As much as 2019 has been an eventful year in Turkish diplomacy and economy, one region has particularly occupied the spotlight of Ankara's ceaseless diplomatic efforts to pursue national interests. The Eastern Mediterranean and the resources it harbors have occupied the time of multiple countries in the region and non-regional actors with vested interests.
Committed to preserving its national rights as the country with the longest shoreline on the Eastern Mediterranean and protecting the rights of the Turkish Cypriots, Turkey has ramped up its exploration and drilling program in the region, with more to come in 2020. The country sent a second vessel, Yavuz, to the Eastern Mediterranean on June 20 to begin hydrocarbon exploration off the coast of Cyprus. Since the third quarter of 2018, the nation's first drilling vessel, Fatih, had already been operating in the region.
During the year, ongoing efforts to find common ground in sharing the East Mediterranean reserves between all concerned actors, namely Turkey, the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC) and the Greek Cypriot Administration of Southern Cyprus failed.
EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN GAS FORUM
Turkey accelerated its efforts in the region as the Greek Cypriot administration in the south of the island continued its unilateral operations backed by the European Union, Greece, Italy, Egypt and Israel.
In early 2019, to render their political agreement into official commercial cooperation, regional countries established the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) in Cairo. The first EMGF meeting in Cairo was held two weeks ago with the participation of energy ministers from Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Palestine. Turkey and Lebanon were the two regional countries that did not attend the forum.
The leaders of the Greek Cypriot administration, Greece and Israel plan to sign an agreement in Athens on Jan. 2 on the Eastern Mediterranean natural gas pipeline. Another quadripartite summit to be attended by France, Egypt, Greece and the Greek Cypriot Administration is scheduled for Jan. 4 in Cairo.
Without any regard for the rights of the Turkish Cypriots and Turkey, the Greek Cypriots unilaterally declared an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and have granted international energy companies licenses for the exploration operations in the 13 Blocks in the last decade.
Although a reserve of 128 billion cubic meters of gas was discovered in the Aphrodite field by Israeli and American firms, no progress has been made in the commercialization f the reserves given the protracted conflict in the island of Cyprus and the Israeli-Greek Cypriot disagreement over the field. In early December, Israel opposed to the development of Cyprus's Aphrodite offshore natural gas field until the dispute over the border with Israel's Yishai gas field is settled in a letter sent to Delek, Noble Energy and Shell.
Turkey and the TRNC contest the unilateral claims of the Greek Cypriot administration and do not recognize the maritime border delimitation agreements signed with Egypt, Lebanon and Israel. The Turkish side views the waters on which the Greek Cypriots lay claim as disputed because they are overlapping with the continental shelf of the Turkish Republic.
Ankara argues that some of the blocks – particularly Block 4, 5, 6 and 7 – on which Greek Cypriots have commissioned international energy companies like the Italian ENI and French Total for exploration violate the country's 200-mile continental shelf as well as the 14-mile territorial waters of the TRNC, which has been excluded from exploration efforts by the Greek administration in the south of the island.
The Greek Cypriot administration enjoys recognition by the international community as the Republic of Cyprus, established in 1960, and acceded into the EU on May 1, 2004, only days after the April 24 referendum to end the breakaway and isolation of Turkish Cyprus, which was rejected by 76% of Greek Cypriot voters and accepted by 65% of Turkish Cypriot voters.
The accession of Greek Cyprus to the EU violated the EU's own rules of not allowing candidate countries with border disputes and assurances to Turkey and Turkish Cypriots that the Cypriot accession would not take place until a permanent solution had been reached on the island.
Turkey and Turkish Cypriots vouch for an equitable share of the resources in the respective region, which is conditioned upon the peace progress in the island.
As a result of Turkey's persistent efforts, ENI and Total suspended their drilling operations in Block 7 for which they secured a license from the Greek Cypriot government in November.
MARITIME BOUNDARY PACT WITH LIBYA
On Nov. 27, Ankara and the Tripoli-based Libyan government reached two separate memorandums of understanding (MoUs), one on military cooperation and another on the countries' maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean. The deal that delineated the maritime delimitation between Turkey and Libya came into effect on Dec. 8 and four days later, Ankara on Dec. 12 applied to the United Nations to register it.
The signing of the MoU was followed by new plans for hydrocarbon exploration activities in the region. On Dec. 4, Dönmez announced that Turkey plans new oil and gas exploration and production studies in its maritime jurisdiction area in line with the pact between Turkey and Libya's U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
"As with other areas, the companies that we will grant licenses to will start oil and gas exploration and production studies in maritime jurisdictions within the scope of this agreement," Dönmez said.
Turkey's Annual Presidential Program for 2020 announced on Nov. 4 also included plans to conduct five offshore drillings in the Eastern Mediterranean next year.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also declared in a televised interview on Dec. 15 that Turkey might work in the region with oil and gas companies that are "strong in the international community."
The deal has drawn criticism from a number of countries, particularly Greece, Egypt and the European Union. Greece indeed took the bold move of expelling Libya's ambassador to Athens in protest of the deal and sent a letter of complaint about Turkey. Egypt joined Greece's efforts by sending its own appeal to the U.N. The deal foiled Athens' attempts to isolate Ankara in the Eastern Mediterranean by merging with the Greek Cypriot administration through energy agreements supported by Israel and the EU countries.
Moreover, by granting exploration licenses to the U.S. energy company ExxonMobil in June in the south and west of the island of Crete, Greece had violated the areas that had been traditionally known within Libya's EEZ.
DEPLOYMENT OF DRONES IN NORTHERN CYPRUS
On Dec. 15, following the approval of the Turkish Cypriot cabinet, Turkey sent its first unarmed drone, the Bayraktar TB2, to Geçitkale Airport in the TRNC in a significant step toward instituting an airbase in the region. The move is set to bolster the national security of both Turkey and the TRNC in the Eastern Mediterranean.
On Dec. 18, Erdoğan also said Turkey could send more drones to Northern Cyprus' Geçitkale Airport.
Bayraktar TB2 drones had been accompanying Turkish drilling and seismic vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean to ensure their full protection against any harassment from the Greek Cypriots.
The deployment of drones in Geçitkale Airport allows for further protection of Turkish drilling and seismic vessels operating in the Eastern Mediterranean – saving time, cost and fuel by allowing surveillance to be conducted by drones.
Turkey's move to send air force to Northern Cyprus comes at a time when the Greek Cypriot Administration has furthered its armament in the island.
The Greek Cypriot Administration in October purchased eight drones from the Israeli company Aeronautics to monitor the land and sea and has received four of them. Israeli pilots have been training their Greek Cypriot counterparts for the drones.
Moreover, the Royal Air Force of the U.K. also has a base called RAF Akrotiri in the southern part of the island of Cyprus and has its stealth fighters F-35 located at the base.