Earlier this week, the Turkish navy intercepted a Norwegian exploration vessel looking for gas off the coast of southern Cyprus. Turkey claims the ship encroached upon the maritime zone of its vassal-state in northern Cypress, a state recognized by no country except Turkey. The vessel was acting on behalf of France’s Total, which has contracted with the government of Cyprus to exploit the country’s substantial underwater energy resources. The move to intercept and expel the vessel is the latest example of energy-starved Turkey’s increasingly muscular policy in the Eastern Mediterranean, one that has put the burgeoning Israeli-Greek-Cypriot energy axis in its crosshairs. In short, Turkey wants a share of this newfound source of revenue, and as is increasingly evident, will risk much—perhaps even war—to stake its claim.
A Julian Kasdin and I wrote in these pages last month, the recent discovered of gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean has prompted the surrounding countries to stake their claim, and assert their power, on a new front: the sea. (Just this week, Israel unveiled its newest unmanned ship, which boasts a high-tech electronic warfare system.)
Turkey’s latest gambit, though, has heightened risks as more powerful players enter the arena in search of treasure buried under the sea. Russia, which has been courting both Cyprus and Israel for rights to help export their gas finds to Europe, now has full military access to Cyprus’ main port at Limassol. While its naval forces have diminished in the region, the United States deployed the USS Ramage, an Arleigh Burke-class guide-missile destroyer, to Limassol over the weekend, perhaps aware of American energy giant Noble’s intimate involvement with Israel’s offshore gas discoveries and the attendant dangers Turkey’s belligerent strategy poses for American citizens operating in this volatile area. France too, in somewhat prescient fashion given the current situation, participated in a naval exercise with the Cypriot Navy on January 21.
While Cyprus’ military remains largely ineffectual, it now has friends in high places. Such friends, in their quest for money and power, require stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. It would be wise for Turkey to take heed.
Nicholas Saidel is the Associate Director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis & Response (ISTAR) at the University of Pennsylvania.