Cyprus, a complex of maritime disputes

By Admiral (ret’d) Pascal Ausseur

Director of the FMES Institute.


Click here to read the original (French) version of this article

Taking an interest in maritime events means taking an interest in events on land: what happens at sea is in fact directly linked to the situation on land and maritime disputes or even tensions are part of a given geopolitical and geo-economic situation. When we look at Cyprus, we are, in this respect, in a textbook case.

We are accustomed to describing the Mediterranean as the laboratory of globalization, a form of concentration that allows us to grasp the issues that determine the world and that could help us identify approaches that can be generalized to respond to them. But when we look at the Eastern Mediterranean, we are faced with a form of « concentrate of concentrate ».

Thus, speaking of the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, around Cyprus, is in a way describing the new world, as the stakes, developments and scenarios at work illustrate the major trends of our time.

The Eastern Mediterranean is a « small » geopolitical cauldron

It has always been sensitive: this region has, in history, always been complex and often tense. A triple interface zone between the West, the East and Africa, it has brought cultural and material enrichment to the countries that compose it, but also tensions and rivalries which, as in the rest of the Mediterranean, only diminish in the course of history when a tutelary power assures its hold (Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, British, Americans).

It is also a privileged – vulnerable – transit route for world maritime traffic (25% of supplies) and in particular for European and French traffic (70%). The Suez Canal is such an obvious choice that it is only mentioned when it could be cut.

The last 20 years have seen a complete upheaval in the global geopolitical situation and thus in the Eastern Mediterranean.

At the beginning of the 2000s, at the turn of the century, we were in a rather peaceful phase under the tutelage of the United States, winners of the Cold War and promoters of the system which became known as « liberal market democracy » and which seemed set to expand. In the Eastern Mediterranean, only two nodes of tension remained.

The first one was (and unfortunately remains) the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been ongoing since 1948. Indeed, in Arab perception and representation, Israel is identified with a form of European colony, a Western outpost in the East and an intruder in a perpetual state of siege, like the Crusader kingdoms of the 12th and 13th centuries. This conflict, which has spread to Lebanon since 1975, is enmeshed in endless tensions that the regional (primarily Egypt) and global (especially the United States) powers are trying to control as much as possible. This does not prevent regular outbreaks of violence or war.

In 2000 the Oslo process establishing mutual recognition between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, already weakened by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and the attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, was not yet totally neutralised by the second intifada launched in September of the same year.

The second point of tension was related to Greek-Turkish rivalries, distant heirs to the emancipation of Greece from the Ottoman Empire in 1821 and the reorganizations that followed the Second World War.

In the early 2000s, these tensions focused on the delimitation of maritime and air space in the Aegean Sea and the status of Cyprus. The island had been independent since 1960 and was based on a community organisation dividing roles between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, according to the practice of the former British guardianship power. In 1974, while the colonels in power in Greece were considering the island’s incorporation, Turkey intervened militarily on the pretext of protecting the interests of the Turkish Cypriots. Operation Attila resulted in the occupation by the Turkish army of 38% of the island, the separation of the two communities and stabilisation guaranteed by a UN force. Turkey then no longer recognised the government of Cyprus, but is on the other hand the only state to recognise the government of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) since 1983.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the situation was rather calm: reunification seemed possible since all the problems were considered to be solved by the generalised convergence towards the Western model, which was materialised by the announced accession of these countries to the EU. The rejection in 2004 by the Greek Cypriots of the Annan reunification plan that preceded Cyprus’s accession to the EU shattered this project, making Turkey’s EU accession process and thus relations with this country even more complex.

Since then, this separation has turned into a real frozen conflict and has generated a de facto partition: Northern Cyprus is now de facto annexed by Turkey and reunification seems impossible.

Today we live in a different strategic environment that has changed the geopolitical environment of the Eastern Mediterranean. Two ruptures have changed the situation, one global, the other regional.

The first rupture is linked to the end – faster than expected – of the unipolarity of the world at the end of the Cold War. The catastrophic management by the United States of its victory is the cause. In place of the rather subtle approach of George Bush senior, which aimed at establishing a « new world order » based on law, multilateralism and the self-restriction of what had become the sole superpower, his successors and above all his son have substituted a policy marked by incoherence and brutality. Carried away by the hubris of a society that thought it was at the dawn of an American century, the United States failed to manage its hyperpower and plunged the region into chaos and the world into a rejection of a West perceived as partial and dysfunctional.

