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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Lutz

The persistent contest over Cyprus

A barricade along the Cypriot buffer zone (photo credit: Greg Hughes, 2018)

 

In 2020, Cyprus, Greece, and Israel concluded an agreement to build an onshore/offshore natural gas pipeline that would stretch up to 1,900 kilometers. Meant to bolster their economic viability and reduce dependence on other energy sources, the move is poised to have a secondary effect of deepening intergovernmental ties between the three Eastern Mediterranean neighbors. However, what appears to be a straightforward economic-related agreement has once again sparked competition over Cyprus, an island nation with deep political complexities.


Geopolitical history and rigidity in the Eastern Mediterranean region, along with valid environmental and economic concerns, makes the plan for drilling key oil wells in offshore Cyprus fraught with multiple aspects of tension. Throughout its history, Cyprus has been embroiled in economic and geographic disputes with all its maritime neighbors: Greece, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Libya, and most significantly, Turkey. With the announcement of the new pipeline, Turkey has strongly and vehemently rejected this move in ways that could once again disrupt the political equilibrium on the island of Cyprus.


To understand the current situation, it is necessary to review the history of this conflict and identify persistent sources of tension. This provides the context necessary to understand the responses from key players in the drilling and pipeline installation in the Eastern Mediterranean region—the most notable of which are documented here.


Brief history of the conflict in Cyprus

Ever since its independence from British colonial rule in 1960, Cyprus has been embroiled in one of the world’s most persistent border disputes. Fueled by a historical tug-of-war between Greece and Turkey and their two distinct ethnic groups among the Cypriot population, the conflict came to a head in 1974. An attempted coup d’état provided the impetus for Turkey to invade Cyprus with a stated desire of aiding the Turkish Cypriot population. The result of the war was a formal bifurcation of the island between two administrative authorities: the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) that is only recognized by Turkey; and the Republic of Cyprus (“Southern Cyprus,” or ROC), which is internationally recognized and a member state of both the United Nations and the European Union. As a result of the war, the United Nations administers a buffer zone between the two declared nations, and the United Kingdom military maintains agreements to sustain military areas on the island.

Today, much of the conflict continues along economic and geographic lines, especially the maritime boundary of Cyprus. Cyprus is an island and thus its trade, travel, and resources are all tied to its maritime borders. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), coastal countries all have an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)—a maritime administration area—that extends up to 200 nautical miles from the shoreline depending on whether it overlaps another country’s EEZ. Cyprus’s internationally recognized EEZ includes oil and natural gas resources found within the Eastern Mediterranean region, and the government has been actively focusing on drilling for these resources to bolster its economy. However, Turkey has challenged the maritime boundaries of the Cyprus’s EEZ with its own, adding more tensions to an already complex relationship in the region.


Persistent sources of conflict in Cyprus

Since the conclusion of military hostilities in 1974, Cyprus has been in a political-military stalemate. The international community agrees on a near unanimous consensus (minus Turkey) that the area under TRNC administration is an occupied territory. Efforts for reunification have consistently failed as the Greek and Turkish Cypriots have both been unwilling to compromise. Between ROC and TRNC, a hard, militarized border exists, and although ROC is a part of a majority of international bodies, TRNC is a part of nearly none. Most of TRNC’s economy is solely dependent on Turkey’s exports and other linkages, leaving the Turkish Cypriots with limited ability to shift away from their benefactors.


The tenuous equilibrium that emerged following the war has seen a shift in competition from issues related to governance and land borders to maritime administration. In 2006, Turkish military leadership coined the phrase “Blue Homeland” to represent Turkish maritime ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean. “Blue Homeland” refers specifically to the waters in the Mediterranean the Turkish government believes should fall under its control. Turkish ambitions to become a regional powerhouse require a larger maritime footprint for two reasons: energy independence and security. Under existing international law, the UNCLOS defines all parameters for maritime boundaries since its adoption in 1982. Cyprus ratified the UNCLOS convention in 1988 and the agreement in 1995, Turkey has not done either. One of the reasons for Turkey's self-exclusions for the treaty is due to definitions found in UNCLOS that place Turkey in a strategically disadvantaged position compared to its neighbors. In response, Turkey promulgated its “Blue Homeland” doctrine as its response and strategy for claiming the waters it needs to gain its strategic edge. Despite objections from other Mediterranean nations, Turkey is continuing to pursue control over these waters in ways that disrupt regional stability.


