Angelos Syrigos: A storm is brewing in the eastern Mediterranean

2018 was the year of the Macedonian issue. 2020 will be the year dominated by developments in the Eastern Mediterranean. More specifically, because Turkey views Cyprus as an extension of Greece, it considers the Cyprus issue a strategic security issue. This means that it wants to maintain its hegemonic position over Cyprus, half of which which it conquered in 1974 (illegally but it does not matter to Turkey).

After 2003, the Republic of Cyprus established a strong legal framework through maritime demarcation agreements with its neighboring states. Subsequently in the delineated marine areas south of the island, research areas were identified. It did not include maritime areas that are either adjacent to the Occupied Territory or on side opposite Turkey. Major oil companies undertook to explore and exploit the plots. Alongside legality, financial interests were created. Thus, Cyprus took the initiative of the moves and substantially challenged Turkey’s hegemonic position.

Turkey is trying to restore this upset in its hegemonic position in the Cyprus problem by using its power. Since 2013 it has spent nearly a billion dollars to acquire a fleet of seismic research and drilling vessels. As of May 2019, when the Fatih drill ship appeared west of Cyprus, things were developing rapidly.

For the first time since 1974, Turkey is attempting a new (marine this time) “Operation Attila” [code name for the 1974 invasion], invading areas of the Cypriot EEZ and seeking to exploit hydrocarbons belonging to another state. Because Turkey and Greece have identical perceptions of Turkey, its strategy also concerns Greek sovereign rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, although Greece has so far shown no intention of exercising such.

The goals of Ankara in Cyprus
Turkey has three goals for Cyprus:

First, the freezing of research by the Republic of Cyprus.
Secondly, the co-management of the deposits south of the island.
Third, the transportation of hydrocarbons, including those of the Israeli EEZ, through a pipeline to Turkey.

In order to achieve these goals, Ankara is trying to find hydrocarbons in demarcated areas south of Cyprus. The research vessel “Barbaros”, which is conducting tests in the Cypriot EEZ, appears to have located a deposit, probably in the 3 plot given by the Republic of Cyprus to the Italian firm EMI. We also remember when in February 2018 the Turkish warships drove the EMI drill ship  from this unit.

Ankara’s goal is to drill, discover and exploit the deposit. If this is achieved, then Ankara will call for a five-day conference involving the island’s three guarantor forces and the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots (as communities) according to the convention followed in Switzerland in 2017.

Turkey is currently seeking to postpone the five-member panel. The reason is supposedly to await the results of the “elections” in the Occupied Territories, where the current Turkish Cypriot leader Akinci would not want to be re-elected. In fact, the delay is due to its desire to present in the five-member panel, a position similar to that of the Republic of Cyprus, which has also discovered and exploited one of the hydrocarbon deposits.

An agreement that we will haunt us
As far as Greece is concerned, Turkey is in the process of detecting Athens’ determination and the consequences of any seismographic research or drilling attempted on the Greek continental shelf of the Eastern Mediterranean. At the same time, it is trying, through an agreement with Libya, to obtain some semblance of legitimacy that it lacks so it can intervene in the region. It wants to create a wall that will prevent Greece from exercising its sovereign rights in the Eastern Mediterranean shelf. It will thus confirm what it has claimed for years that the islands have no continental shelf , under an international agreement.

Most importantly, it is attempting to transfer the point of conflict from the Kastellorizo shelf to the Cretan shelf. The bad thing is that, although unlawful, once signed, such an agreement can only be overturned by a withdrawal of Libya, or by recourse to an international tribunal. Turkey excludes the latter. If delimitation is finally made, however illegal it may be, we will always be faced with it.

Greece and Cyprus must take initiatives to safeguard their sovereign rights. Cyprus’s goal should be to complete its energy program and maintain the momentum. Only the discovery of other hydrocarbon deposits can change the negative equilibrium created by the 1974 invasion and occupation.

Accordingly, Greece must deepen its alliances with the states of the Eastern Mediterranean (Israel and Egypt), including the security factor that is currently lacking. At the same time, it must use all its diplomatic means to clearly define and secure its maritime zones in the Eastern Mediterranean. Finally, it should facilitate the consortium of oil companies. which has undertaken research in plots west of Crete.

Angelos Syrigos, is an MP for New Democracy, and a lawyer and assistant Professor of International Law and Foreign Policy at the Department of International and European Studies at Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences, Athens.

This article appeared in Greek in slpress.gr