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Greek-Turkish Military Altercations Expected as Cyprus Readies for Offshore Oil Exploration

April 22, 2007


By Ioannis Michaletos and Christopher Deliso

A potentially major military face-off between perennial rivals Greece and Turkey could be looming, motivated by Turkish alarm over the imminent plan of the Cypriot government to explore for oil in the Mediterranean Sea. If it occurs, the showdown will reach a peak sometime between May 20-July 20, according to Greek media reports, now confirmed by high-level sources in Athens and in Western Europe.

This violence will most likely come about through yet another provocative encounter between military aircraft over the eastern Aegean, as was witnessed with last summer’s F-16 collision that left one Greek pilot dead. The Greek fighter planes encountered Turkish planes near the island of Karpathos, well within Greek territory. The majority of simulated dogfights, which take place on a regular basis and have one positive result (of giving the pilots some real-life training), however take place closer to Turkey and the Aegean coast where several islets disputed by Turkey lie. The closest Greece and Turkey came to war was a decade ago, over such an islet near Kalymnos.

The summer 2006 altercation occurred, Greek media widely speculated, because of intense Turkish interest in state-of-the-art Russian-made mobile anti-aircraft units in place in the Lassithi prefecture of eastern Crete. This suspicion was quickly confirmed by military sources in Athens. The question now is whether Turkey’s level of interest would exceed that of last year, in relation to the emerging situation in Cyprus.

Nicosia’s bold initiative to explore for oil, with the assistance of multinational oil companies, has brought the Turkish military to near-panic mode. A successful find and subsequent investment would dramatically increase the Greek Cypriot government’s foreign support and thus bargaining position with Turkey over the divided island.

Cyprus’ geopolitical value, even preliminary to hydrocarbons, lies in its strategic location, between three continents, near Israel and a stop en route to Suez. During the Israeli-Lebanese conflict last summer, thousands of foreign tourists, including many Americans, were evacuated quickly to Cyprus- a fact gratefully acknowledged by the US government when it sent a naval vessel to Cyprus on a goodwill visit meant to recognize the Cypriot contribution to securing the safety of Americans during the fighting.

Until now, the international community has tended to view Cyprus only in terms of its perennial security problem, resulting from the 1974 Turkish invasion and occupation, in an operation called Attila (1 &2). However, 2007 looks likely to be the year in which Cyprus takes the first steps towards becoming an energy hub- if the government’s plan to proceed in exploiting the rumored hydrocarbon reservoirs deep beneath the Eastern Mediterranean Basin are allowed to go on unimpeded by military provocations further north.

In December 2006, the first media reports came out of Nicosia revealing the intention of the Cypriot government to search for oil assumed to be found offshore, southwest of the island. Moreover, Cyprus then signed agreements with Lebanon and Egypt so as to draw lines in relation with the zones allocated to each state.

In late January 2007, the Turkish leader of the self-proclaimed Republic of North Cyprus, Mehmet Ali Talat, stated that an unpredictable situation might occur should Cyprus go along with its initial plan. Basically, the Turkish leader formulated a threatening scenario backed by the government of Turkey, considering that it was soon followed by a warning from Ankara to Beirut and Cairo not to proceed along with Cyprus in exploiting oil deposits in the region.

When the Cypriot announcement was made, Turkey seemed to be caught off-guard diplomatically; it had assumed Cyprus would not be able to initiate such a dramatic decision that could alter the political realities in the Eastern Mediterranean should oil is found. Greece has not voiced full support for Cyprus yet, deciding not to inflame the already delicate Greek-Turkish relations.

However, behind the scenes the Greeks are taking great care to ensure that the situation does not escalate, and if it does, that the military is prepared. According to information received by from high-level military sources in Athens, the Greek army went on an emergency footing on April 7, in anticipation of a new Turkish provocation in the eastern Aegean. This source also cited the period of greatest danger as being roughly between May 20-July 20.

Among the likely spillover effects of this will be to dramatically alter the discussions that will take place on the sidelines at NATO’s upcoming round-table discussion, set for late June in Ohrid. While most of the private discussion between officials (delegations are expected from dozens of countries) is expected to center around NATO enlargement, energy security and the Kosovo issue, a breakout of hostilities between Greece and Turkey would put these issues on the back burner, at least temporarily.