The 2020 EU proclamation on Turkey’s drilling efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean has further fanned the flames between Turkey, the, EU, the ROC, and TRNC. Beginning in November 2019, Turkey established a joint maritime border with Libya that encroached on the territorial waters of Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, and Israel. Further, the drilling has massively enhanced Turkey’s reach in the Mediterranean, setting the stage for confrontation with the joint Cyprus-Greece-Israel oil pipeline set to overlap Turkey’s desired and expanded maritime border.

Responses to newfound maritime competition

At the outset, Turkey’s maritime encroachment on Cyprus’s administrative waters earned heavy criticism from the European Union. Calling out Turkey for its “continued illegal activities in the Eastern Mediterranean,” the EU communicated its firm position that it would not accept any attempt to challenge the maritime jurisdiction and sovereignty of EU members; namely, the ROC.


In response, the Turkish foreign ministry asserted that the EU was doing nothing more than siding with the Greek Cypriots rather than international law. The formal statement argued the following:


The unjust and unlawful claims of Greece and the Greek Cypriot Administration [GCA] and does not stand any chance of contributing to regional peace and stability…What the EU needs to do, instead of acting ‘blindly as the mouthpiece of Greece and the GCA under a pretext of solidarity’, is to proceed with common sense while taking international law into consideration as well as the legitimate rights and interests of Turkey and Turkish Cyprus.

This feuding was reflected by the two governments on the island of Cyprus. The President of TRNC, Ersin Tatar claimed that the EU’s position was “a violation of law” and “ignores the rights of Turkish Cypriot and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.” Meanwhile, the Cypriot (ROC/GCA) government stated that this was yet another example of the Turkish government challenging Cypriot waters. They called the Turkish encroachment “new illegal act of piracy constitutes a further severe violation of the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the Republic of Cyprus, contrary to international law.” These incredibly heated responses come from the decades of tension and intractability in the Cyprus conflict. EU-Turkey and Greece-Turkey relations are already strained because of the refugee influx and the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. This resurgence in Turkey’s drilling in Cypriot waters only intensifies the dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean region. A reunification solution for the island of Cyprus feels as distant as ever now that there is unmistakable animosity fomenting in other areas of competition between both parts of the island. As of May 2023, Chevron has reportedly started drilling in offshore Cyprus, a development mired in geopolitical controversy over the ethnically split island as well as neighbor relations. This drilling is not the final straw in the severance of relations, nor is it the first step in showcasing the disdain of a unity plan. However, Turkey’s insistence on their rights to drill in Cypriot sovereign territory and protest of the EastMed Pipeline envisioned by the ROC, Israel, and Greece stresses an already tense situation. Depending on how the Turkish government seeks to advance its “Blue Homeland” policies and the manner it leverages the TRNC government to those ends, the Eastern Mediterranean region may become much more volatile. The question now is how the international community will respond in managing the persistent contest over Cyprus and its administrative rights under international law.


 

Benjamin Lutz is the co-founder of Al Fusaic, a non-profit organization focused on driving change in Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA) dialogue through education and career advancement to promote peace and security. He is pursuing his Ph.D. in Religion, Reconciliation, and Peace from the University of Winchester and holds a MA in Middle Eastern Politics and Security Studies and a BA in International and Global Studies with a quadruple emphasis on Inter-religious Studies, Arabic, the Middle East, and Peace Studies. Benjamin is currently living and working in Washington, D.C. at a peacebuilding institute. In his spare time, he takes Arabic classes and uses his network to support young professionals seeking overseas experiences and identify their calling.

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