BACKGROUND: Since coming to power, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has taken ambitious measures to develop a blue-water navy to project Turkish power across the length of the Levant and to expand its political and economic influence beyond, via the Red Sea, to the African, Middle Eastern, and Asian states on the western Indian Ocean basin. In 2004, Turkey began implementation of its US$3 billion “National Warship” program, known by its Turkish abbreviation MİLGEM, to expand Turkey’s capability to deploy naval forces far from its coastal waters. Seven years later, on the occasion of the commissioning of MİLGEM’s first surface combatant, TCG Heybeliada, in September 2011, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared Turkey’s national interests as “residing in the Suez Canal, the adjacent seas, and from there extending to the Indian Ocean.”
Erdoğan further identified the purpose of Turkey’s ambition for sea control in the eastern Mediterranean as restraining the Republic of Cyprus from taking “unilateral” measures concerning the exploration of offshore oil and gas.
On September 26, 2014, a joint venture between the Italian multinational energy company ENI and the South Korean state-owned gas company KOGAS began exploratory drilling in the so-called Onasagoras field due south of the southern coastal city of Larnaca in the Republic of Cyprus (ROC). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the breakaway Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC) issued a statement a week later declaring the ENI-KOGAS’s drilling in the ROC’s block 9 as “illegal.” The TRNC regards the ROC’s licensing of exploration blocks as an illegal usurpation of a sovereign right which the TRNC claims to possess jointly with the ROC based on the 1960 Cyprus Accords and constitution which had treated Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots as equal constituent communities of the 1960 Republic.
The TRNC promised to respond to the provocation of “unilateral activities of the Greek Cypriot side” by cooperating with Turkey to send a seismic exploration vessel to search for natural gas deposits “on behalf of the Turkish Cypriot people.” The TRNC designated its own economic exclusion zone that extends well into the offshore areas south of the ROC’s coastline, including block 9. Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued its own denunciation of the ROC’s drilling activities and promised “all kinds of support to the TRNC’s future steps of conducting seismic research activities, acquiring a drilling platform and dispatching it to an area to be determined, which are necessary to protect its inherent rights over these resources.”
Turkey issued a NavTex (Navigational Telex) for the period of October 20-December 30 as notification of its intent to send the seismic research ship Barbaros Hayrettin Paşa and its escorting vessels M/V Deep Supporter and M/V Bravo Supporter into areas off the coast of the Republic of Cyprus. The TRNC had granted an exploration license to Turkey's national Oil and Natural Gas Company (TPAO) in the TRNC’s block G that overlaps with the ROC’s block 9, bordering the ENI-KOGAS exploration site. The Turkish Navy also announced that its guided-missile frigate TCG Gelibolu would continue to monitor ENI’s drilling vessel in block 9. On October 20th, the Barbaros and its escort vessels began seismic surveys within the ROC’s block 9 adjacent to ENI-KOGAS’s drilling operations.
IMPLICATIONS: Turkey’s actions were widely condemned by the United States and the members of the European Union. In late December 2014, the U.S. Congress passed a revised version of its 2012 Naval Transfer Act to exclude Turkey from receiving the two guided missile frigates decommissioned by the US Navy as had been originally provided under the terms of the 2012 bill. Congressional members cited Turkey’s provocations against its eastern Mediterranean neighbors as the reason. Even more concerning for Turkey were the two separate tripartite summit meetings held between Egypt, Cyprus, and Greece in November 2014. Dedicated to strengthening Egypt’s economic and security ties with the two EU members, the second summit included a condemnation of Turkey’s seismic explorations off the coast of southern Cyprus and Egyptian expression of interest in expediting the export of natural gas from the ROC to Egypt.
