Turkey Draws Criticism over Drilling Plans in Cypriot-claimed EEZ
In an escalation of a simmering dispute between Turkey and Cyprus over possible oil and natural gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, a Turkish drilling vessel entered waters claimed by Cyprus as part of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to begin drilling operations on May 5, 2019.
The unilateral move by Turkey drew immediate and widespread condemnation from Cyprus, the European Union and several of its member-states, and other countries in the Near East. However, Turkey maintains that its actions are to protect the interests of Turkish Cypriots and are not in violation of international law.
The island of Cyprus, in the eastern Mediterranean, is governed by the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus, which is also a member of the EU and the eurozone since 2004 and 2008, respectively. The population is divided division of the population primarily into two ethnic groups — Greek Cypriots, comprising 77 percent of the island’s population, and Turkish Cypriots, comprising 18 percent of the island’s population. This division has been a source of intercommunal tensions, foreign intrigue, and protracted political impasse.
Since 1983, with the internationally condemned declaration of a “Turkish Republic of North Cyprus” (TRNC, recognized only by Turkey, which invaded the northern third of the island in 1974), Cyprus has functioned as a de facto partitioned state, with fits and starts in UN-sponsored reunification talks between the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities (and their foreign backers in Ankara and Athens) over the past three decades yielding no conclusive result. The circumstances on the island also serve as a major point of contention in oft-strained relations between Greece and Turkey, a situation made more peculiar by their common membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military alliance.
Turkey’s deployment of the drilling vessel Fatih into Cypriot-claimed waters on May 6 follows months of statements by Ankara about seeking to expand its resource extraction operations in the eastern Mediterranean, asserting the illegitimacy of the EEZ claim by the Republic of Cyprus, and claiming the right to administer the waters claimed by the TRNC.
After the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced in late January that it would commence its drilling efforts in the eastern Mediterranean — specifically, “around Cyprus” — Turkey sent two ships towards Cyprus to lay the groundwork for future drilling operations. The TRNC notified the UN in late April about its intent to commence drilling operations in Cyprus’ EEZ with the help of Turkish vessels; with Turkish vessels nearing Cypriot waters, the Turkish foreign minister claimed over the past weekend that “we have begun drilling.”
Cyprus’ foreign ministry issued a statement on May 4 decrying the Turkish operations as a “flagrant violation” of international law. The EU, via its External Action Service, expressed its “grave concern” over Turkey’s plans on the same day and called on Turkey to “show restraint” and “refrain from any such illegal action to which the EU will respond appropriately and in full solidarity with Cyprus.” The sentiment was echoed by Egypt, which warned of “repercussions of any unilateral measures on security and stability of the Eastern Mediterranean region.”
The US State Department joined in with a press statement of its own on May 5, calling the Turkish announcement “highly provocative” and “risks raising tensions in the region.” As Cypriot media reported on the efforts being undertaken to curb a possible incursion by Turkish vessels on the same day, the United Kingdom expressed its “wish to see the situation de-escalated” and its agreement with the EU statement. Meanwhile, a Russian foreign ministry announcement called for Turkey to not “undertake actions that could cause tension and create additional obstacles on the way to the settlement of the Cyprus problem.”
Turkey, however, waved off criticism on the matter, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stating that “Turkey expects NATO to support its rights in the eastern Mediterranean” while speaking at NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue held in Ankara on May 6.
Meanwhile, Cyprus forwarded the coordinates of its EEZ claim to the UN and issued international arrest warrants for the crew of the Fatih on the same day. Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades called Turkish conduct as a “violation of international law, or, as I could describe it, a second invasion.” He also claimed that resumption of reunification talks was now out of the question and reiterating his government’s close and constant contact with the EU and fellow EU member-states to divine a credible and coordinated response to Turkey’s continued actions.