While it has taken millions of years for the geology of the Eastern Mediterranean to give up some of its potentially most lucrative assets, it took only a few moments last month for the Turkish oil and gas drilling ship Fatih to set off an international crisis.

Back then, after spending several weeks at anchor, about 70 kilometers off the coast of Cyprus, the vessel – named after the Ottoman Turkish conqueror of Constantinople – started drilling into the seafloor, hundreds of meters below.

Its legal right to do so is hotly disputed, however, with the Fatih’s drill‑bit not only chewing through the rock and mud of the Eastern Mediterranean shelf, but also a delicate peace in these strategically vital waters.

The European Union has condemned the move as “illegal,” while the president of Cyprus has called the drilling “a second invasion” – likening it to the 1974 Turkish conquest of the northern third of the island.

Now too, in the seas off Cyprus, Turkish and Greek warships, as well as Turkish and international drill and survey ships, are present – on hand to enforce rival, overlapping claims to what might lie below.

Meanwhile, the US, Russia and the UK all have military assets and interests in these waters, which are also bounded by Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Israel, Lebanon and Syria.

“There needs to be a dialogue, fast,” says the respected Turkish Cypriot journalist and commentator Esra Aygin. “Unless this happens and some kind of agreement can be reached, the tensions are just going to keep rising. It’s scary.”

Tangled web

Those tensions have been rising ever since US oil company Nobel Energy discovered significant natural gas deposits, about 150km to the south of the island, back in December 2011.

Known as the Aphrodite field, these deposits lie within the 200km Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claimed by the government of the Greek Cypriot-dominated Republic of Cyprus (ROC).

The ROC government has since also invited more international oil and gas companies to explore other parts of its EEZ. These have included Italy’s ENI, France’s Total and a partnership between the US’ ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum.

This exploration has since born fruit, with February this year seeing ExxonMobil announce a further significant find, the Glafkos gas field, also south of the island. Yet, none of this has gone down well with Cyprus’ northern neighbor, Turkey.

Since intercommunal violence between elements of the island’s Turkish and Greek Cypriot populations broke out in 1963-64, Turkey has not recognized the authority of the ROC government.

The 1974 invasion also divided Cyprus into an ROC-controlled south and a Turkish Cypriot north, which declared independence in 1983.

UN-backed efforts since then to reunite the two Cypruses have repeatedly failed, with the last effort on this score collapsing in June 2017.

Turkey – and the Turkish Cypriot authorities – argue that the ROC has no right to allocate offshore exploration blocks unilaterally and that development of natural gas resources should be shared by the two ‘states’ on the island.

“Everyone who lives in Cyprus has equal rights regarding the benefits of the seas,” Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan said last Friday.

Unacceptable to Turkey

The ROC government – which is an EU member and is recognized as the government of the whole island by every nation except Turkey – counters that as the legitimate government, it has every right to do as it chooses.

Nonetheless, as the ROC still sees the island’s Turkish Cypriots as its citizens – denying the legitimacy of the Turkish Cypriot ‘state’ – ROC President Nicos Anastisiades has argued that until a solution to the division of the island is found, a Turkish Cypriot share of the revenues from the gas will be held in escrow.

This has proved unacceptable to Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot authorities.

Meanwhile, Turkey has also not signed up to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea’s most recent version – the one that grants island states such as Cyprus an EEZ.

Instead, Ankara sees its continental shelf as the real boundary, with this extending many hundreds of kilometers out to sea – and giving it the right to drill in almost all the waters around Cyprus.

Yet, “the way Turkey is handling the EEZ and continental shelf issue isn’t really because of Cyprus only,” adds Aygin. “It’s also because of the Aegean Sea. Turkey wants to make a claim over its rights there, too.”

In the crowded Aegean, where many Greek islands lie only a few miles off the Turkish coast, Greece and Turkey have long been at loggerheads over maritime boundaries. Ankara is concerned that if islands are allowed EEZs, then this would strengthen Greek claims to most of the Aegean.

Thus, the legitimacy of the Fatih’s drilling calls into question a range of other unresolved issues in the region – each of which has a history of tension turning to violence.

While rival claims of military infringements of sea and air boundaries in the Aegean happen almost daily, in February 2018, Turkish warships threatened to ram a seismic research vessel hired by Italy’s ENI, in waters allocated to it by the ROC.

In October 2018, Turkish warships also claimed they had to intervene to prevent harassment of a Turkish seismic research ship, the Barbaros, by Greek naval vessels. The waters the Barbaros was researching are now those being drilled by the Fatih.

In addition, Turkey is now sending a second drill ship, the Yavuz, to drill to the east of the island, also deep within the EEZ claimed by the ROC.

“Turkey is turning the screw,” says Charles Elinas, CEO of the Nicosia and London-based EC Cyprus Natural Hydrocarbons Company Ltd and an expert on Eastern Mediterranean oil and gas issues. “They are trying to shift everything onto new ground – and this really worries me.”

Divided house

Indeed, the fear for many Cypriots is that the gas dispute also forms part of a larger move to permanently divide the island.

In June, the Turkish Cypriot ‘prime minister,’ Ersin Tatar, declared: “The Turkish Cypriot people are ready for a sustainable agreement on the basis of two separate states.”

This contradicted the long-standing position of both Turkish and Greek Cypriots that a settlement of the island’s division must be on the basis of negotiating a re-united, bi-communal, bi-zonal state.

At the same time, Tatar also said his government was now looking at evaluating the abandoned city of Varosha, with a view to its potential future re-opening.

Varosha – or Varosi in Greek – is a largely Greek Cypriot‑owned ghost town now within a Turkish military zone, its former inhabitants having fled in 1974.

The abandoned city has long been used as a bargaining chip by the Turkish Cypriot authorities, with a promise of its return held against a satisfactory reunification deal. Re-occupying it without a deal could, therefore, indicate a further abandonment of the idea of eventual reunification.

“In international relations, there are two ways of resolving problems – war or dialogue,” says Aygin. “The problem is, there is no dialogue going on and this should be sounding a lot of alarm bells, as until people start talking, both sides will just be flexing their muscles in any way they can.”