For the first time in its history, perhaps, Cyprus is with the oil issue formatting a policy that will empower its diplomatic arsenal without having to rely on Athens. Of course, this does not mean any breakdown in the traditional alliance and common national bonds between these two states populated by the same nation. What is essential, though, is that the entrance of Cyprus into the EU, and the overall economic dynamism of the island have enabled it to become more resilient in promoting its national interests.

A first consequence of this new confidence would be the ability of Greece to concentrate its efforts around Greek-Turkish relations in a more advantageous level than before. Simply put, if Cyprus is strong enough to look after itself on its own, Greece will have more resources to spare on other fronts relating to Turkish territorial claims that have led the two countries towards conflict, as was seen in 1955, 1964, 1974, 1987 and 1996.

Following the oil announcement, the Turkish Navy reportedly patrolled the area in question, even though no concrete date on its activities could be found. During the past few months, quite a few Turkish analysts, journalists and public officials have proclaimed a looming crisis in case Cyprus becomes an oil-producing country, thus creating the perfect framework by which the European Union could accuse Ankara of not conforming to European norms. This would, of course, hinder Turkey’s ability to seek an eventual entrance in the union

On the purely business level, the possibility of oil underneath Mediterranean Sea in a period of global concern on energy security; has attracted the attention of most of the world’s oil multinationals. Large oil companies from the USA, Russia, UK and China, Norway, France and Germany seem to be interested in investing in the assumed hydrocarbon reserves offshore Cyprus.

Despite Turkish opposition, Cyprus has already begun the process of initiating a bidding procedure for the aforementioned oil fields. 11 areas off of southern Cyprus will be the first where the tests for oil will begin. The total surface area is around 70,000 sq. km, and there are also good indications of discovering natural gas as well. French consultants employed by the Cypriot government have already stated that at depths in excess of 3,000 meters there is also a high probability of discovering gas fields as well.

Cyprus has already stated that it will issue three types of permit in relation to the oil fields. The first will be for tests covering a one-year time-frame, the second for three years and lastly a 25-year development license according to which the companies will be able to produce and process oil and gas. As part of its marketing endeavors, from now until mid-July (when the first permits are set to be issued), the Cypriot government plans to organize trips across the major oil capitals of the world in order to market the new riches of the island to prospective investors.

The Americans, who traditionally have placed more weight on the special relationship with Ankara than with Nicosia, have expressed a neutral position and the US Ambassador to Cyprus, Ronald Schilcher, has stated in Cypriot media that it is a sovereign right of the Cypriot Republic to conduct any kind or research on its territory.

Currently, American interests dictate a wide interest in every new oil field that could produce adequate amounts of oil, so as to secure the West from either Russian or Arab control. Therefore, if Cyprus is a country abundant with that resource, the US would be more than happy to support its initiatives and of course to gain a percentage through their own oil conglomerates. Cyprus could thus be considered to be traveling a course towards a NATO entrance, since the alliance has apparently been reincarnated as an armed safeguard of Western ‘energy security’ vis-a-vis Russia.

What is most interesting is the absence of any Greek interference during the past few months, even at the level of mere rhetoric, against Turkey’s aggressive threats to Cyprus. Even though there are still quite a few incidents between Greece and Turkey due to continuous airspace violations by Turkish fighter planes, and a sense of stressful relations between the two states; Greece did not take advantage of this situation to bash Ankara in Brussels, or to protest before the international community about Turkey’s hardline attitude against Cyprus (a nation with 1/100 of its population). Most probably, the Greek government wants to let international interests make their intentions known — a process that will unfold over the coming months and until July — before it makes a statement. That is, unless the anticipated showdown in the Aegean occurs, and forces Athens’ hand in advance.

Western consulting firms to the oil and gas industries have had their hands full with the Cyprus dossier for the past several months. According to one consultant closely related with the American intelligence establishment, “some of the companies interested are leery about the risk of potential violence, which we have been aware of and relayed to them.” And so, the source states, oil interests find themselves trying to decide whether the anticipated riches outweigh the reward.

