Tensions are running high around Cyprus due to a dispute over energy resources. There is reportedly enough natural gas around the island to meet Turkey’s demand for 572 years and European need for nearly two centuries. Greece and the Greek Cypriots are on one side of the dispute, and Turkey finds itself on the opposite. The former camp lays claim to all energy resources in the area, whereas Ankara calls for an even distribution between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. Yet the situation is far more complex. Recently discovered energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean seem to have piqued Washington’s interest. American companies like ExxonMobil have been looking for natural gas off Cyprus. To assist the Greek Cypriots, two U.S. senators introduced a bill urging Washington to ease an arms embargo on Cyprus and calling for 5 million euros ($5.62 million) in military aid.
The United States, which wants to benefit from Eastern Mediterranean gas and reduce the European Union’s dependence on Russia for energy, facilitated cooperation between Greece, Israel and the Greek Cypriots. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as Greek and Greek Cypriot leaders, where the four countries agreed to support energy independence. Egypt also joined this partnership. All of those nations are on bad terms with Turkey, which makes the Turks think that there is an effort to keep Ankara away from the Eastern Mediterranean.
Greece and the Greek Cypriots are happy with Washington’s support. They both regard Turkey’s problems with the United States and preoccupation with counterterrorism efforts along the Syrian border as an opportunity to make headway in the Eastern Mediterranean. By keeping Turkey on the sidelines, they seek to control all of the region’s natural gas reserves.
From the Turkish perspective, this move amounts to a prelude to occupation. In March, Turkey identified all of its continental shelf and all seas with special economic zones as “the blue homeland.” The Turkish military carried out a major naval exercise with 103 warships in the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea. Turkey thus conveyed the message that it would defend its rights at all costs – even the use of force. At the same time, Turkey dispatched research and drilling vessels to the Eastern Mediterranean and started drilling in contested areas that the Greek Cypriots had previously designated their special economic zone. The Greek Cypriots responded by threatening to issue international warrants for the arrest of Turkish crew members.
For Turkey, that threat means absolutely nothing. Ankara’s position is crystal clear: It will do everything in its power to protect its rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean are likely to further escalate. Before the situation spins out of control, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras would be wise to heed the following warnings:
First, Turkey’s relationship with the United States has deep roots. It is characterized by disagreements at times and shared interests at others. To alienate and possibly lose a powerful ally like Turkey is not a sustainable course of action for Washington. As such, Greece must refrain from preying on its neighbor’s current disputes with the United States. Otherwise, it could stand to lose down the road.
Second, even if Turkey-U.S. relations were to take a permanent turn for the worse, Greece could experience serious problems if it attempts to manage its relationship with Ankara by relying on a third party. Turkey won’t forfeit its vital interests in the Eastern Mediterranean regardless of its opponent(s). In 1974, Ankara deployed its troops to Cyprus despite U.S. President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 letter, risking a U.S. embargo. Tsipras cannot serve his country’s interests by ganging up on Turkey with distant nations. If anything, he will anger Ankara and pay the price.
Finally, the Greek prime minister should bear in mind that his predecessors’ mistakes cost Athens half of Cyprus. If Greece keeps trying to sideline Turkey, it will destroy any hope of the island’s reunification.
To summarize: The best course of action for Greece is to address its problems with Turkey on the basis of compromise, peace and justice – as opposed to threats by third parties. Geography is destiny. Some day, when all third parties leave the region, Turkey and Greece will end up alone.