US Naval ships will conduct joint exercises with Israel in waters off Cyprus near where Turkish warships are blocking foreign energy companies from drilling, and as American oil giant ExxonMobil is moving into position with a research ship.
Officially, the arrival of American ships was said not to be a direct confrontation with Turkey, which doesn’t recognize Cyprus, bars its ships and planes and claims ownership of the island’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and has demanded a share of any potentially lucrative finds – but has kept the drilling from beginning.
The Turkish ships drove off a drilling ship from the Italian company Eni and reportedly threatened to sink it unless it veered off, and it did, going to Morocco. NATO, to which Turkey belongs, said nothing while the United States and European Union that Turkey wants to join backed the legitimate government on Cyprus.
Only Turkey recognizes the northern third of the island it seized during an unlawful 1974 invasion and as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is stepping up provocations in the wake of reunification talks that collapsed after he refused to remove an army from the occupied territory and wanted the right to militarily intervene.
The US and Israeli Navy exercises coincidentally coincide with scheduled hydrocarbon drilling in Block 10 of Cyprus’s EEZ by ExxonMobil whose former CEO, Rex Tillerson is now Secretary of State and recently met with Erdogan and officials in Turkey.
ExxonMobil is due to start operations on March 11 and continue until April 20, setting the state for a potential showdown if Turkish warships try to block the American company’s ship with the US Navy nearby.
A US naval group and its amphibious USS Iwo Jima flagship will, in collaboration with Israeli forces, conduct a population evacuation exercise on March 7, Kathimerini said and it will reportedly include the USS New York and USS Oak Hill and will last until March 18 in a region stretching from northern Israel to southern Cyprus. Israel has been working with Cyprus over energy possibilities and has tense relations with Turkey.
The three American ships are expected to remain in the area until at least March 25, which means they and Israeli ships will be there together for around two weeks with the Texas company Noble set to explore in Block 10.
Turkey has made no claims to Block 10 as it has done for Block 3, but warned the US in recent days against sending its Sixth Fleet to the Eastern Mediterranean although Turkey is hopelessly outgunned and overmatched by the Americans, who have a base on Crete.
US-Turkey relations are also strained and Turkey is upset with a US Naval presence in the nearby Black Sea, as is Russia. The 1936 Montreux Convention gives Turkey control over the Bosporus Strait and the Dardanelles and regulates the transit of naval warships. It also restricts the passage of naval ships not belonging to Black Sea states.