International implications of Turkey’s provocation in Eastern Mediterranean gas dispute

Eastern Mediterranean gas fields

Eastern Mediterranean gas fields

A series of articles that I read over the last few days in the Turkish Hurriyet Daily sheds some interesting light on the Turkish-provoked argument between Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Turkey over natural gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey announced that it was sending a “research ship” to Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus in order to survey natural gas fields offshore. Of course, Turkey being Turkey, nothing as benign as a research ship could be without controversy (my emphasis):

Turkey has announced that a research ship will sail to northern Cyprus on Friday to kick off oil and gas surveys after the signing of a key accord with northern Cyprus.

The agreement laid claim to some zones also slated for exploration by the Greek Cypriots. Energy Minister Taner Yıldız, who made the announcement Thursday, said the exploration work would be carried out “primarily” in the northern waters of Cyprus, but “could extend into the overlapping areas if need be.

The Piri Reis research ship will sail from İzmir on Friday, Yıldız said, adding that it would be given as much of a military escort “as needed.” The minister stressed that Turkey was not out to create provocations in the region, saying he did not expect the Mediterranean to “heat up.”

The Mediterranean sea might be a little hotter than the Turks were expecting because of their own irresponsible actions (my emphases of the different countries involved):

The irony is that any confrontation between Turkey and Greek Cyprus over offshore drilling rights, or between Turkey and Israel due to Ankara’s pledge to maintain safe passage in the eastern Mediterranean, will serve the interests of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at this present juncture.

It is clear, especially since Prime Minister Erdoğan is not mincing his words about the regime in Damascus anymore, that Syria and Turkey are adversaries at this stage. That is why any development that draws Turkey’s attention away from Syria at the present time will be much appreciated by Assad who is fighting for his political survival.

Such and outcome will also be to Iran’s liking. Tehran is angry today at Ankara for its stance on Syria, and because it has decided to host key elements of the U.S.-led missile defense shield project which is clearly aimed at Iran.

It appears that the Greek Cypriot administration is aware of this backdrop, and is trying to force Ankara’s hand by initiating offshore drilling without consideration of the rights of Turkish Cypriots. It is also disregarding the fact that the U.N. Secretary General has initiated a new round of Cyprus talks which stands to be harmed by such activity.

Meanwhile, speculative reports suggesting that Greece and Israel are establishing strategic ties against Turkey also appear to be pleasing to Greek Cypriots, who are also relying strongly on Russia’s help in this new dispute with the Turkish side.

Moscow’s support is of course not surprising and has been there for Greek Cypriots for some time. Any show of force by Turkey against Greek Cyprus in the coming days could therefore leave Ankara and Moscow at odds.

One could almost feel sorry for Erdogan. Almost.

The question that arises from this complicated chess game is what is Russia’s interest in Turkey?  A fascinating article by Dore Gold in Israel Hayom gives us some historical perspectives that provide us with some insight into the diplomatic dance being performed on the international stage:

Erdogan has been doing more than just using aggressive rhetoric against Israel. In the last few weeks the Turkish government has also been threatening Cyprus for developing its undersea gas resources in the Mediterranean. As a result, Russia has now been drawn in to neutralize Turkish behavior.

Cyprus just signed an agreement with the Texas-based Noble Energy, which is a partner in developing Israeli maritime gas fields, as well. Turkey’s Minister for EU Affairs, Egemen Bagis, let it be known that the Turkish Navy could intervene if Greek Cyprus does not call off the project. He said, “That’s what a navy is for.” As a result, the Russian Foreign Ministry publicly backed the right of Cyprus to develop its Mediterranean gas. Cyprus, in turn, described Russia as “a shield against any threats by Turkey.”

Last Friday, the famous Russian daily Pravda published an article entitled, “Turkey Wants to Revive the Ottoman Empire.” The article looked at Turkey’s methods for building its influence in the last few years with the Muslims of Bosnia, which is a sensitive point for Moscow, the traditional ally of the Serbs. The article also warned that Turkey was undergoing a process of “gathering strength” in order to claim territories that it lost with the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire. It predicted greater Turkish activity in the Caucuses and in Crimea, “which cannot but worry Russia.”

Turkish policy in the Balkans has also raised eyebrows among a number of states in recent years. During a visit to Sarajevo in 2001, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared, “The Ottoman centuries of the Balkans were success stories. Now we have to reinvent this.” He also has spoken about the Balkans, the Caucuses and the Middle East as Turkish spheres of influence, which were better off under the Ottoman Empire than they are today. The Caucuses are of course part of Russia, which puts this new Turkish policy into a potentially direct clash with Moscow in the future.

Where does this Russian concern with the revival of Turkish power come from? Are there special links between Russia and Cyprus that cause Moscow to act as its defender? Looking back with some historical perspective, many have forgotten that Russia was at war with the Ottoman Empire for centuries. In 1774, the Russians seized populated Muslim territories from the Ottoman Empire for the first time when they took control of Crimea and signed a peace treaty at Kucuk Kaynarca in which Russia claimed to be the protector of all Greek Orthodox Christians – including those in Greece and Cyprus.

By World War I, the Russian Army invaded what is today eastern Turkey; while after World War II, Russia claimed the Turkish straits into the Mediterranean, and was held back by the U.S. at the beginning of the Cold War. In short, Russia and Turkey are old rivals. What Erdogan and his ministers have succeeded in accomplishing is to awaken a sleeping Russian bear by reviving Moscow’s historical concerns with an atavistic Turkey with ambitions to restore its old areas of influence.

Looking at the Middle East from Moscow’s vantage point, a Turkey with an Islamist foreign policy poses a greater problem for Russia than for Iran. Across much of Russia, most of the peoples living there speak dialects of the Turkish language. Because they are Sunni Muslims, they are more open to Sunni organizations based in Turkey than to Shiite groups operating on behalf of Iran. Secular Turkey fought against Islamist groups; yet Erdogan’s Turkey supports them, including organizations like the IHH, which was responsible for the violence on the primary ship in the 2010 Gaza Flotilla, the Mavi Marmara. According to a July 2010 report in the New York Times, many board members of the IHH have been officials in Erdogan’s ruling AKP Party.

Russia is not about to go to war with Turkey. And Israel would still prefer that its former warm relations with Turkey be restored in the future. But at the same time Israel should be aware of the fact that it is not the only state lately having problems with the nation. … The lesson is that the international politics of the Middle East are dramatically changing, and Israel will have to carefully monitor who is allied with whom in the eastern Mediterranean in the years ahead.

Caspian gas fields

Caspian gas fields

And as if to provide the icing on the cake, Hurriyet has a report about yet another gas field, this time in the Caspian, which involves Turkey, Greece, Italy and France as well as Russia.

According to the same energy expert, while TAP has decided to build the pipeline through Albania to cut the costs around 50 million to 60 million euros, the ITGI was able to receive a grant aid of 100 million euros from the European Union for Poseidon.

That means it looks like the real competition for Shah Deniz II will be between Nabucco and ITGI.

But there is another major player who does not hide its interest in Shah Deniz II: Russia.

There were significant developments experienced in the past days in the South Stream project that was developed by Russia as an alternative to Nabucco.

Three energy giants of the European Union have announced that they have combined their forces with Russian Gazprom for South Stream.

According to the new partnership between French EDF, Italian Eni, German Wintershall and Gazprom, 50 percent of the shares will belong to the Russians.

I admit I’m having trouble following all these international syndicates with all their political implications. But as far as I can gather, and please correct me if I’m wrong, life on the Mediterranean ocean wave may not be as as calm as Turkey would wish.

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