Two decades later, no one any longer believes in the « end of history » as described by Francis Fukuyama, in the global convergence towards a Western model, in the impartiality of the institutions founded after the Second World War and even in the principles of compromise and rejection of war that underlie them. It is a paradox that this questioned global governance is made even more necessary by the interpenetration of global issues (economy, environment, demography, health, security, etc.).

The successors of G. Bush junior, taking note, each in his own style, of the blow to American credibility as a stabilizing hegemon, have begun an at least partial disengagement from its world leadership, leaving the place to Russia and soon to China, as well as to the middle powers that are exploiting the margins of maneuver left by this new « power vacuum ». In the Middle East these countries are Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and Turkey.

The second rupture for this area is a consequence of the latter. It is linked to the progressive strategic emancipation of Turkey vis-à-vis the West organised by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This posture is based on a doctrine that is both neo-Ottoman and Islamist and aims to place Turkey in a position of regional pivot in the new post-bipolar (i.e. post-Cold War) world. The Arab revolutions of 2011 have given it an acceleration: Turkey, with the financial contribution of Qatar, has supported Muslim brothers in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, armed Misrata’s militias in Libya and opposition forces in Syria (including Daesh) and has become involved in European Muslim communities. However, the results have not lived up to the hoped-for expectations, especially in Egypt where the counter-revolution and the seizure of power by Marshal Al-Sissi, supported by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, have affirmed a strong regional counter-power.

This region is thus bathed in a new world, marked by major geopolitical reconfigurations, mainly linked to the loss of American pre-eminence and a disruptive Turkish policy.

In this very destructured framework, each state seeks to achieve its own objectives, without being hindered by alliances, blocked by the rule of law or inhibited in the use of force. The balance of power has now been consolidated along two main axes: on the one hand, Turkey and Qatar (Muslim Brotherhood) associated with Russia and Iran (anti-Western), and on the other hand Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt (Anti-Brotherhood) associated with the United States and Israel (Anti-Iran).

Can the oil windfall alleviate the situation?

The new technological advances allowing deep offshore drilling give this region the opportunity to benefit from exceptional energy and financial resources which, although they do not seem capable of upsetting world balances (1% of global potential), are sufficient to modify regional balances. Will this possibility favour the « appeasement by trade » so dear to Montesquieu and encourage these States to come to an agreement to take advantage of it?

The windfall is important: world gas consumption has been growing for 30 years and benefits from a more affordable production cost than petroleum while emitting less CO2. The East Mediterranean gas field is currently estimated at 3,500 billion m³, equivalent to Norwegian reserves, and could benefit Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus and Turkey.

Besides the energy autonomy that this resource would bring to the neighbouring countries, the export customer is obvious: the European Union is a major consumer and wants to diversify its supply, which is currently 40% dependent on Russia. Finally, the concentration of fields allows synergies and leverage effects in terms of exploitation and export.

In a way, the pacifying effect has already been felt: the major companies in the extractive industries need and demand security that is both physical and economic, ensuring them a return on major investments. Numerous agreements have thus come into being: Egypt and Israel for the export of Israeli gas to its southern neighbour, Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Israel for the construction of the EastMed pipeline, and above all the creation of an East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) made up of Egypt, Cyprus, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Greece. Most of the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) have been the subject of agreements, with the exception of the one between Lebanon and Israel and of course those concerning Turkey (Syria being a special case given the civil war).

On this last point, the opposite effect is observed. While Turkey objectively has an interest in being included in the regional agreements (it is already a gas hub between Russia, the Caucasus and Europe via TANAP and Turkish stream, and its very deteriorated economic situation would justify an agreement for the sharing of gas resources), Erdogan has integrated this issue into his regional geopolitics, made up of power relations, exacerbated nationalism, pawn taking and the uninhibited use of force. It is difficult at this stage to discern whether this policy is aimed at outright predation or at putting oneself in a position of strength to better negotiate economic sharing.

The law of the sea is only useful when one agrees to respect it.