Relevant to this is another side effect of possible Turkish aggression, about which the Greek intelligence services are not entirely unaware. That is the specter, on the other side of the Turkish frontier, of an increase in activity from the Kurdish PKK and intensified activity on the Turkish-Iraqi border. Whether such activity could be orchestrated by Greece as a defensive mechanism, or materialize simply as a Kurdish tactic for taking advantage of a moment when Turkey’s military is looking westward rather than eastward, is unclear (Greece did, of course, support former PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan surreptitiously in the 1990’s).

In either case, however, it is likely that in the case of violence in the Aegean within the May 20-July 20 time-frame, Kurdish insurgents will try to take advantage of the situation and fighting in eastern Turkey is expected to increase.

Turkey indeed feels immensely pressed by four very challenging factors. Firstly, the Kurdish affair interrelates with American and Israeli strategies in the Middle East, and Turkey finds itself in a most unpleasant situation, since its interests do not harmonize with those of these others. Further applicable issues show why the industry analysts and defense experts on the region are concerned about the potentially chaotic and unpredictable outcome of the next few months in Turkey.

A declaration of an independent Kurdish state that would act as a bulwark against Iran and Syria and, most importantly, become a staunch ally in the post –Saddam Iraq for the Americans would be a disaster of staggering proportions for internal Turkish politics. Roughly 20 percent of Turkish citizens have Kurdish descent and the prospect of a future disintegration of the southeastern provinces could not be excluded in such a case.

Secondly, the Presidential elections in Turkey have once again revealed the wide chasm between the secular Kemalist classes against the populist Islamist one associated with the AK Party of Prime Minister (and presidential candidate) Erdogan. Further, the always doubtful prospect of successful accession negotiations between Brussels and Turkey is fading, and with it the major justification from the Turkish political class for internal ‘pro-Western’ reforms.

Since the Cypriot initiative to search for oil might result in a diminishing of Turkish influence in the East Mediterranean and promote Cyprus to the status of an oil-rich country protected by the all-powerful global corporations, Turkey is understandably nervous about the future of an island which its generals like to refer to as a ‘dagger pointed at the heart of Turkey.’

Related Issues: the French, British and Germans Eye Cyprus

In 1960, with the creation of an independent Cypriot Republic, Greece, Turkey and the UK were identified as the guarantors of the island, and under that pretext Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974. Since then Cyprus has developed strong relations with the USA, Russia and surprisingly, over the past few months with France. The war in Lebanon last summer gave a tremendous boost to the bilateral relations of the two states.

France is the guarantor power for the Lebanese Maronites and has played over the centuries an active role in the region. Cyprus was an integral base that secured the evacuation of more than 150,000 refugees from the war-torn area, which led to a program of cooperation with Paris on a technical and military level (on a symbolic level, perhaps this new friendship was hinted at it when Cyprus selected a French-language song as its Eurovision entry for 2007).

In late February 2007, the two states signed a defense agreement that is of profound importance for all countries involved in the Cyprus quagmire. The agreement details exchange of information, military training, joint naval exercises and cooperation in S&R missions as well as with issues concerning illegal immigration, terrorism and organized crime. Furthermore, France was allowed to use the military base situated in Pafos in order to deploy its naval and air force units when necessary.

The Cypriot minister of foreign affairs has noted that “the crisis in Lebanon gave both countries the chance to cooperate in the military field with benefits not only for both countries but mainly for Middle East countries. I wish and hope that just as Cyprus proved to be a factor of stability in the Middle East region, the solution to the Cyprus problem and Cyprus’ reunification will prove that Cyprus can, be reunited with the cooperation of all partners such as France, help in peace and stability in the region.”

A key factor now, therefore, is the likely extension of French influence in the most strategically critical state in the region, and the results that this will have for the position of the United Kingdom. In comparison to Greece and Turkey; the UK does not have ethnological or historical ties with Cyprus, apart from its 80-year stint as a colonial (and unpopular) administrative power. A French-British rivalry played out in Cyprus over the coming years thus becomes likely. And this will involve some regional alliances and antipathies as well.

Turkey, for its part, has long experienced strained relations with Paris due to the latter’s suspiciously timely decision to recognize the so-called Armenian genocide of 1915-1921 The French electorate is also rather opposed to Turkish EU membership and a Sarkozy presidential victory could further chill relations. Through Cyprus, the French have finally found a way to expand their influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, with or without Turkish assistance. The British, by contrast, have been far more conciliatory to the Turks, with the Blair government one of the strongest supporters of Turkish EU membership.

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