Wolfango Piccoli via Macropolis | The collapse on 7 July of the latest UN-sponsored talks to resolve the Cyprus issue has increased the risk of a naval confrontation between Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus when Total of France and Eni of Italy begin exploratory drilling in Block 11 of the Cypriot exclusive economic zone (EEZ) this week.
The AKP government is facing an apparently re-energized opposition, as demonstrated by the massive 9 July rally organized by the opposition CHP to celebrate the end of its popular 25-day “March for Justice” from Ankara to Istanbul. It could therefore be tempted to play hardball in this new spat with Cyprus to divert public attention and exploit nationalist feelings.
On 25 June, Cyprus issued a maritime advisory (Navtex 240/17) for a natural gas drill between 10 July and 15 October 2017 in Block 11, which is located to the southwest of the divided island. Total acquired the rights to Block 11 in 2013. In March 2017, Eni announced that it had signed a farm-in agreement with Total giving it a 50 percent interest in the block. In 2015, Eni discovered 850bcm of gas in Egypt’s Shorouk block, which is adjacent to Block 11 of the Cypriot EEZ. A major discovery in Block 11 would represent a significant boost to Cyprus’s hopes of monetising its gas reserves. Total’s ultra-deepwater drillship West Capella is currently en route to Cyprus and is scheduled to arrive in Block 11 of the Cypriot EEZ on 12 July. Drilling is expected to last for two to three months.
Turkey has repeatedly threatened to block gas exploration and extraction activities by the internationally recognized government in southern Cyprus. Ankara argues that all the rights in the sea around the island are equally shared also by the inhabitants in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot enclave in the north of the island, which is recognized only by Turkey.
The announcement of Navtex 240/17 came three days before the leaders of the Turkish and Greek Cypriots were due to hold talks in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, in what was widely regarded as the last chance to rescue a process first launched in May 2015. After nine days with little progress, the talks finally collapsed in a shouting match in the early hours of 7 July, with both sides bitterly accusing each other. There appears to be little prospect of a return to negotiations in the foreseeable future.
The collapse of the Cyprus talks has increased the risk that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will dispatch warships to harass the West Capella as it conducts drilling activities in the south of the Cypriot EEZ. Faced with a resurgent opposition, and amid growing unease with the massive purges instigated since the failed July 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan has recently been attempting to bolster his faltering domestic support by appealing to Turkish ultranationalists.
Although Turkey lacks deepwater drilling capabilities of its own, there is also a high possibility that Erdogan will send one of the country’s two seismic research vessels to conduct exploratory activities off the coast of northern Cyprus, which could not only trigger a confrontation with the Cypriot government but potentially also draw in the Greek navy and escalate into a major diplomatic incident.