(May 19, 2019 / Research Institute for European and American Studies) Recent developments off the coast of Cyprus are causing regional tension, and the East Mediterranean countries are increasingly flexing their muscles and adopting the “gunboat diplomacy” of naval drills.
“Gunboat diplomacy” can be defined in a general way as any aggressive diplomatic activity carried out with the implicit or explicit use of military (usually naval) power. However, the term is most often associated with the activities of the Great Powers in the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century.
The Greek Republic of Cyprus has divided its maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ) into 13 blocks, the drilling rights to which are of great interest due to their potential for huge natural gas discoveries. ExxonMobil announced in February 2019 that it had made the world’s third-biggest natural gas discovery off the coast of Cyprus. The discovery, which could represent a natural gas resource of 142 billion to 227 billion cubic meters, has been a cause for optimism, but also a reason for concern. ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum own the exploration rights in offshore areas south of Cyprus, with the former owning a 60 percent stake in the block and Qatar Petroleum holding the rest.
Turkey is claiming that the search for hydrocarbons in the Mediterranean Sea near Cyprus cannot be carried out until an agreement is reached on a Cyprus settlement. Turkey has vowed to prevent Greek Cypriots from exploring for oil or gas around the ethnically divided island and says some parts of Cyprus’s maritime zone fall under its jurisdiction. Turkey started independent exploration of gas reserves in the northern, Turkish part of the island. Ankara’s clearly stated objective is to co-administer with the Republic of Cyprus the latter’s huge hydrocarbons deposits and to control regional energy routes.
Cyprus has been partitioned between its Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded and occupied the northern part of the island. While the Greek-majority Republic of Cyprus is internationally recognized, the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is recognized only by Ankara. In 2004, the European Union declared the Greek Cypriots the sole entity representing the island of Cyprus and accepted it as a European Union member.
The Greek side is convinced that Turkey’s aggressive actions in Cyprus’s EEZ and in the Aegean aim to establish de facto situations at the expense of the sovereign rights of both Cyprus and Greece. The Greek Foreign Ministry is closely monitoring the situation in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean and the Hellenic Navy has been placed in a constant state of readiness to respond to any challenge from Ankara. There is also Turkish talk of reclaiming some Aegean islets. Ankara is concerned about a new concentration of powers in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In 2014, maritime border demarcation agreements were signed between Egypt and Cyprus and between Egypt and Greece. Egypt is working to promote regional cooperation in this area because it wants to intensify the exploration and exploitation of natural gas.
Egypt, Greece and Cyprus are negotiating to build a pipeline to deliver natural gas to Egypt from the Aphrodite Gas Field off the coast of Cyprus, to be liquefied using Egypt’s liquefaction plants and re-exported.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said in January 2018 that the maritime border demarcation agreement between Egypt and Cyprus was invalid and violates Turkey’s continental shelf. In an official statement, Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid warned on February 7, 2018, against any attempts to infringe on or disparage Egypt’s sovereign rights in the Eastern Mediterranean’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Relations between Turkey and Egypt have been strained since the 2013 ouster of Egypt’s Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, a close ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP government. Erdoğan has slammed Morsi’s removal as a “coup.” Cairo has repeatedly accused Ankara of “interference” in its domestic affairs and of supporting Islamist terrorists who carry out attacks in Egypt.
Israel maintains extensive cooperation with both Cyprus and Greece, participating in various military exercises of air, sea and land forces with the Mediterranean nations, especially after the degradation of ties with Turkey.
Turkey and Israel were close allies in the defense industry, security cooperation, intelligence exchange and military training since the 1960s. Their relationship peaked in the 1990s. The diplomatic standoff after the Mavi Marmara crisis (2010) affected Turkey’s relations with Israel.
Ankara subsequently suspended all defense projects and military cooperation with Israel, paving the way for a warmer relationship with the Greek and Cypriot governments. Israel, Cyprus and Greece are close allies and share a number of strategic interests, such as the ambitious project to build a submarine pipeline from Israel to Cyprus and from Crete to mainland Greece.
In March 2018, then-Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot was hosted for the first time by his Greek counterpart, while then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman hosted the Greek defense minister in Israel. In June 2018, the defense ministers of the three countries held the second trilateral meeting to strengthen security and expand cooperation in cyber security, joint military drills and search and rescue operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. In December 2018, the leaders of the three countries held the fifth trilateral meeting in Israel to continue discussions on a joint gas pipeline to export gas to Europe, regional issues and strengthening cooperation among Mediterranean nations.
