As Turkey prepares for a runoff in its presidential election on May 28, unfolding developments in the eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus are becoming increasingly significant to its foreign policy. However, Turkey has yet to fully grasp the necessity of strategically utilizing its naval and diplomatic power in that region. The Turkish Navy’s flagship, TCG Anadolu is being leveraged as a propaganda tool for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s re-election campaign. It is making port visits to İstanbul and İzmir when its presence might be more strategically beneficial off the coast of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean. So what exactly is transpiring in the eastern Mediterranean, and how might these developments soon impact Turkey’s security and foreign policy?
When the Arab Spring—a series of anti-government protests, uprisings and armed rebellions—swept across much of the Arab world in the early 2010s, the Erdoğan government deviated from its “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy. After the Arab Spring, Turkey abandoned its fundamental principle of non-interference in other countries’ problems, which had guided its foreign policy since its establishment and had primarily resolved issues through diplomacy. Turkey believed it could reshape the foreign policy balances in the Middle East, North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, viewing the conditions created by the Arab Spring as an opportunity for Turkey to emerge as a leader in the Islamic world. Consequently, it became a direct party to regional conflicts and problems between other countries.
Since 2010 Turkey has undergone a radical shift in its foreign policy, guided by political Islam, bringing Turkey and Israel face-to-face. The Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, when Israeli forces raided a Turkish ship attempting to break the Gaza blockade, resulting in the death of nine Turkish citizens and one US citizen of Turkish descent, led to a significant deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations. With the worsening bilateral ties with Turkey, Israel began moving closer to Greece and Cyprus.
The island of Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkey seized the northern third of the island, citing the need to protect the minority Turkish Cypriots after an Athens-supported coup. According to Turkey, Cyprus is divided into two administrations: the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) and the Greek Cypriot Administration (GCA). However, the United Nations and most other countries only recognize the Republic of Cyprus – more commonly known as “Cyprus” — as the representative of the whole island, while the KKTC is recognized only by Turkey.
Israel and Cyprus signed an agreement delimiting their maritime exclusive economic zones (EEZ) on Dec. 17, 2010. This agreement allows each country to explore natural resources within their respective zones, including oil and gas reserves. It was a significant step in the cooperation between the two countries in the eastern Mediterranean region.
Military exercises began to be conducted by Israel, Greece and Cyprus. The US also supported cooperation between the three countries in the eastern Mediterranean, and with the support of the US, the 3+1 mechanism was launched. In 2019 the US passed the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act, which provides energy security and defense cooperation assistance to the three countries. In September 2020 the United States partially lifted an arms embargo imposed on Cyprus in November 1987. The partial lifting of the embargo was little more than a symbolic gesture since it only allowed Cyprus to purchase “non-lethal” military equipment such as bulletproof vests.
The invasion of Ukraine by Russia on Feb. 24, 2022 and its aftermath prompted the EU to seek alternative sources of natural gas, thus reducing its dependence on Russia. Therefore, drilling activities south of the island of Cyprus have resumed at an accelerated pace after a period of slowdown.
In the Aphrodite field, located in the same region and overlapping with the “H” field licensed to the Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) by the KKTC, a consortium consisting of American Chevron, British Shell and Israeli New Med Energy started drilling an appraisal well in early May.
It’s important to note that Turkey and the KKTC signed a continental shelf delimitation agreement on Sept. 21, 2011, to assert their rights over the marine areas in the eastern Mediterranean, a region also claimed by Cyprus. This agreement was part of Turkey’s response to Cyprus’s oil and gas exploration activities. The current drilling aims to verify the estimated 4.4 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas reserves in the Aphrodite field, with gas production expected to commence as early as 2027. Turkey has opposed these drilling activities, asserting that the Turks residing in the island’s northern part also have the right to extract natural gas. Turkey has even indicated that it could physically intervene with warships to halt drilling if necessary. However, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has yet to issue an official statement regarding the drilling in the Aphrodite field.
The gas to be extracted from the Aphrodite field will be transported to Cyprus via a pipeline to be laid under the sea. A small portion of the gas will be used in the domestic market to meet the electricity needs of Cyprus, and a large amount of the gas will be sold to the EU and Asian markets through the LNG terminal to be built in Cyprus. An agreement will be signed between Israel and Cyprus in early June on this issue.
The USS Arleigh Burke guided-missile destroyer made a scheduled port visit to Limassol on Tuesday as part of a NATO patrol mission in the eastern Mediterranean to rein in Russian military activities in the region, sparking Turkey’s discontent. In a statement released late on Wednesday, the Turkish foreign ministry expressed concern that the US action upsets the balance in the region, particularly to the detriment of the Turkish Cypriot side. Turkey further claimed that the US decision damaged its previously maintained neutral position concerning the island.
The recent developments in the eastern Mediterranean, particularly on the island of Cyprus, are, unfortunately, the adverse repercussions of Turkey’s radical foreign policy shifts since 2010. Turkey must strategically and harmoniously employ its naval power and diplomacy to mitigate these consequences. Regrettably, instead of deploying Turkey’s flagship, TCG Anadolu, in the eastern Mediterranean, it has been used for port visits in Izmir and Istanbul as part of Erdoğan’s pre-election propaganda.
In conclusion, Turkey must re-establish cooperation with the US in the eastern Mediterranean and seek to influence the region’s natural gas dynamics with American diplomatic support. It should also employ its naval power, particularly TCG Anadolu, in a diplomatic rather than coercive and proactive manner. However, such a policy shift seems unlikely under the current administration. Therefore, the outcome of the presidential runoff on May 28 carries significant implications in this context.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.