Having already scared off an Italian energy company research vessel with warships, Turkey has dispatched its own rig to look for oil and gas in Cypriot waters near where ExxonMobil is also searching, upping worries of a confrontation.
“Hopefully it has been instructive for some who saw an opportunity to act unilaterally when Turkey is engaged in anti-terrorism operations elsewhere,” Erdoğan said in announcing he was sending a newly-acquired drillship into Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which he doesn’t recognize.
He said the legitimate government on Cyprus – Turkey has unlawfully occupied the northern third since a 1974 invasion – not only must share any potentially lucrative revenues from energy finds but that Turkish-Cypriots must have a hand in the operation.
Erdogan has become increasingly belligerent since reunification talks between Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades – who has said almost nothing about the warships – fell apart in July, 2017 at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana, dashing rising optimism.
That came after Erdogan said he would never remove an army on the occupied side and wanted the right to militarily intervene, conditions that Anastasiades said he couldn’t accept although he has reached out for a restart even with the Turkish ships blockading his country’s waters.
The warships sent a drill rig from the Italian company Eni veering off toward Morocco, reportedly under threat of being sunk otherwise, but ExxonMobil has ignored Erdogan, who hasn’t mentioned US Naval warships in exercises near where the American company has been licensed for exploration.
In a report, The Guardian noted the high stakes with the likelihood of a major energy find transforming the Aegean, East Mediterranean and further engaging Egypt and Israel, who want to work with Cyprus and as finds could provide the European Union – and Turkey – with vast new reserves of oil and gas.
“Our approach is to keep calm and go on,” Cypriot government spokesman, Prodromos Prodromou, told the Guardian. “We cannot accept Turkey interfering and creating problems in what, as underlined by the EU, is a sovereign right to exploit our natural wealth.”
As ExxonMobil’s two ships began work, Wes Mitchell, the US state department official in charge of American policy in Europe, visited Nicosia for talks. Four foreign energy firms have been licensed to explore for oil and gas in areas off Cyprus’ southern coast.
“We are heading for a full-blown crisis in the eastern Mediterranean,” Hubert Faustmann, Professor of Political Science at the University of Nicosia told the paper. “And that is because Turkey is determined not to allow exploitation of any resources without its consent and participation of Turkish Cypriots.”
Last month, Erdoğan said Turkey would be prepared to take military action, just as it had done in Syria, where it occupied the city of Afrin, if required.
“We recommend that foreign companies operating in Cypriot waters not trust the Greek [Cypriot] side and become a tool for business that exceeds their place and powers,” he said. “The Greeks and Greek Cypriots would stop swaggering when they saw the Turkish military with its ships and war planes approaching,” he said, although he made no mention of tangling with the US Sixth Fleet nearby.
Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom, the island’s former Colonial ruler, are guarantors of security and Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras, facing challenges from Turkey, was expected to confer with Anastasiades.