Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seeking the major role in both the Arab Spring and the wintry chill between Israel and the Palestinians, may be headed for a major confrontation on more than one front and involving several parties, including Turkey itself, Israel, Cyprus, the European Union and the United States of America.
Last December, Israel and Cyprus signed an agreement concerning exploration for hydrocarbon resources beneath the seabed between the two countries, setting the median line as the mutual boundary in the absence of a full economic zone on either side (just 230 nautical miles separate the two shores) and pledging unspecified cooperation with respect to future exploration. Since Israel (for unrelated reasons) has not signed the UN Law of the Sea Treaty, the parties cited other unremarkable legal justifications for the agreement. Turkey, itself not a signatory to UNCLOS, objected at once on the wholly unsustainable grounds that the interests of Turkish-Cypriots had been ignored, i.e., that the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” itself has a legitimate interest in the seabed area at stake. That so-called “state”, proclaimed unilaterally in 1983, has since been recognized by neither the UN nor any state on earth other than Turkey and has no standing whatsoever in international law.
The Cypriot daily “Phileleftheros” reported on September 14th that Turkish fighter and reconnaissance aircraft had flown through Cypriot airspace – by no means for the first time – and are patrolling the area off of the eastern coast of the island opposite Israel, while Israeli aircraft are monitoring the median line. On September 8, an article in “The Cyprus Mail” reported that exploration on the Cypriot side will be undertaken by an American firm, Houston-based “Noble Energy”, which has announced that it will proceed with drilling later this month despite the Turkish threats in coordination with the U.S. State Department and the American Embassy in Nicosia.
Every bit as important, the same article of September 8 reports as follows: QUOTE The European Commission yesterday issued its strongest rebuke yet to Turkey over its threatening behaviour towards Cyprus’ efforts to drill for hydrocarbon reserves within its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Unfazed, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continued to raise the stakes in his row with Israel and Cyprus over hydrocarbon explorations in the eastern Mediterranean, vowing yesterday to stop them from exploiting natural resources in the area while also pledging to send warships to escort aid to Gaza. The EU, through Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule, yesterday “urged Turkey to refrain from any kind of threat, sources of friction or action which could negatively affect good neighborly relations and the peaceful settlement of border disputes.” In a released statement, Fule said, “The Commission regrets any statements that are not conducive to this objective,” noting that it “regularly reiterates these issues in its discussions with Turkey and will continue to monitor Turkey’s commitments to good neighborly relations in the light of the principle of peaceful settlement of disputes.” The Commission further highlighted the importance of progress in the normalization of relations between Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus. The EU also “stressed all the sovereign rights of EU member states which include entering into bilateral agreements, in accordance with the EU acquis and international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.” The Commission underlined the “urgent need” to reach a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus issue. END QUOTE
These reports, in combination with earlier Turkish threats relating to potential Israeli reaction to a second Gaza flotilla mission, point both to imminent danger and longer-term negative consequences for all those parties mentioned in the lead paragraph above. An armed conflict between Turkey and Israel cannot be ruled out, given the unbending stances of the two, no matter what frantic negotiations are surely under way. The strong EU statement and Erdogan’s apparent determination not to let the prospects for EU membership, if indeed he still judges it to be in his or Turkey’s long-term interests, get in the way of his drive for regional leadership only serve opponents of membership within the EU. US interests in these developments are all too obvious, quite aside from the undeniably legal right of an American firm to drill on behalf of the universally recognized Republic of Cyprus.
A final note: is it not absurd for the Prime Minister of Turkey on his current tour to be lecturing Arabs on the benefits of democracy while presiding over the massive, thirty-seven-year-old military occupation of some forty percent of Cyprus, a member in good standing of both the UN and the EU?
By Alan Berlind.