NICOSIA — French Defense Minister Florence Parly and her Cypriot counterpart Christoforos Fokaides have discussed the ongoing fight against extremism and ways of bolstering security in the eastern Mediterranean.
A statement said Parly’s stopover in Cyprus Monday on her way to Jordan was part of her first visit to French forces deployed overseas in the sensitive region. Parly earlier visited the French Navy frigate Langeudoc which is operating in the area.
The statement said talks centered on the international coalition’s combat operations in Iraq and Syria as well as ways of strengthening Europe’s defense.
Fokaides said he also briefed Parly on exploratory oil and gas drilling that a consortium of France’s Total and Italy’s Eni is now carrying out 104 miles (167 kilometers) off Cyprus’ south coast.
Energy Thriller Replaces Cyprus Unit Talks, Greece on Edge Too
With Cyprus’ unity talks collapsed again, a race for oil and gas off the island’s coast is causing renewed tension with Turkey and dragging in Greece, one of the guarantors of security.
French Defence Minister Florence Parly was due to visit Cyprus July 17 and meet the country’s Defense Minister Christophoros Fokaides, in the southern coastal town of Larnaka, the Cyprus News Agency said.
She was expected to arrive on board a French Navy frigate but the only information about what they would discuss, despite the obvious buildup of tension with Turkey, was “regional issues”.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he’d go ahead with plans to have his country’s vessels monitor drilling in Cypriot waters being done by international companies even as he threatened consequences unless it stops and is demanding a share of any potentially lucrative finds.
Ironically, it was the prospect of finding energy that seemed to be the best hope for the two sides to come to terms and reunify the island that’s been split since an unlawful 1974 invasion by Turkey, which still occupies the northern third.
But negotiations between Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish-Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci broke down when Erdogan said he would never remove a 35,000-strong army from the island nor the right to militarily intervene.
That led Greece to say Erdogan didn’t want a unity deal, only to keep his army and tap the island’s coast for oil and gas, and demand any share from the legitimate Cypriot government, which is a member of the European Union that Turkey wants to join.
The United Kingdom, the former Colonial ruler, still has a military base there and is the other security provider, along with a small United Nations peacekeeping force in the divided capital of Nicosia which separates the two sides.
Six years ago, Turkey also warned against drilling unless it would take part and later sent an energy vessel and warship off Cyprus before removing them when Anastasiades said that was a dealbreaker to resume talks.
Turkey has sent a warship frigate off the coast and France, protecting French energy company Total which is part of the drilling consortium, has sent two warships while Greek ships are not far away.
In an analysis, the German public broadcaster Deutsche-Welle detailed how Turkey’s geostrategic importance keeps the US, EU, and NATO trying to appease Erdogan, who now has near-dictatorial powers, and why they’re walking on eggshells over Cyprus.
The US has backed Cyprus’ right to drill, but also said any revenues derived have to be shared with the occupied Turkish side, which isn’t in the EU.
But Erdogan is seen by some analysts as blowing in the wind to show strength after he was nearly toppled in a failed July, 2016 coup attempt by the military.
“For years, Turkey and Mr. Erdogan have been building up the image of a regional superpower,” Professor Contantinos Filis, Director of Research at the Institute of International Relations in Athens told DW.
“By not being engaged in this key project, Turkey feels upset, isolated and rejected. And while it knows that it only has itself to blame, Mr. Erdogan is trying to save face before his domestic audience by flexing his muscle and playing tough with Cyprus,” he added.
That drama comes as Turkey keeps sending F-16 fighter jets into the airspace of Greece, a fellow NATO member, and warships past Greek islands and conducting live fire ammunition drills in the Aeagean, and as Erdogan said he would again let human traffickers flood nearby Greek islands with refugees and migrants unless the EU fulfills suspended terms of a swap deal.
“Turkey strikes a fire every time it feels secure enough to do so,” says Filis. “Nowadays it has no solid alliances to fall back on.”
Cyprus could turn into a crossroads of energy between the EU, the Middle East, Turkey and East Asia and could even be tied into a deal with Israel including Turkey.
Filis said that, “Ultimately, Mr. Erdogan may have to prove more predictable than the unpredictable force he is perceived to be. If he wants a piece of the action, he will have to find a way into the action. “It’s not simple and it won’t happen overnight, but it’s the only realistic option left for him in this energy race.”
(Material from The Associated Press was used in this report)