Cyprus: Hub of a Globe-Spanning Web of Power Politics

Cyprus should be conceptualized by Israel and the West in a fashion similar to Azerbaijan. The region has entered a turning point with simultaneous security, political, and economic transitions underway.

George Papadopoulos

OpEds George Papadopoulos
George Papadopoulos

The Republic of Cyprus has made headlines this month. In the ever more combustible eastern Mediterranean that should come as no surprise. Unfortunately for Cyprus, and America’s allies, Greece and Israel, the news did not concern the island’s substantial energy potential, burgeoning alliance with Israel, and herculean task it is undergoing to transform itself into the eastern Mediterranean’s energy hub.

In October of this year, Turkey’s ambassador to the European Union, Egemen Bagis, in a fit of pique, noted that, “Turkey will not give up a single inch of land on Cyprus.” The vitriol was not an isolated incident at the ministerial level. Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan enflamed the situation between the two countries when he noted on November 10th that, “there is no country named Cyprus.”

These statements have been followed up by direct military action, and are emblematic of a much larger Turkish expansionist agenda in the region. The U.S.’s recent willful retraction of influence in the region will need to be bolstered to counter Turkey’s problematic posturing.

The statements by Turkey’s leaders rest upon very dangerous underlying assumptions. If Turkey does not recognize Cyprus as a country, it therefore, does not recognize its sovereignty and Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone in which its natural gas has been found.

The assumptions the U.S. made that shaped key elements in President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East to allow Turkey to become the regional leader have not held up.
As Cyprus hastens plans along with western oil majors, Noble Energy, Total, and Eni to develop what will become the eastern Mediterranean’s premier Liquefied Natural Gas terminal on its southern coast, Turkey’s posturing around and within the island has become more aggressive. Turkey’s rhetoric has been supported by direct military action. Recent naval incursions within Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone, as well as its occupying presence on the north of the island, pose direct threats to these efforts which have now become global questions.  

Turkey’s military response to the discovery of natural gas in Cyprus should not come as a surprise. Since time immemorial, nations have competed for energy reserves for it has been intimately intertwined with national strategies and power. Energy has also played a central role in the rise and fall of great powers. A driving force behind Germany’s costly invasion of the Soviet Union was for control over the oil rich Caucasus and specifically the city of Baku in what is today Azerbaijan. The Japanese engaged in a preemptive strike against U.S. forces to prevent the U.S. Pacific Fleet from responding to Japan’s control of South East Asia’s energy wealth.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the creation of the newly independent state of Azerbaijan, ushered in a wave of commercial and political interest from the west. Western oil majors such as BP have entered the Azeri market, and by the turn of the next decade, will have integrated the Caspian’s energy rich reserves within the European Union’s pipeline system for the first time in history.

Azerbaijan has also been reoriented towards the West politically. Growing military ties with Israel, and robust investments within Greece’s energy sector, including the Trans Adriatic Pipeline which will channel Azeri gas to the EU, has consolidated Azerbaijan within the West’s energy and political framework after years of competition between rival great powers.

Cyprus should be conceptualized in a similar fashion. Similarly to the Soviet Union’s unbridled aim for dominance of the Caucasus, for as long as Turkey maintains its robust force on the island, and its navy’s obstructionist maneuvering within Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone continues, the island’s energy production is fraught with risk.

Turkey will have the power to sabotage the gas development of Cyprus, and potentially both Israel and Lebanon’s. This has supply side energy security implications for U.S. allies in the Pacific and European Union. The U.S.’s top ally in the Pacific, Japan, is forecasted to remain the world’s largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) consumer. Japan will require even larger quantities of liquefied natural gas (LNG) post 2020, approximately the period in which both the Cypriot and Israeli reserves will come online for export, as it transitions into a nuclear free future.

The European Union currently depends on three major precarious energy corridors for its natural gas consumption. Norway, which has seen depleting reserves cut its production, Russia, which utilizes its state backed monopoly gazprom for political and natural gas blackmail,  and North Africa, primarily from the failed state of Libya which has seen its natural gas production cut to a tenth of what it was before its revolution. Both Israel’s and Cyprus’ gas will open new and competitive routes to Europe and the Pacific to import natural gas.

Without a robust western naval presence to protect the newly found reserves of Cyprus, Turkey’s navy would be in the enviable position adjacent to both Israel’s and Lebanon’s gas findings bordering Cyprus’. Both countries are currently in discussions with Cyprus to channel large portions of their natural gas reserves to Cyprus’ future liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility for export to global markets.

Recent news of Cyprus’ plans to upgrade its strategic airbase at Paphos comes at a fortuitous time. Both Israeli and Greek air forces have trained together in the south of the island and have utilized this base in a show of support for Cyprus’ drilling rights. The U.S., Israeli, Greek, and Italian air forces have recently completed joint aerial drills in Israel’s largest air force drill in its history called “blue stream”.

Perhaps the licensing of lucrative blocks to Italian based Eni within Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone, as well as Italy’s participation in the “blue flag” exercise, will portend a more robust naval presence to share costs and burdens of the security of the transshipment of energy to global markets from the region along with their U.S., Israeli, and Greek counterparts.  

The U.S. should station a fleet of U.S. Littoral Combat Ships at the NATO installation of Souda Bay Crete on Greece. The base can be the linchpin of U.S. naval force projection in the entire eastern Mediterranean, and assure the safe transshipment of energy from the eastern Mediterranean to global markets. The commercial and political interest from Washington as a result of the stars and stripes flown on the platform of Noble Energy’s rigs operating south of Cyprus can also facilitate a military relationship with the U.S. Cyprus desperately needs.

Cyprus’ recent defense pact agreement with Italy, its willingness to host allied Greek and Israeli air forces on its air bases for training, as well as its future role as the eastern Mediterranean’s energy hub, elevates its geopolitical capital not only in Washington and Brussels, but Jerusalem as well. A Cyprus in NATO extends not only the European Union to 45 minutes of Israel’s borders, but NATO as well.

American policymakers might shrug off the increasingly common hostile comments like the ones noted above from Turkey’s leaders if it did not presage a transformation of Turkish foreign policy. Turkey currently stations over 35,000 NATO supplied troops in the occupied northern portion of Cyprus. The statements made by Turkey’s leadership disputing the very existence of the European Union member it occupies showcases Turkey’s true intentions on Cyprus, permanent hegemony over the island.

Asserting control over Cyprus’ newly discovered energy would permit Turkey to regain a power position in direct competition with the U.S. for preeminence in the eastern Mediterranean. Like the energy rich Caucasus and South East Asia during WWII, Cyprus, without a stabilizing presence by the U.S., will be the tinder that adds tension to the region’s fault-lines between NATO and non-NATO, Turkey and Europe, and Christian and Muslim.  The U.S. should be aware of these changes and prepare to take Turkey’s threats seriously.

The assumptions the U.S. made that shaped key elements in President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East to allow Turkey to become the regional leader have not held up. As Israel, Cyprus, and Greece upgrade their alliance at all levels, policies must shift and reflect this new reality.

The region has entered a turning point with simultaneous security, political, and economic transitions underway. The decisions the U.S. makes now in supporting Cyprus’ attempt to become the region’s energy hub, will either consolidate the gains of the past three years that Cyprus has made along with Israel, Greece, and Italy, or undermine them for the next twenty.