After trade, the second most important tool for the regulation of force is the law. But, like any international law, the law of the sea requires states to adhere to it in order to recognise and apply it. In this area, the goodwill of states is essential and if the 1982 Montego Bay Convention has not been signed by Turkey, Israel and Syria, this would not prevent them from applying it.

Cyprus declared (unilaterally, like France in 1976) its EEZ in 2004, completed in 2014. Agreements have been concluded with Egypt in 2003, with Lebanon in 2007 (although they have not yet been ratified by Lebanon) and then with Israel in 2010. On May 7, 2019, Cyprus has submitted a map to the UN showing the delimitation of its EEZ for the northern and north-western part of the island, without having negotiated with Turkey but taking into account the existence of a continental shelf claimed by the latter in the west of the island.

In addition, it has granted authorisations for prospection within this EEZ, but avoiding two disputed areas: off the TRNC and on the continental shelf.

Turkey does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus and therefore considers this EEZ to be illegitimate. It has not signed the Law of the Sea Convention but claims for its part an EEZ which commits the continental shelf to the Cypriot prospection zones.

On a more political level and detached from the Law of the Sea, Turkey considers that the authorisations for prospection granted by the Republic of Cyprus have been granted without taking into account the rights of the Turkish Cypriots in the TRNC and are therefore illegal and that it is its responsibility to ensure the defence of their interests. It therefore supports the TRNC’s demand for an extensive EEZ extending as far as the south of the island.

As a first step, Turkey wished to exert pressure on Cyprus by freezing all gas activities, in line with the jurisprudence that such activities can only take place after agreement between the parties.

After 2018, in reaction to the first Cypriot prospections, and in conjunction with a stronger assurance in the Syrian conflict (Battle of Afrin), Erdogan ordered its Navy to disturb or even obstruct the work carried out by the French company Total and the Italian company ENI in Southern Cyprus. Then, gradually, the Turkish prospection and drilling boats have, under good military guard and accompanied by martial speeches, begun their activities, first on the continental shelf in May 2019, then in the EEZ of the TRNC in June and finally in the middle of the Cypriot EEZ in October.

More recently, on November 27, 2019, Turkey and Libya signed a maritime delimitation agreement, in exchange for a security and military cooperation agreement signed on the same day. This agreement provides for the two countries to share their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and the reserves they contain, particularly in terms of hydrocarbons. The EEZs in question largely overlap with that of Greece, especially off the coast of Crete. On December 13, 2019, the European Union declared that the agreement violates the rights of third countries.

France’s protests, US warnings and EU sanctions have had no impact on a policy that favours geopolitical objectives that stray from the multilateral framework.

Turkey has the advantage in the balance of power: it is stronger than Cyprus, closer than France and more determined than the other actors. However, it is necessary not to give in to intimidation and fait accompli while identifying a path of de-escalation. This could be achieved through a combination of diplomatic (necessarily including Russia), military (to preserve our freedom of action) and economic (to ensure sufficient Turkish fallout) action.

Conclusion: an illustration of the new world

We are witnessing a paradigm shift in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The United States is no longer the sole master of the game and Russia is establishing itself as a judge of peace in the Middle East. For the time being, Russia is discreet on this subject, preserving its relationship with all the players (Gazprom and Rosneft are partners on all sides). However, the status quo is rather favourable to her.

Turkey is emancipating itself and no longer even pretends to play the game of multilateralism and the law of the sea, which it perceives as tools of an outdated Western domination.

The UN and the EU are showing their powerlessness to regulate these conflicts.

The United States seems to be satisfied with this new deregulated and multipolar world. It allows them to weigh in without restriction when they wish, without having to « carry » a system that is too heavy and that they feel is outdated. Secretary of State Pompeo is saying the same thing when he underlines the uselessness of international law in settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: « there will never be a legal solution to the conflict and the arguments about who is right or wrong under international law will not bring peace ».

Only Europe wishes to maintain the strength of multilateralism and international law. But today it is powerless, petrified by the world that is coming and without a conceptual tool to articulate the establishment of a power politics that is not to be intimidated and the promotion of a renewed multilateralism and international law that would be accepted by a world that is sustainably de-Westernised.

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