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Oil on Troubled Waters Fails To Soothe

Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, the foreign minister of Cyprus, complained on Wednesday about the threatening behavior of Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, saying it was an attempt to intimidate Israeli and Cypriot cooperation on natural gas exploration. Ankara’s “provocative” military exercises and “bullying behavior” were “unacceptable”, she said.

No surprise there; Turkey and the Greek Cypriots are about as full of love for each other as Hamas and Likud. But these days they have more to quarrel about than olive groves and beaches: There are lots of hydrocarbons under the waters they (and the Turkish Cypriots) jointly claim.

To make matters more interesting still: Syria, Lebanon and Israel also have claims.  These are not small deposits: “Beneath the seabed of the eastern Mediterranean are natural gas deposits potentially so vast that the economic map of the region is already being redrawn, even as tensions flare”, reported the FT in October.

Naturally, the race to get the gas has reinvigorated old arguments (Cyprus-Turkey) and added fuel to newer disagreements (Israel-Turkey). Israel and Cyprus have been fastest off the blocks, agreeing their common maritime border in 2010 and contracting exploration work to Noble Energy. Turkey, on the other hand, has been slow to react and increasingly confrontational, holding naval exercises and trying to prevent Cyprus from accessing gas that Turkey says belong to Northern Cyprus, which only Ankara recognizes as a country. The confrontation also threatens to further destabilize Israeli relations with Turkey, which appeared to be on the uptick this week when an Israeli delegation arrived in Turkey’s quake-hit Van Province with aid supplies; “You are our true friends” said Van’s vice governor.

The gas reserves in the Levant Basin may be large enough to make Cyprus self-sufficient in energy and turn Israel into a major gas exporter for the next several decades. That, and Israel’s new tilt toward Greece as a way of countering the cold wind in its relations with Turkey, is opening a new era in Israel-Cyprus relations. Netanyahu is on his way to Nicosia this week (the first ever visit of an Israeli PM to the island), and Israel is expected to formally ask to station fighter jets at a southern Cypriot airbase.

If Turkey (which has no claim on the gas save through its Northern Cypriot outpost) does not back down, this confrontation will get more heated before it gets solved. In the past, the Greek Cypriots and their patrons in Athens have relied on their position in the EU for diplomatic support to counter Turkey’s larger size. These days, Brussels doesn’t seem as interested in answering Greek calls for help.

How all this works out in the politics of the Mediterranean seabed is hard to predict; any US withdrawal from the region would likely make a chancy situation much worse.  Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Israel, Greece: these are all countries that know how to dig in their heels and carry a grudge. Via Meadia isn’t predicting a levantine lovefest anytime soon.


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  • Eric

    Oddly for a country with a policy of ‘zero problems with neighbours’ Turkey is managing to have problems with most of their neighbours.

    Even Azerbaijan seems annoyed:

    “Turkey, which is close to Azerbaijan, also resents Mr Aliev’s warmth to Israel. But when Turkey’s envoy to Baku, the Azeri capital, urged Azerbaijan’s government to follow the Turkish lead in breaking relations with Israel, he got short shrift.

    The Israeli help in Van will improve relations with the Kurds even as the friendship with Azerbaijan helps in the great game with Iran. A quarter of Iranians are ethnic Azeri’s. Turkey might learn something from the Israeli diplomatic service.

  • Peter

    Great article. Hope Israel is able to become a major exporter, to ease the stranglehold Russia has on the EU

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