BACKGROUND: Previously engaged in the re-unification of Cyprus, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government gradually lost its commitment to such a prospect, as every attempt for a settlement failed since its access to power in 2002: the Annan Plan that stipulated a bi-zonal federation between the Turkish and Greek communities was rejected by the Greek Cypriots in 2004, and two subsequent rounds of bi-communal talks between 2008-2012 and 2015-2018 ended unsuccessfully.
Moreover, Turkey began to see itself contained by the initiatives of the Republic of Cyprus, the southern, Greek part of the island which is internationally recognized as the representative of all Cypriots. The exploration of natural gas reserves within the island’s territorial waters and the ensuing diplomacy of the government of Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades have weakened Ankara’s position within the Cypriot equation, voiding its motto of “being one step ahead”. Meanwhile, as Turkish regional influence diminished, Nicosia signed new security and economic partnerships with regional powers and built up strategies to exploit the newly explored energy resources.
Against this background, Ankara contented itself with single-minded reactions, mainly through dispatching its navy to the region to block certain natural gas exploration and drilling activities under Nicosia’s supervision. In this way, Turkey hoped to compensate for its loss of ground by deterrence, delivering the message that it remains a powerful actor to be reckoned with. Other than that however, it seemed uninterested to explore alternative solutions to the Cyprus problem. This Turkish intertia has enabled the Greek Cypriot administration to successfully exploit its discretion over issues that are crucial for the island, while the Turkish Cypriots have remained sidelined.
IMPLICATIONS: The government of Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, who was re-elected for a second term earlier this year, has stepped up its regional activities. The Anastasiades administration has continued the regional diplomatic offensive that it initiated during its first term between 2013 and 2018, strengthening the Cypriot alliance with Egypt and Israel, in conjunction with Greece.
The Cypriot-Egyptian relations represent an annoyance for Turkey in two respects. The first one concerns the issue of delineation of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). Nicosia and Cairo have signed a delineation agreement in 2003 on the basis of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The agreement endorses the rights of Cyprus regarding the blocs 1, 4, 6 and 7 of natural gas reserves close to its southwest shores. Turkey however claims that the same area is an extension of its continental shelf. According to Turkey, which is not a signatory of the UNCLOS, islands cannot have their own EEZs and that their capacity to “generate maritime zones should be restricted when the island’s competition for these zones is with a continental coastal state, in this case Turkey” This point originally stems from the Aegean dispute. Turkey rejects that the Greek islands on the Aegean Sea enjoying continental shelf rights as that would severely limit its own territorial waters in the Aegean Sea.
The second disturbance from Ankara’s perspective concerns the formation of a regional pro-Nicosia axis defined by effective energy cooperation. The Cypriot and Egyptian sides have also signed a unitization deal in 2013, pledging to share the commercial interests of the natural gas reserves that could cross either side of the median line between their reciprocal EEZs. On September 19 2018, the two parties signed an additional pact to promote the transportation of gas from Cyprus to Egypt via a pipeline and to liquefy the gas there before shipping it to export markets. Four major investment firms, as well as the EU, have already expressed their interest in financing the project.
The Greek Cypriot and Egyptian governments are also jointly engaged in extensive cooperation with Greece. Since 2013, the three countries hold annual summits to discuss energy security and other social and economic issues, and are now aspiring to enlarge their cooperation throughout the region. On the upshot, the Egyptian opening enhances the regional status of Nicosia and helps realize its energy ambitions without needing to seek any compromise with Turkey.
Still, improved relations with Israel, again in conjunction with Greece, boost more significantly the Greek administration’s immunity against Ankara’s deterrence abilities. Primarily, Nicosia and Tel Aviv aim to jointly extract gas from the Cypriot Aphrodite and Israeli Leviathan fields and market it in Europe through a pipeline to Greece. Another important project is the Eurasia interconnector designed to serve as an “energy highway” linking the Israeli electrical grid to Greece through Cyprus. When realized, the project will integrate the Greek Cypriot territory in the European electricity network and curtail the possibility of importing electricity from Turkey that has already extended its electricity grid to the Turkish-held north of the island. The three partners intend also to deepen their military relations. Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos earlier in October this year expressed the hope that the United States could also be a key partner to ensure a stability axis in the region, potentially including also Jordan, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Albania, Bulgaria and Serbia. Washington does indeed seem to be willing to increase its role in the Cypriot equation. In March 2018, the U.S. dispatched the USS Iwo Jima to escort the American Exxon Mobil corporation’s exploration in bloc 10, which borders blocs 1, 4, 6 and 7 that are claimed by Turkey.
