[ANALYSIS] The hidden potential of the UK’s Cyprus SBAs in the eastern Mediterranean

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Fatih Yurtsever*

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine once again revealed how important it is for the security of Europe for the EU countries to find alternatives to Russia in terms of gas supply as soon as possible. Thanks to reserves discovered in recent years, the eastern Mediterranean may be one of the alternative gas supply options for EU countries in the medium term. Recent discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean indicate that the region will become a significant natural gas center in the 21st century. According to the United States Geological Survey, there may be 122 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas in the Levant Basin south of Cyprus and off Israel. However, there are disagreements between the parties on the delimitation of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the eastern Mediterranean. In August 2020 Turkey and Greece reached the brink of war due to the tension between them caused by disagreement over the delimitation of EEZ in the eastern Mediterranean.

In its “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy,” published in March 2021, the UK government set out strategic objectives for a Global Britain. The UK has so far avoided taking an active role in the crises in the eastern Mediterranean. However, it has taken an active role in the Ukraine crisis to achieve its Global Britain political vision and will take a similar stance in crises that may arise in the eastern Mediterranean in line with the global foreign policy vision adopted post-Brexit.

The new geopolitical landscape created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is increasing the strategic importance to the UK of the eastern Mediterranean and the island of Cyprus. So how can the UK influence the energy issue in the eastern Mediterranean and the delimitation of the EEZ by using its sovereign military bases on the island of Cyprus, which have not been much on the agenda so far?

The United Kingdom has two sovereign bases named Akrotiri and Dkelelia on Cyprus according to the Treaty Concerning the Establishment of the Republic of Cyprus signed in Nicosia on August 16, 1960. The Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs), which provided extensive support for UK military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, cover 256 square kilometers. Most of this land — some 60 percent — is privately owned by Cypriot nationals. The British population of the SBAs is around 7,500 and includes service personnel and their families. In addition, there is a population of around 10,000 Cypriots. The Cypriots living in the areas are recognized residents of the SBAs. Still, they are EU and Republic of Cyprus (RoC) citizens, while the SBAs in Cyprus are not formally part of the EU. The SBAs include farms and residential areas that account for 3 percent of the island’s total area.

As a concrete example of the Global Britain policy, the SBAs in Cyprus have recently undergone significant development. An agreement signed by the United Kingdom and the Republic of Cyprus (recognized as the Greek Administration of Southern Cyprus by Turkey) in 2014 comes into force on May 16, 2022, regulating the sale or development of property by Cypriots living on military bases.

The president of the Republic of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, described the agreement as exceptional and said it would allow thousands of Cypriots to purchase real estate in the SBAs. It is expected to offer significant development prospects for those living or owning properties on the bases and the economy and society in a difficult period following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The UK views the military bases as strategic assets. Akrotiri is used as a forward mounting base for multiple operations in the region by the Royal Air Force (RAF). The installations have gained strategic advantages post-Brexit and in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Gen Sir Mark Carleton Smith, chief of general staff, made the first visit to Cyprus in nearly a decade. He highlighted the importance of Cyprus to the British military.

“The UK was fortunate to have close bilateral relations with Cyprus. We also maintain sovereign bases in Cyprus and have done so for many decades,” he said. “They provide a military platform that allows us to deploy troops in the eastern Mediterranean and shorten our response times in the region. It’s a volatile region, so it’s in our military interest to prepare and acclimate troops here in Cyprus.”

Another critical point that makes the SBAs important to the UK is that military bases have territorial waters. SBAs are British Overseas Territories, but unlike other overseas territories such as Gibraltar or the British Virgin Islands, they fall under the responsibility of the UK Ministry of Defence rather than the Foreign Office.

Article 1 of the establishment treaty provides that “The territory of the Republic of Cyprus shall comprise the Island of Cyprus, together with the Islands lying off its coast, with the exception of the two areas defined in Annex A to this Treaty, which areas shall remain under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom. These areas are in this Treaty and its Annexes referred to as the Akrotiri Sovereign Base Area and the Dhekelia Sovereign Base Area.”

In the charts annexed to the treaty, the limits of the Akrotiri and Dhekelia SBAs were declared as clearly and in as much detail as possible and emphasized that the coastlines and territorial waters (3 nautical miles) related to the bases would be under their sovereignty. The coastline of the two sovereign bases has a length of around 79 kilometers, making up 10 percent of the 782.5 kilometer coastline of the entire island.

In addition, Section 3 of the Treaty on the Establishment of the Republic of Cyprus established the boundaries of the territorial waters between the Republic of Cyprus and the UK SBAs. These boundaries may also potentially affect the boundaries of the continental shelf and the EEZ, although this possibility is not explicitly mentioned in the treaty. The UK has not clearly asserted that the SBAs have an EEZ or continental shelf around the island of Cyprus beyond the territorial waters since the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea gives littoral states rights to do so, but neither has it made any official statement contradicting this assertion.

If the UK claims that the SBAs have the right to the continental shelf or EEZ, the energy equation in the region will change drastically. The major energy companies drilling off Cyprus are conducting exploration and drilling operations in the sea areas licensed by the Greek Cypriot administration. If the UK claims that the SBAs have the right to the continental shelf or EEZ, the Greek Cypriot administration will have to revise the offshore areas it has licensed. Energy companies will have to seek permission from the UK government for exploration and drilling work. Under these conditions, if Turkey can agree with the UK on a roadmap for defining the boundaries of the EEZ in the eastern Mediterranean and the transportation of natural gas resources that takes into account the rights and interests of both parties, it can overcome its isolation created by the implementation of the Blue Homeland Doctrine, which defines the boundaries of Turkey’s maritime jurisdiction in the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean utilizing a maximalist approach.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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