By Uzay Bulut
Turkey’s exploration of oil and natural gas in the Mediterranean continues to raise tensions with Cyprus and Greece. The Turkish government has recently bought its third offshore drilling ship, reported the newspaper Sabah on February 9.
“Having bought the first two vessels from Norway, Turkey purchased the ‘Sertao’drillship from the U.K. for much less than its market price. Since spring 2019, when Ankara sent two drilling vessels – the Fatih and the Yavuz – to the Eastern Mediterranean, work has been ongoing,” the paper said.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed the news: Speaking to lawmakers from his ruling AK Party in Ankara, Erdogan said the new ship was an “ultra maritime drillship” that can drill down to 11,400 meters. The ship will begin operations in 2020, he added.
Erdogan did not specify where the ship would operate, according to Reuters.
The ship is very likely to be sent to the eastern Mediterranean – either to the offshore of Cyprus, where Turkey has already deployed its two drilling ships, or it could be sent to the east of the Greek island of Crete to start looking for oil and gas reservoirs. Greece has declared the area as part of its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The Turkish newspaper Yeni Şafak reported on February 19:
“The Turkey-Libya agreement for the Eastern Mediterranean is about to be recorded in the United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. When the agreement signed in Dolmabahçe [Palace] is published in the UN bulletin and the Turkish exclusive economic zone (EEZ) areas are announced to the international community, seismic exploration and drilling activities will start in the region. First, the Turkish Petroleum (TP) will make licensing in the Crete area east of the EEZ. Exploration and drilling works are planned to get started in the region this year. Turkey has openly declared its intention to carry out research and drilling activities in the offshore of the island of Crete.”
The first ship to be sent to the offshore of Crete is named after Oruç Reis, one of the most notorious Ottoman pirates who lived between the 15th and 16th centuries. Reis’s usual targets were Christian and other non-Muslim vessels that sailed in the western Mediterranean.
“The first route of the Oruç Reis research vessel will be the so-called number 15 parcel that is under the Greek occupation,” Yeni Safak added.
The Turkish government has already used its warships to interfere with the gas exploration of private companies and the government of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean. For instance, Turkish vessels in 2018 blocked a ship contracted by the Italian oil company Eni from approaching a worksite off Cyprus. Turkey has also slammed the pipeline deal that Greece, Cyprus, and Israel signed in January. The pipeline is designed to move gas from the eastern Mediterranean to energy-hungry Europe.
The confrontation in the Eastern Mediterranean is likely to further brew as Turkey presses forward to continue drilling for oil in the area despite many international warnings.
When Turkey sent its second drilling ship, Yavuz, to the northeast of Cyprus, European Union (EU) foreign ministers suspended negotiations on the Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement on July 15 and agreed not to hold the Association Council and further meetings of the EU-Turkey high-level dialogues, for the time being, Reuters reported.
On October 5, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said there were rules in exploring energy resources in the Mediterranean, warning Turkey not to engage in drilling activity that is “illegal” and “unacceptable”.
Turkey continued its gas exploration in the area, which prompted the EU foreign ministers to draw up a list of economic sanctions against Turkish oil and gas drilling activities in waters off Cyprus.
However, Turkey’s intervention in Cyprus did not start with its blocking Cyprus’s gas explorations in the Mediterranean. It has been violating Cyprus’s sovereignty since its invasion of the island in 1974.
Nonetheless, much of the mainstream media only mentions the “division” of Cyprus when it covers the island. What has happened in Cyprus, however, is much more alarming than that. Turkish forces drove out the Greek residents from the northern part of the island, forcibly changing the demographic structure of the island. In the meanwhile, it committed many atrocities including murder, enforced disappearances, seizures, desecration of churches, and looting Greek properties, among others. Turkey has also deployed around 40,000 Turkish troops in the occupied north.
Today the Turkish government does not even recognize the Republic of Cyprus and calls it the “Southern Greek Cypriot Administration”. “The claim put forth thereafter by the Greek Cypriots to represent the ‘Republic of Cyprus’ has been illegal, and has not been recognized by Turkey,” claims Turkey’s foreign ministry. It also asserts that Cyprus is “geographically an extension of the Anatolian peninsula” and “has never been a Greek island.”
The ministry cannot be more wrong. Cyprus has been a majority Greek island for millennia – demographically and culturally. The Turkish presence in Cyprus, however, only dates back to the Ottoman occupation from 1571 to 1878. Never until the Turkish military intervention in 1974 did the northern part of the island have a Turkish majority. Both the north and south of the island were majority-Greek and majority-Christian until then. Nonetheless, the myth of Cyprus being a Turkish island is popular with many Turks. In 2018, Erdogan even said at a press conference: “There is no country called Cyprus.”
However, Cyprus became an independent country in 1960, 14 years before Turkey invaded. Its borders were internationally recognized. The document that granted Cyprus independence in 1960 was signed by three "guarantor" states – the United Kingdom, Greece, and Turkey – all of which committed themselves to respect Cyprus's independence and territorial integrity. The Turkish invasion in 1974, therefore, was a violation of Turkey's commitments.
Turkey’s excuse for its presence on the island is the “protection of Turkish Cypriots from Greek violence.”
Former Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Tuğrul Türkeş, however, revealed in 2017 the real reason behind Turkey’s control of Cyprus: “There is this misinformation that Turkey is interested in Cyprus because there is a Turkish society there… Even if no Turks lived in Cyprus, Turkey would still have a Cyprus issue and it is impossible for Turkey to give up on that.”
Turkey has been violating Cyprus mainly for economic and strategic reasons. And its drilling activities in the Mediterranean are just an extension of the same expansionist policy.
About the author: Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. Her writings have appeared in various outlets such as the Gatestone Institute, Washington Times, Christian Post and Jerusalem Post. Bulut’s journalistic work focuses mainly on human rights, Turkish politics, and history, religious minorities in the Middle East and anti-Semitism. Bulut has now also become a contributor for the Greek City Times.