore for hydrocarbons was first granted by its government in the 1970s. Since then, Cyprus has come to agreements with Egypt and Lebanon regarding their maritime borders, which helps settle who owns the buried gas. I recall a few years ago reading about cooperation with Israel to extract the natural gas. In December 2018, Cyprus, Greece and Israel announced they would back construction of a pipeline to deliver gas from the island’s waters to Europe (a 2017 announcement also included Italy). Agreements are also in place with Egypt to export the gas through that country.
Of course problems arise because of Turkey’s nearly half-century occupation of northern Cyprus. The on-again, off-again talks to reunify Cyprus were last cut off in 2017. With the start of gas extraction approaching, Turkey has been raising objections, claiming that the economic benefits of the gas should also accrue to Turkish Cypriots, not just Greek Cypriots, i.e. Cyprus, the LEGAL owner of the gas. To back up its position, Ankara has been sending in its navy to harass and chase away other countries’ ships involved in gas projects. It has even sent in its drilling ships. This has even elicited rebukes from Europe and the U.S. who are infrequently critical of Turkey.
Part of this comes from years of building tensions between western countries and Turkey. The most recent trouble comes from the latter’s decision to purchase Russian missiles which the West fears may expose military technological secrets, since Turkey is part of NATO and has that alliance’s systems in place. Tensions over how to handle the civil war in Syria and the role Ankara played in arming extremist factions fighting the government are also fresh.
But all of this should be viewed through a broader, longer term perspective. Turkey’s role has been the ongoing destabilization of the region for decades. Examples abound. The longest-running is Ankara’s persecution and repression of Kurds. This has spillover effects into Iran, Iraq and Syria where Kurds also live. In the 1980s, Turkey’s attempts to foment problems in Bulgaria through Turks living there (likely Islamicized-Bulgars, originally) led to tensions. Turkey’s arrogant attempts to influence events in Egypt have led to icy relations between those two countries. Of course the famous rupture in the good relations with Israel has been in the news for years now. Plus, let’s not forgot the ongoing violations of Greek airspace by Turkish military planes because Ankara wants to steal some of the Aegean islands belonging to Greece. Of course, the Cyprus occupation is at the greatest example of destabilizing behavior.
Now that Cyprus is poised to reap the benefits of its methane, Turkey fears the position of the legal government will be strengthened in any future talks of reunification between the north/Turkish and south/Greek (and legitimate) parts of the island. So, Ankara resorts to saber-rattling. But there is also an internal/political backstory to all this. Erdoğan is weak at home, so he gets aggressive with his neighbors to shore up support among his political base.
As in all such cases, all it takes for war to break out is for one side to misinterpret and overreact to another’s actions, leading to escalating tensions that could explode into outright warfare. Turkey and its arrogant president must be restrained by the international community. Doing so may even have the fringe benefit of reducing tensions between Russia and the West since everyone agrees that Cyprus should be able to proceed unhindered by Turkey.
The Cyprus/Turkey/Northeast Mediterranean/methane situation is one more argument to use with our elected representatives from Washington to Paris, Rome, London, Moscow and everywhere else. Our efforts in conjunction with other groups who have suffered at Turkish hands since Ottoman times (and earlier) to expose, then heavily publicize, Turkey’s ongoing, destabilizing misbehavior is critical.
Let’s get busy generating this awareness so that a new, far less forgiving, approach to Turkey can take root in the capitals where we lobby in pursuit of the Armenian cause.