Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called a Greek Cypriot-Israeli drive to explore gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean “madness” and said it is a blow to negotiations to reunite Cyprus, but said Turkey will not consider the use of military force to deter the move for now.
Turkey has decided to begin its own gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean and boost its military presence in the region after the Greek Cypriot government vowed to go ahead with its plans to drill for gas in Cyprus' south. Erdoğan said earlier this week that Turkey was to send fighter planes and gunboats to patrol the area. Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yıldız said Turkish naval ships could escort Turkish energy exploration ships in the Mediterranean, raising the possibility of a naval confrontation.
Asked whether the military option was still on table, Erdoğan briefly replied, “Not at the moment.” When asked whether Turkey would stop Greek Cypriot exploration ships or simply conduct its own gas exploration, Erdoğan said, “No, we are doing our own exploration.”
Greek Cyprus has signed agreements to delineate undersea borders in the Eastern Mediterranean with Israel, Lebanon and Egypt. A US company licensed by the Greek Cypriot government to drill for gas in the south of Cyprus, Noble Energy, operates with its Israeli partner, Delek.
In December 2010, Noble Energy announced that a gas reserve of 16 trillion cubic feet has been discovered off the coast of Israel, estimated to be worth more than $95 billion. Noble Energy owns nearly 40 percent of the prospective discovery in the Israeli section, alongside Israeli partners Delek Group Ltd. units Avner Oil and Gas LP and Delek Drilling LP (22.67 percent each).
Turkey opposes exploration of gas in the eastern Mediterranean, saying it has rights in the region as the biggest coastal state and that the Turkish Cypriots, who run a state that is not internationally recognized in the north of the island, should also be involved. Turkey has recently announced that it will sign an agreement to mark out undersea borders with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) as a first step to begin gas explorations.
Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders have been in UN-backed talks to reunite the island, but no progress has been reported so far. “The Greek Cypriot administration and Israel are engaging in oil exploration madness in the Mediterranean,” Erdoğan said at a news conference after talks with US President Barack Obama.
“Actually, the Greek Cypriot administration's drilling activity is nothing but sabotage of the negotiation process between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots,” he added.
The gas row further heightened tensions in the eastern Mediterranean after Turkey promised to send warships to protect vessels carrying aid to Gaza Strip, under an Israeli naval blockade, to prevent the repetition of a 2010 raid by Israeli commandos on a Turkish-owned aid ship, which left eight Turks and one Turkish-American dead. Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador, suspended military agreements with Israel and promised to take measures to ensure freedom of navigation in the eastern Mediterranean after Israel refused to apologize for the 2010 incident, bringing once-solid ties to a state of deep crisis.
A Turkish newspaper reported on Tuesday that three frigates are expected to patrol the eastern Mediterranean to ensure freedom of navigation in the region in the face of possible Israeli interception of future aid ships headed to Gaza, while at least two frigates will escort Turkish gas exploration ships.
Erdoğan said Turkey will do all it could to protect the rights of the Turkish Cypriots and reiterated that it will begin its own exploration following the signing of the undersea delineation deal with the KKTC. “Our frigates, gunboats are already in the area,” he said.
Erdoğan's remarks came after the United States threw its support behind the internationally-recognized Greek Cypriot administration in the gas row. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told her Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoğlu, at a meeting on Monday that the Greek Cypriot administration had a right to decide how it exploits its resources, according to US officials present during the meeting. While reiterating US support for negotiations to reunify Cyprus, Clinton also told Davutoğlu that the best way to sort out problems related to energy and economic development is by finally ending the 37-year standoff.
Crisis with Israel
The crisis in Turkey's relations with Israel is a source of concern for the United States, although Erdoğan said the US side “confirmed Turkey's rightfulness” in regard to the killing of its nationals by Israeli commandos in international waters during the 2010 raid. “They [the US] are in no position to tell us not to do it because they know we are right,” he said, referring to US calls for resolution of the crisis in Turkish-Israeli ties.
Washington has watched with concern as NATO ally Turkey's once-friendly ties with Israel have deteriorated rapidly following the 2010 raid. The crisis has underscored Israel's growing isolation and the new limits of US influence in the Middle East.
“The president underscored his interest in seeing a resolution of that issue between those two countries and encouraged continuing work toward that end,” White House adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall told reporters after the Obama-Erdoğan meeting, saying Obama also emphasized the need to calm tensions throughout the region. Obama also praised Erdoğan for “great leadership” in promoting democracy in the region.