The advances in Egyptian-Cyprus-Greece trilateral cooperation are occurring in tandem with deepening of security and energy cooperation among Israel, Cyprus and Greece, in the wake of the rapid deterioration Turkish-Israeli relations since 2011. In October 2014, a month before the Egypt-ROC-Greece trilateral summits, the Egyptian firm Dolphinus Holdings signed a letter of intent with Israel’s Tamar offshore gas consortium for the importation of Israeli gas, the latest in a series of agreements between Egypt and Israel for the export of Israeli gas to Egypt’s LNG plants and its domestic market.
Whereas Turkey had sought to enhance its position in the eastern Mediterranean, 2014 closed with Turkey ever more isolated and facing the emergence of a regional bloc aligned against Ankara consisting of Egypt, Israel, the Republic of Cyprus, and Greece. In January 2015, Turkey made a significant move to reduce regional tensions. Although Ankara issued a new NAVTEX six days after the current one expired, at the time of this writing, Turkey has not yet sent the Barbaros back into southern Cypriot waters.
The AKP government has several foreign policy incentives to lower the political temperature in the eastern Mediterranean for the first three months of 2015. A continued U.S. perception that Turkey is continuing to stoke tensions through gunboat diplomacy would chill the discussions between Turkey and Western powers within the framework of the anti-ISIS coalition. In his November 22, 2014 address to the Atlantic Council summit in Istanbul, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden emphasized the Obama administration’s policy priority of using eastern Mediterranean energy supplies for “enhancing stability and prosperity by bringing together Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and hopefully one day Lebanon.” Turkey’s deployment of the Barbaros to the ROC’s block 9 was regarded as the most serious of a series of Turkish actions to obstruct the U.S. goal for the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s removal of the Barbaros will contribute to improving the complicated relationship between Ankara and Washington.
Moreover, it was in the AKP’s interest not to diminish the victory of the leftist Syriza party in Greece’s January 25 elections; the victory of the leftist Syriza could mark the beginning of a historic reset for Greek-Turkish relations. In western Thrace, which is home to a large Muslim (Turkish and Pomak) minority, Syriza made the highly symbolic gesture of campaigning in the Turkish language in addition to Greek. Friendly relations with a Syriza-dominated Greek government will be important for what promises to be a challenging year for Turkey’s public diplomacy in the West.
Similarly, Israel will be holding elections in March. Any anti-Israel grandstanding by the Turkish President or Prime Minister would likely translate into more votes for current Israeli Prime Minister and Likud party head Binyamin Netanyahu, who is widely regarded by voters across Israel’s political spectrum as the most capable candidate to deal with foreign policy crises.
CONCLUSIONS: It is unlikely that Turkey’s current conciliatory posture in the eastern Mediterranean will be sustained. The conclusion of the Israeli elections in March is going to be followed by the start of the campaign for Turkey’s parliamentary elections in June. The ruling AKP is seeking a sufficiently large enough victory to enable it to amend the constitution, legally enshrining the present, de facto presidential system. It is doubtful that the AKP will succeed in garnering such a commanding majority without mobilizing nationalist and populist sentiment. The upcoming visit of ROC President Nicos Anastasiades to Israel, at which time the two countries may announce the sale of advanced Israeli radar technology to Cyprus enhancing Cyprus’s capability to defend its offshore energy fields, may provide the Turkish government with the pretext to return Turkish vessels to coastal waters of the Republic of Cyprus.
There is a risk that the Turkish government will calculate that flexing military muscles, indeed any kind of public confrontation with Cypriot and Israeli authorities by Turkey will boost the AKP’s standings in the polls, helping to provide the AKP with its needed margin of victory. However, if current antagonisms are deliberately exacerbated by the Turkish leaders, the AKP’s “New Turkey” may find itself facing a new anti-Turkey regional coalition across the eastern Mediterranean. What may seem to make electoral “sense” in Turkey’s domestic politics does not make geopolitical sense for Turkey’s strategic interest.
Micha’el Tanchum is a Fellow in the Middle East and Asia Units, Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University. Dr Tanchum also teaches in the Department of Middle Eastern History and the Faculty of Law, Tel Aviv University.
(Image Attribution: Turkish Naval Forces, via Wikimedia Commons)