Picturesque Little Cyprus Sparks Yet More Conflict, This Time Over Oil

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The Mediterranean island nation, split for four decades between Greek and Turkish governments, is exploring for energy and starting trouble.

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Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, left, walks to the podium at a ceremony marking the start of exploratory oil and gas drilling by Turkey in breakaway Turkish Cyrpus. (AP)

Energy exploration is adding a new wrinkle to the Turkish-Greek rivalry over the island of Cyprus.

The Cyprus conflict has been virtually frozen since 1974, when a coup by Greek Cypriot nationalists who wanted to unite the island with Greece prompted Turkish forces to invade the northern portion of the island. The self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is recognized as a state only by Ankara, and it remains economically dependent on its mainland big brother.

A move by Greek-Cypriot officials to allow Nobel Energy, a Houston, Texas-based firm, to drill for natural gas off the island's coast has set off another round of geopolitical jockeying. On April 26, Turkey's state oil company TPAO began onshore drilling for oil, with the potential proceeds to be split 50-50 with the de-facto Turkish-Cypriot government. An agreement to search for natural gas off the island's northern coast also has been signed.

Turkish-Cypriot representatives readily admit that the near-term odds of discovering energy are low. But politics, not economics, seems to be driving the search. Ankara's strategy in Cyprus holds that every provocation must be met with equal force, according to Ahmet Sozen, director of the Department of International Relations at Eastern Mediterranean University's Cyprus Policy Center in Famagusta. No indication exists that the de-facto Turkish-Cypriot government is inclined to object. "It is just a very normal response," Sozen said.

Ankara had previously insisted that drilling should wait until after a peace settlement was in place, allowing the entire island to share in the proceeds. Greek-Cypriot leaders made vague promises that they would share profits, but with officials in Nicosia now saying their country may need a euro-bailout, drilling has commenced.

"Maybe we would not drill for energy at this stage, if the Greeks did not drill for gas," commented Dervis Besimler, president of the Turkish Cypriot Investment Agency.

In attempting to develop new energy sources, Turkey isn't just striving to protect the rights of Turkish Cypriots. Ankara is also trying to contain the ambitions of Israel, which also contracts with Nobel Energy and has expressed interest in furthering an energy alliance with Cyprus. Turkish-Israeli relations were generally strong until two years ago, when Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish citizens during a high-seas raid designed to prevent a Turkish humanitarian aid vessel from delivering supplies to Gaza. Since then, bilateral relations have remained severely strained.

In mid-May, Turkish military officials claimed they had to scramble two F-16s to chase away an Israeli aircraft, which reportedly entered northern Cyprus' airspace several times.

Energy drilling could take place in several contested areas off Cyprus, and thus can be considered an accident waiting to happen, cautioned Hugh Pope, Turkey/Cyprus project director for the International Crisis Group. "I don't think that Nobel Energy was aware of the controversy it was getting involved in," Pope noted.

Drilling would also seem to mark another setback for a Cyprus peace settlement. The latest United Nations efforts to resolve the conflict ended in late April without an agreement. Hasan Güngör, an aide to the Turkish Cypriot de-facto president, Derviş Eroğlu, says that efforts now focus on finding "a new process for how [the talks] will go forward."

Cyprus has been a European Union member since 2004, and it is currently preparing to assume the EU's rotating presidency on July 1. The international community does not dispute the right of the Greek-Cypriot government, the island's generally recognized representative, to explore for energy. That leaves Turkey as the main muscle for airing Turkish-Cypriot objections.

On May 18, the Turkish Foreign Ministry warned that any company that works with Cyprus to explore for energy would not be welcomed in Turkey. The country has vowed to suspend political relations with the EU for the six months of the Greek Cypriot presidency.

This article originally appeared at EurasiaNet.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.

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