Tensions have been rising between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus in recent days as the Turkish survey vessel Barbaros started hunting for oil and gas in the middle of the Eastern Mediterranean.

According to Ankara, a Greek frigate tried to block the vessel, yet was prevented from doing so by its escort of Turkish warships.

“We will never tolerate new harassment,” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar warned Greece Wednesday.

“We have (taken) all kinds of measures. I want everyone to know that we will not tolerate a fait accompli of any sort on this subject.”

The Barbaros’ deployment, however, brings to a head a continuing dispute between the region’s maritime nations over where their sea boundaries lie – or who has a right to have boundaries at all in this potentially lucrative geography.

For beneath the sea floor there are believed to lie some major natural gas reserves – with a cluster of international oil companies also now involved in the hunt.

“ExxonMobil is due to start drilling in November,” Charles Ellinas, CEO of the Nicosia and London-based EC Cyprus Natural Hydrocarbons Company Ltd, told Asia Times, “and I’m positive they’ll discover something. Combine that with the discoveries made already and we could be looking at 15-20 trillion cubic feet of gas to export.”

That would make the gas fields off the coast of Cyprus a major asset for whoever can exploit them. Just who that might be is a matter of major contention involving long-standing disputes over national boundaries, and one of the Levant’s most intractable problems – the Cyprus issue.

“It’s such a hodgepodge,” added Ellinas. “Greece and Turkey and the other parties should sit down and resolve this, but right now, it seems no one wants to do this.”

Offshore finds

For years now, the Cypriot government has been awarding international oil and gas companies offshore exploration blocks within what it claims is its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

This is a 200 nautical mile limit for drilling and use of marine resources, granted to maritime nations by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This is in addition to a country’s normal maritime limits, which usually stretch either six or 12 nautical miles from shore.

In 2011, Nobel Energy discovered the Aphrodite gas field in this EEZ, while earlier this year, Italy’s ENI discovered the promising Calypso field nearby.

Prospects are good there as the waters are part of a major geological feature, the Levant Basin, which includes onshore fields in Syria and Iraq, as well as major gas reserves off the coasts of Israel and Egypt.

Cyprus’ EEZ extends out to agreed boundaries with Israel and Egypt, as well as Lebanon – but not with its powerful northern neighbor.

Turkey does not recognize many Cypriot maritime claims, partly because “Turkey doesn’t think an island can have a continental shelf, or an Exclusive Economic Zone, and so it thinks Turkey’s continental shelf and EEZ go all the way to Egypt’s, uninterrupted,” said Ellinas.

Turkey believes islands have much more limited rights to offshore territory – a position that also underpins its claims against Greece in the Aegean Sea, where Greek islands often lie just off the Turkish coast.

A number of the blocks Cyprus has handed out, Ankara argues, are therefore within the Turkish EEZ. For this reason, Turkish warships blocked a survey ship chartered to ENI back in February, forcing it to abandon its work in a block southeast of the island, or face ramming.

Unrecognized states

Turkey and Cyprus broke off diplomatic relations in the 1960s. Then in 1974, Turkey invaded and occupied the northern third of the island, in response to an Athens-backed coup that sought to join Cyprus to Greece.

Since then, this area has become home to most of the island’s Turkish Cypriot minority, and in 1983, it declared independence as the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (TRNC).

The occupied zone is recognized only by Turkey, however, with the rest of the world continuing to recognize the authority of Nicosia. Yet the TRNC is now pursuing its own claims to Cyprus’ offshore gas reserves – saying that any discoveries should be jointly managed by both ‘governments’ on the island.

Nicosia says that any revenues from offshore oil and gas accrued will be shared with the Turkish Cypriots – but not until after a settlement to the decades-old dispute. Until then, the Turkish Cypriot share would be held in an escrow account.

Rejecting this approach, the TRNC has settled its own maritime boundaries with Turkey and invited a Turkish company to survey within what it claims are TRNC waters, in parallel with Cyprus’ own awarding of blocks.

October also saw Turkey’s newest research vessel, the Fatih, start work off the Turkish port of Antalya.

While the ship has avoided the waters claimed by the TRNC, sticking within Turkey’s own offshore limits, it may also soon begin work in TRNC claimed territory. This would bring it into direct conflict with Nicosia – which still claims all of the island’s EEZ as its own.

Law and politics

“If you look at this dispute from a legal perspective only,” Turkish Cypriot journalist and commentator Esra Aygin told Asia Times, “the Greek Cypriots are 100% entitled to exploit the gas.”

The latest version of UNCLOS allows islands to have the same rights as other land territories. Turkey has not signed this updated version, however, sticking to an earlier one that grants islands more limited rights.

But “you can’t look at this from a purely legalistic point of view,” Aygin cautions. “This is also a political issue. As long as the division of the island continues, you will have these disputes, at sea, in the air and on land.”

A resolution of the Cyprus dispute would mean recognition between Ankara and Nicosia and a potential deal on boundaries involving Greece and Egypt too, as both of these now also dispute Turkey’s claims.

Since the July 2017 collapse of the last UN-backed attempt to negotiate a Cyprus solution, however, there has been little hope on the island of a breakthrough coming soon.

As rival survey ships begin to move in, then, there may be further stand-offs in the Eastern Mediterranean’s sparkling waters.