The ‘gunboat diplomacy’ of naval drills in East Mediterranean
Between Feb. 27 and March 8, 2019, Turkey conducted “Blue Homeland 2019,” the largest naval exercise ever held in Turkey. One-hundred and three military ships and thousands of soldiers participated in the exercise, the aim of which was for Turkey to test its war capabilities in the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean, simultaneously.
Turkish media described the exercise as a “war rehearsal” which aimed to send a clear message to Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt and whoever else disputes Ankara’s declared interests in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The “gunboat diplomacy” of naval drills and naval visits reflect foreign policy trends. “Blue Homeland” combined a show of force with diplomacy, visiting five ports in five different countries at the same time.
From April 13 to April 19, 2019, the Egyptian, Greek and Cypriot armed forces conducted their own joint naval and air exercise, called “Medusa 8,” in Egypt’s territorial waters. The drill aimed to boost military cooperation between the three countries “in the framework of the annual plan for joint exercises by the [Egyptian] Armed Forces to promote and support military cooperation with brotherly and friendly countries.”
The three countries had conducted a joint military exercise in 2018, dubbed “Medusa 7.” According to the Hellenic National Defense General Staff, the land, air and sea exercise on and around the island of Crete was observed by military representatives from the United States, Italy, Portugal, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco.
The Armed Forces of the Republic of Cyprus along with their Israeli counterparts conducted from Dec.r 17 to Dec. 19, 2018, a joint exercise as part of the annual military cooperation program between the two countries. According to a press release issued by the Cypriot Defense Ministry, the exercises took place within the Nicosia Flight Information Region (FIR) and included a large part of the area of the Republic of Cyprus. During the exercises, personnel belonging to the Cypriot National Guard cooperated with representatives from the Israel Defense Forces, and several different types of Israeli aircraft were involved. Another military exercise between Cyprus and Israel on Cypriot soil and in Cypriot territorial waters took place two months earlier.
In November 2018, the air forces of Greece and Israel held a joint 12-day exercise, based out of Greece’s Larissa Air Base. The exercise was part of a defense cooperation program of the two countries aimed at bettering the two countries’ coordination in mixed-formation air-to-air and air-to-ground missions.
The large-scale multinational search and rescue exercise “Nemesis” took place in the Cyprus EEZ for the fifth consecutive year in October 2018. The exercise involved a large number of aircraft and personnel from Cyprus and foreign countries and was coordinated by the Larnaca-based Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in close cooperation with the rescue coordination centers of participating countries.
Turkey’s objective is to share with the Republic of Cyprus the huge hydrocarbon deposits off the Cyprus coast. Ankara wants to maintain its presence as a regional power and to control regional energy routes. Turkish President Erdoğan is furious that Turkey has been excluded from the energy cooperation between Cyprus, Greece, Egypt and Israel. The huge interest in Cyprus’s EEZ shown by energy companies has increased Turkey’s aggressiveness in demanding a piece of the pie.
The Cyprus government said it was trying to resolve the dispute with Turkey through diplomatic means, without escalating tensions, while Turkey refused to negotiate and sent a second drilling vessel to areas around the divided island of Cyprus.
The “Blue Homeland 2019” exercise occurred during the increase of tensions in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. The exercise has been described by Turkish media as a “war rehearsal” with the aim of sending a clear message to Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel that Turkey is ready to protect its interests in the region.
The growing standoff between Turkey and Cyprus over exploiting energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean runs the risk of turning into a regional conflict. Turkey’s “gunboat diplomacy” policy and the response of Cyprus, Greece, Egypt and Israel highlight the tensions over offshore resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. The joint military exercises of Cyprus, Greece, Egypt and Israel are in part a message to deter Turkey’s aggressive policy.
In addition to Cyprus, Greece, Turkey and Egypt, Israel and Lebanon are also at odds over offshore gas exploration and marine boundaries. The international community should redouble efforts to move toward an Eastern Mediterranean Basin-wide comprehensive agreement marked by cooperation and joint management of trans-boundary resources.
Shaul Shay is a senior research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council.
This article reflects the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of the Research Institute for European and American Studies.