A New Era of Mideast Energy?

The Israeli-Cyprus alliance strengthens -- while Turkey's hostility grows.

Finally, a piece of good news from the Middle East after almost a year of mostly bad.

The Middle Eastern energy picture took a turn for the better when Cyprus announced on December 28 that natural gas had been discovered off its southern coast where exploration had been taking place since last September. American-based Noble Energy of Houston, the company conducting the drilling operation for the joint Israeli-Greek Cypriot venture, said the field, named Aphrodite, may contain as much as 5 to 8 million cubic feet. The discovery is said to be large enough to meet Cyprus’s natural gas needs for the next 240 years and, even more encouraging, comes after only the first of 11 offshore areas marked out by the Cypriot government has been explored.

“The gas discovery in the exclusive economic zone of our country creates great prospects for Cyprus and its people, which we shall seriously and effectively exploit to serve public interest,” said Greek Cypriot President Demetrius Christofias, whose foreign minister last month on a visit to the United States received support for its natural gas research project from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

This exciting discovery will definitely provide a boost for an envisaged Israel-Cyprus-Greece pipeline to supply Europe with gas. A 185-km pipeline to bring gas from Israeli and Greek Cypriot fields to a planned liquidation plant in Cyprus is already in the works. Such joint projects are bringing the three countries closer together, as they seek to exploit the suspected massive energy deposits lying under the Mediterranean. Noble says a pipeline to Greece could be ready as early as 2014 or 2015. Before Greek Cyprus, Israel had also discovered huge amounts of offshore gas, described as the biggest finds worldwide in the last decade, which it wants to export.

Israel had earlier explored building a 460 km pipeline from Haifa to Ceyhan in Turkey; but growing hostility towards Israel from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and his government ended the proposed project. The week the Cyprus gas discovery was announced, his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said before his parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee that Turkish policy was to “bring Israel to its knees.” And since Erdogan’s Islamist leanings are turning Turkey into an adversarial power after decades of being an ally, Israel has sought new alliances with countries such as Greece and Greek Cyprus, which also feel threatened by Turkey.

It also wasn’t long before Turkey’s anti-Israeli stance manifested itself in the Greek Cypriot-Israeli gas exploration venture. Last September, Turkey had threatened to stop the joint operation, saying the Greek Cypriot government had no right to sign deals with Israel, even though drilling was to take place within Greek Cyprus’s United Nations-designated Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Erdogan had even called the exploration venture “madness.”

Turkish hostility is based on the belief no exploration should take place until a political settlement is reached with the Ankara-controlled government in the partitioned island’s northern part. Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when a brief Greek Cypriot coup sought to unite the island with Greece. Turkey responded by invading and occupying Cyprus’s northern one-third, after which it sent thousands of colonists to settle there.

The new government Turkey established in northern Cyprus, called The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, is not recognized in any world capital except Ankara. The southern Greek Cypriot government holds Cyprus’s UN seat under the name Republic of Cyprus and is internationally recognized as representing the island nation.

Despite its bombast, Turkish leaders, however, did not carry through with their threats of force to halt exploration and have only engaged in intimidation tactics. A few days before Greek Cyprus announced the gas discovery, Turkish warships shelled the narrow strip of international waters separating the Greek Cypriot and Israeli natural gas fields. And when Noble Energy moved its drilling rig from Israeli waters into position off Cyprus’s south-eastern coast last September, Turkish naval vessels and warplanes wisely limited their actions to shadowing the transfer operation, keeping outside of Greek Cypriot waters and airspace. Turkey obviously knew anyone attacking an American oil rig would pay a heavy price courtesy of the US Mediterranean fleet.

This is also probably the reason why Turkey has been very quiet as of late concerning earlier threats to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza by having its warships escort the next convoy of aid ships. In such a case, Israel’s powerful military would be the one to call Turkey to account. If Turkey came out second best in such a confrontation, the Turkish government would wind up suffering a huge lost of face at a time it is trying to establish a leadership position in the Arab world by confronting Israel. So it has most likely decided it is better just to stick to empty rhetoric for the time being.

Turkey, however, did send its own exploration ship into Greek Cypriot waters, close to Israeli gas fields, after drilling began last September. But this move sparked an immediate military response. Two Israeli warplanes flew through Turkish Cypriot airspace and over the Turkish ship while an Israeli military helicopter hovered above it. Turkey sent two warplanes to shadow the Israeli planes.

By insisting that northern Cyprus’s Ankara-controlled government should be part of any Israeli-Greek Cypriot gas exploration deal, it is obvious an energy-poor Turkey wants a share of the wealth that lies beneath the Mediterranean in an area known as the Levant Basin. This geographical feature stretches from Egypt to Syria, encompassing Israeli and Greek Cypriot waters, and contains, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and unknown quantities of oil.

The Turkish government’s threat to escort aid convoys to Gaza is also said to be motivated in part by the $4 billion in gas reserves believed to be lying off Gaza’s shores. Besides increasing its prestige in the Islamic world, by challenging Israel and threatening to break the blockade with its warships, Turkey hopes to receive a share of those energy deposits from a grateful Palestinian government after statehood is declared.

But the Erdogan government’s hostility to the Cyprus-Israeli alliance consists of more than just a hunger for new energy sources. According to columnist Robert Ellis, Turkey also regards the eastern Mediterranean as “mare nostrum” (our sea) and sees Israel’s expanding influence there as a threat to its perceived predominance. A Turkish minister even said “that any project in this region requires Turkey’s approval.” But by proceeding with its gas exploration venture with Cyprus, Israel is not only defying the Turkish government’s claimed sphere of influence, it is also challenging Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman policy to re-establish Turkey as the major power in the Middle East. To what extent the Islamists in Ankara intend to take up Israel’s challenge remains to be seen.

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