As drilling in Cyprus looms, Wikileaks reveals previous tensions

According to an article in today’s Cyprus-mail exploratory drilling in Cyprus’ southeast waters combined with Turkish naval and aerial exercises next month could see tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean reach new dizzying heights. The last time Turkey interfered with Cyprus’ oil and gas exploration, unlikely support came from the island’s “evil demon”, the United Kingdom, revealed US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks.
According to the cables, sent by the US Embassy in Nicosia and mostly classified as confidential, the Cypriot Foreign Ministry summoned ambassadors of the five permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council in November 2008 to report Turkish navy harassment of Cyprus-contracted vessels conducting seismic exploration in Cypriot waters. The Cypriot ministry called on the US to caution Ankara that such behaviour was unacceptable for an EU candidate country.
The incident took place 27 nautical miles from the island within Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), in a spot which Turkey argues lies on its continental shelf.
On November 15, the day after the Turkish navy’s harassment of the vessels, UK High Commissioner to Cyprus Peter Millett told the US Embassy that London was prepared to send a protest to Ankara and even issue a public statement in support of Cyprus’ maritime claims.
London’s view was that as a fellow signatory to the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea, Cyprus would have the UK’s support on the EEZ dispute.
According to the cable, sent by then American ambassador Frank Urbancic, London “also stood ready to voice public support for Cyprus’ right to exploit its economic zone, although it would not state specifically where exactly the EEZ lay.”
Also, the UK did not support Turkey’s claims that all eastern Mediterranean littoral states potentially had rights in the disputed area, making a multilateral delimitation imperative.
Urbancic notes: “Separate reporting from London indicated the Brits would take a soft line with the Turks — watching developments and urging restraint — while the French, at London’s behest, would push harder.”
Britain, Turkey’s keenest supporter for EU accession, would highlight the French position, acting as a warning “that Turkey’s saber-rattling over maritime resource exploitation could not come at a worse time for its own EU accession path and the still-nascent Cyprus negotiations”.
Urbancic noted that the dispute came as “no great shock” since Turkish diplomats and Turkish Cypriots long warned that Turkey would oppose by force if necessary any effort to exploit mineral resources in “contested” waters.
Concluding the cable dated November 18, 2008, Urbancic recommended the US take a middle ground urging restraint and dialogue, and cautioning against the dispute harming peace talks. The US diplomat also requested guidance on how to balance Cyprus’ EEZ claims with those of Turkey. He noted that Houston-based Noble Energy, which won the tender in 2007 to explore for oil and gas in Cyprus’ Block 12, would likely request US assistance at some point in defending its commercial interests in the disputed waters.
In an earlier cable dated February 8, 2007, then US ambassador Ronald Schlicher notes that the UK was unlikely to object to Cyprus auctioning off blocks for exploration in its EEZ despite the fact that some blocks may impinge on the Bases’ continental shelf. Citing a 1960 commitment not to introduce commercial activities into the Bases, the UK would not protest as long as the blocks did not come within six miles of the Bases’ coastline.
Schlicher also notes that Cyprus appeared to be acting well within its legal rights, though Turkey still had the potential to sabotage the auction by scaring off many serious bidders. The US diplomat criticised then president Tassos Papadopoulos for adopting a “zero sum-mentality” by failing to explore any political compromises to blunt Turkish opposition.
On August 17, 2007, Schlicher writes that Noble only decided at the last minute to bid in the Cypriot auction at the urging of their Israeli partners who felt there was potential in the Cyprus field, neighbouring their own field within Israel’s EEZ.
Cyprus’ EU membership was also considered a “big plus” for Noble because “this means laws won’t change on a whim”.
In October 2008, Urbancic relayed to Washington what Noble executives told the embassy, that in September 2007, the Turkish consular general visited their offices in Houston warning that if they proceeded with the bid, the company “could never expect to do business with Turkey”.
Meanwhile, fast forward to November 2008, when Turkish navy ships forced vessels conducting seismic studies to leave the area. According to one cable, the coolest customer in the house was Energy Service director Solon Kassinis who found Turkey’s actions as “nothing unusual”.
Kassinis actually berated the Cypriot Foreign Ministry for calling in the P5, saying this “plays right into Turkish hands”.
The commerce ministry official preferred a low-key approach, calling on the US to “quietly urge the Turkish government to exercise restraint”.
A year later, Kassinis makes another suggestion which, ironically, could result in an informal step towards solving the Cyprus problem. On July 29, 2009, Urbancic relays to Washington Kassinis’ proposal to extend a proposed pipeline to integrate Eastern Mediterranean gas into the Nabucco pipeline in Turkey. The Cypriot energy official argues this would create a common economic incentive for developing the region’s energy assets, lowering political tensions around offshore resources and complementing Turkey’s stated goal of creating a more-integrated regional economy.
Noble’s country manager for Cyprus Colin Sinclair echoes this view, urging the US State Department to play a key role in negotiating this regional pipeline and linking Cyprus and Turkey economically, the way it did Egypt and Israel.



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