Obviously, the status quo of the division of Cyprus does not circumscribe the vast range of diplomatic, security and economic options that are available to the Greek Cypriot administration. If current trends continue, there is a risk that the contention between Turkey and the internationally recognized state of Cyprus will grow into a broader conflict with additional regional players allayed against Turkey.
Still, Turkey is not totally trapped into a corner. The new Cypriot equation also brings new pressures to bear on the Greek side as it ironically assumes a snowballing burden with its own exertions. The more Nicosia realizes its energy and security aspirations, the more Cyprus shifts into the centre of the Eastern Mediterranean system. In this regard, regional security and various projects worth billions of dollars depend on the extent to which the Anastasiades government will be able to manage its disagreements with the Turkish side while the stakes get higher.
The odds for such a management within the actual parameters of division are uncertain and are also questioned by the international community. Referring to the new dynamics around natural gas explorations, the United Nations (UN) Secretary General attests in his latest Cyprus report that the status quo of division is no longer sustainable and there is an urgent need for new ideas and creativity. Easier said than done, such an innovation requires primarily new motivations and the UN has a responsibility to prompt the Greek and Turkish sides to creative action. However, a change of attitude by the UN can be expected based on a significant indication. The UN Security Council is currently discussing a possible withdrawal of the United Nations Peace Keeping Force on Cyprus when its current mandate ends in January 2019. As expressed by the Greek Cypriot negotiator Andreas Mavroyiannis, the withdrawal is an actual risk for Greek Cypriots, since the traditional understanding of the status quo would no longer apply, putting the Greek community in a vulnerable position. The United States may also be on the verge of adopting a more challenging posture towards Nicosia. Earlier this month, an U.S. State Department official was quoted by the Greek Cypriot press saying that “the energy resources of the island should be shared equitably between the two communities within the framework of a comprehensive settlement”. Such a statement is totally at odds with Nicosia’s insistence on a strict separation between the Cyprus problem and energy issues.
Feeling the pending pressure, the Greek Cypriot government now reveals that it might consider alternatives to the idea of a bi-communal federation. On October 16h, President Anastasiades called for a Cyprus conference where experts would comparatively discuss the notions of “federation” and, notably, “confederation”.
Similarly, the perspective of a change in the Greek Cypriot stance re-establishes Ankara in the new equation. Nicosia lately confirmed that a secret meeting had been held between Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and President Anastasiades in New York on September 30, in which the leaders were said to have possibly discussed a “loose Cypriot federation” with two separate governmental bodies. Such talks are expected to continue before a new round of official bi-communal negotiations is launched by the UN.
CONCLUSIONS: In order to improve its regional status, Ankara needs to enhance its diplomatic capacity and foster better relations with other regional powers. Yet, such an effort would yield results at best only in the long run, as Turkey cannot hope to create alternatives to Nicosia’s promising dealings with Egypt and Israel.
As a more practical alternative, Ankara is likely to engage in a dual relationship with the Greek Cypriots that will include both deterrence and informal diplomacy. While Turkey does not refrain from occasionally flexing its military muscles, it has nonetheless demonstrated a readiness to engage in diplomatic efforts that are aimed to break the status quo. In the present context of the Cypriot equation, the two sides will inevitably be pressed to further engage in dialogue as their interests have regional implications and are thus entwined with those of the international community. However, they are bound to carry out their dialogue informally and covertly since neither side is yet prepared to officially engage it
Ozan Serdaroğlu is an Associate Fellow with the Institute for Security and Development Policy
Picture credit: kremlin.ru accessed on November 2, 2018