Inflammatory rhetoric over gas-and-oil exploration rights by Turkish Cypriots

Inflammatory rhetoric over gas-and-oil exploration rights in Cyprus waters continued this week with Turkish-Cypriot official Huseyin Ozgurgun’s claims that Turkey has “more rights than other countries in oil and natural gas issues” in the Eastern Mediterranean. In comments reported by Turkey’s national news agency, Ozgurgun said that Turkey has “the longest coastal line” with the E. Mediterranean and that agreements between the Republic of Cyprus, Lebanon and Israel to delimit maritime borders are “invalid” because they were signed without the participation of the Turkish Cypriots.

Cyprus has been divided since Turkey invaded the island in 1974 and enforced a de facto split between the island’s two main communities.The international community recognises only the Republic of Cyprus as the island’s official government, while only Turkey recognises the Turkish-Cypriot breakaway state ‘TRNC’ set up in 1983. a Cyprusnewsreport says that ever since the Republic signed maritime delimitation agreements clearing the way for undersea oil-and-gas exploration, the ‘TRNC’ and Turkey have escalated verbal and military threats towards Cyprus over the issue. 

The report adds that the government has stood firm on its sovereign right to sign maritime border agreements setting out its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) with neighboring countries, however. Based on the International Law of the Sea – a UN agreement that Turkey has not signed – the island has the right to set out its EEZ at the half-way point between neighboring countries.

US energy company Noble Energy – which has a contract with the government – started drilling for offshore gas in Block 12 of Cyprus’ EEZ on September 19th. Block 12 is located around 160km south of the island, next to Israel’s undersea gas field Leviathan.

A few days afterwards, adds the same report, or on September 21st, Turkey signed an agreement to explore for undersea hydrocarbons with the Turkish-Cypriot breakaway state ‘TRNC’, a move promptly branded as illegal by the Republic of Cyprus. Then, it was on September 26th that Turkey dispatched its seismic research ship K. Piri Reis to Cyprus’ EEZ, where it conducted seismic activities in Blocks 8-12.

The Cyprusnewsreport says that the situation is complicated by unravelling relations between former allies Turkey and Israel. Israel’s refusal to apologise over the deaths of nine Turkish nationals in May 2010 has infuriated Turkey’s political leadership. The Turkish nationals were killed by Israeli special forces in May 2010 as they were on their way to challenging Israel’s sea blockade of the Gaza Strip. The activists were in international waters when they were boarded in an ultimately deadly operation subsequently condemned by the UN and EU.

At the same time as Cyprus started offshore drilling operations in cooperation with Noble Energy and its Israeli partner DELEK in September 2011, Turkey suspended military and commercial relations with Israel over its refusal to apologise. Turkey maintains that Cyprus’ maritime border agreement with Israel is ‘null and void’ on the basis that the Republic of Cyprus does not represent the Turkish-Cypriot community.

Analysts say that escalating tensions in the region have significantly increased the possibility of a major military incident.

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