Opinion

Erdogan Crashes the Mediterranean Gas Party

Last week Turkey sparked another crisis by starting drilling in Cypriot waters. That’s a problem not just for Cyprus but for Israel, too

HENRY NICHOLLS/רויטרס

Even the most avid Erdogan watcher has to work hard up with all the crises the Turkish leader has wrought. This week the No. 1 crisis was election officials caving in to his demand for new elections in Istanbul. There are also the crisis over Turkey’s buying Russian S-400 missiles, the simmering war in the Syrian province of Idlib and, of course, the collapse of the Turkish economy.

If that isn’t enough, add a crisis largely playing out off center stage, but which deserves a lot more attention. That’s because it threatens to upset all the plans Israel, Egypt and Cyprus have for exploiting the vast natural gas resources of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The latest installment of the gas crisis started last Friday when Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said the Turkish seismic research vessel Barbaros Hayrettin Pasa would be drilling for oil and gas “in areas of Turkey’s continental shelf.”

So, finally Turkey is joining the East Med gas party? Not exactly. It’s more like crashing the party: The ship is drilling deep inside Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone.

Not surprisingly, the Turkish move elicited condemnations from the United States, the European Union and Egypt. Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades termed it a “second invasion” after Turkey’s 1974 occupation of the northern third of the island country and said he would seek international arrest warrants against the ship’s crew. Erdogan responded by demanding on Monday that NATO give its full backing for Turkish “rights” in the Mediterranean even though it was NATO countries that had just informed him that Turkey was out of line.

Turkey’s move is part and parcel of a bigger strategy of: 1) disrupting Cyprus’ developing its natural gas reserves and 2) conducting its own exploration in waters belonging to Cyprus. Last year, Turkish warships forced a drilling vessel operated by the Italian energy company ENI to stop work in Cypriot waters and the summer before that harassed vessels belonging to ENI and France’s Total. It even warned ExxonMobil to stay away from Cyprus, but with the U.S. Sixth Fleet nearby, Turkey didn’t act on its threats.

Turkey is basing its aggressive stance on two dubious claims.

One is that Cyprus has no right to award drilling concessions unless it reaches an agreement with the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus on sharing revenues. The catch is that Northern Cyprus is only recognized as a sovereign country by Turkey itself and has no claim on revenues earned by the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus in the south.

More outrageously Turkey claims that its economic waters extend 200 miles from its coast, leaving a massive swathe of the Mediterranean all for itself. Conveniently, Turkey claims that islands are entitled to just 12 miles, so not only Cyprus but Greece’s EEZs do no more than hug the shoreline.

All of this contravenes the 1994 Law of the Sea convention, but Turkey never signed it and apparently holds that its view prevails vis a vis countries like Cyprus that have.

In case anyone isn’t getting the aggressive message, note that the drill vessel is deploying is named after an Ottoman-era admiral whose naval victories secured Ottoman dominance over the Mediterranean in the 16th century.

This is a big problem for Cyprus, but it’s also a problem for Israel and even for Europe. If Israel is ever going to succeed in exporting natural gas on a large scale, it needs to team up with the other East Mediterranean gas producers (Cyprus and Egypt) to create the economies of scale to make delivery to Europe practicable. Europe, too, has an interest in seeing East Med gas development proceed, which would enable it to reduce its reliance on Russian gas and the whims of Vladimir Putin.

Turkey is the obvious transit point for all this gas -- it is geographically close the Mediterranean gas fields and already has a domestic pipeline network that could bring the gas to Europe. But rather than exploit Turkey’s advantages, Erdogan seems intent on preventing much of the gas from being developed at all and forcing the East Med countries into Plan B solutions, like a costly and technologically challenging East Mediterranean pipeline.

Who’s going to contain Turkish ambitions? It’s not clear. Cyprus can rage at it wants and issue arrest warrants, but it is in no position to resist Turkey militarily. The EU can’t afford a full-fledged row with Ankara, which might respond by allowing a new flood of migrants into Europe. The U.S. has begun talking tough, but it’s hard to imagine the Trump administration following through when its basic policy is to avoid Middle East entanglements.

The most promising solution is from Turkey itself. The country’s deep economic crisis has so far not constrained Erdogan’s aggressiveness, but as the latest elections have shown there is growing discontent in Turkey and even within his party, AKP. If that doesn’t lead to his eventually leaving office, it may prompt him to moderate his behavior and give serious consideration to policies that would boost the economy.