(PhD (Cand.) Politics & International Studies, University of Warwick, UK)
Since the drillings at block 12 in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for the finding of natural gas were announced a few months ago, a diplomatic crisis, which later became a real threat to the regional stability and security, begun to unfold. Israel and Greece are directly involved in Cyprus’ efforts to drill out its natural gas; the former because of the geographic proximity of its own underwater energy reserves to the Cypriot block, and the latter because of the common Turkish disputes it faces regarding its marine borders, the strong diplomatic and economic bonds it maintains with Cyprus, the economic benefits of exploiting its own underwater energy resources and the need to delimitate its own EEZ.
The circumstances under which these developments have occurred could have probably not been worse given the general instability in the regions due to the Arab Spring, the decline in the Turkish-Israeli relations, the re-ignition of the Kurdish problem, the escalating Syrian crisis and of course the economic crisis. Apart from Cyprus, Greece and Israel, there are other actors involved in this situation and parallel realities that could play a significant role in exacerbating the crisis, leading to unfortunate security consequences.
Regional Status and Security Implications
The most important destabilizing actor of this situation is Turkey, which has presented and unprecedented arrogant stance in disputing Cypriot and Greek marine borders and air space along with threatening Israel in an effort to deter Cyprus’ intentions to drill out the natural gas, on the one hand, and attain the support of the Arab-Muslim world on the other, by engaging in the Palestinian problem. The paradox in Turkey’s actions is that while threatening Cyprus, Greece and Israel, both verbally and militarily (violations of marine and air space) it has many other open fronts to face, like the Kurdish secessionists - domestically and on its borders (Syria, N. Iraq, Iran) - and the Syrian regime itself, the crackdown of which poses a threat to Turkey’s security. Let alone the diplomatic fronts with the European Union (EU), the United Nations (UN) and the United States (US) which are not pleased with how Turkey has been behaving of late.
While Turkey has been leading itself to a dead-end, it has also created fairly difficult regional conditions for Israel by approaching the Arab world and gaining its solidarity. The recent visits of the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to Arab countries have polarized much of the Arab world against Israel, and thus the recent incident with the Egyptian protesters at the Israeli embassy in Egypt that forced the Israeli ambassador to flee the country.
Further to the troubling situations that both Turkey and Israel face, it is noteworthy that Greece and Cyprus are in a bad position as well; a fact which only makes things worse. The Republic of Cyprus has been facing a political and economic crisis since the tragic explosion of the “Evaggelos Florakis” Naval Base that took place on July 11, 2011 and cost the life of 13 people. This has put the government in a very difficult political position which does not allow it to deal with the domestic (i.e. both the political crisis and the negotiations with the Turkish Cypriots) or external challenges as it should. Similarly, Greece has been going through a derogative political and economic crisis which has weakened the state and has been challenging both the government and the civil society for a long time.
In the light of this climate of general regional instability, the crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean and the tensions between Cyprus, Greece, Israel and Turkey regarding the energy developments could prove even more destabilizing. For example, Turkey, exploiting its good relations with the Arab world, has allegedly influenced Lebanon’s recent decision to dispute its marine boarders with Israel and Cyprus, thus creating legitimization problems.
This unfolding crisis has already caused security problems in the past month, especially to Cyprus and Greece, with the main threats coming from Turkish warships, frigates and military planes. In response Israel has signed an agreement of strategic cooperation with Greece and maintains close communication with the Republic of Cyprus on matters that have to do with the security of block 12. Similarly Greece has expressed its full support to Cyprus and its interests should any problems with Turkey occur. Russia, US and most recently France showed their support to the Cypriot efforts and their opposition to the Turkish threats by sending ships, submarines and/or planes close to bock 12. This of course indicated the interests that they have from the drillings as well.
Apart from the very plausible threat of war between Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and Israel, the problem of the natural gas may exacerbate other existing problems in the already deteriorating relations between Turkey, Israel and the Arab world that could be expressed through the Kurdish and the Palestinians as proxy wars. To give only an example, Israel has already stopped providing intelligence to Turkey about the Kurdish secessionists and Turkey is pushing for Palestinian statehood thus further polarizing the Arab world.
Generally, Turkey’s actions should have been expected given that the Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu himself states in his book “Strategic Depth” (2001) that both Cyprus and the Aegean space is vital in order for Turkey to accomplish its grand strategic aims. He also makes clear that the previously very close relations of Turkey with Israel cut Turkey off of the Arab world, and that they were a strategic mistake. Furthermore he adds that Turkish foreign policy needs to take risks if it wants to succeed, but it should neither be reckless nor take risks that are beyond its powers.
Although the tensions around block 12 peaked when the drillings started, almost a month ago, the danger is yet to pass. Turkey continues to be provoking and the broader destabilizing geopolitical developments in the region are rapid. However, Greece’s, Cyprus’ and Israel’s cooperation, together with American, Russian and European support, have created a good security shield that will not allow any serious escalation.
Furthermore NATO has a major role to play in this situation as both Greece and Turkey are its members and therefore it has every reason to want to prevent a conflict between them from breaking out. Last but not least, Turkey itself, although it will keep up its threats, it cannot engage in a war because that would weaken its capabilities at its domestic fronts with the Kurds and maybe even Syria, let alone the major economic costs.
However, the instability of the regional security remains at high levels and lies in complicated dynamics. Thus, everything is possible and every regional actor, especially Cyprus and Greece - the interests of which are directly threatened - should remain alert.