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Last week, France’s President Macron authorized the deployment of French warships to preserve the status quo on and around the divided island of Cyprus. Tensions are high in the region, with Turkey pressing its right to drill for hydrocarbons in waters claimed by the Greek and Greek Cypriot governments, and pushing for the demilitarization of Greek territories in the Aegean Sea. Turkish fighter jets frequently conduct incursions into Greek airspace, and Turkish shipping has violated Greece’s sovereign waters.
In 1974, the Republic of Turkey invaded Northern Cyprus in response to a Greek sponsored coup. The brief military action left Cyprus divided and occupied. Many were killed, and hundreds of thousands of Greek and Turkish Cypriots were forced from their homes. Today, an unstable status quo exists between the unrecognized and Turkish backed ‘Republic of Northern Cyprus,’ and the internationally recognized government in the South, with peace maintained through international mediation and the establishment of British and UN sponsored demilitarized zones. The conflict over the future of Cyprus is one part of a larger struggle in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean between Ankara and Athens, with frequent disputes over airspace, the militarization of islands, and the ownership of certain waters (and the hydrocarbon reserves that lie beneath them) all falling under the general heading of the ‘Aegean dispute.’
The most recent flare up of this dispute centres on Turkish drilling in Cyprus’ Western waters, an act that has been strongly contested by Greece and the European Union. The dispute over hydrocarbons is not a new facet of the conflict: in June 2019, then Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras appealed to the EU “to unreservedly condemn the illegal actions of Turkey,” and in 2018 Turkey, deployed gunboats to block the efforts of an Italian drilling company working with the southern Cypriot government.
Turkey has claimed that they are technically drilling in international waters, and that it is merely responding to the perceived exclusion of Turkish Cypriots from Cypriot drilling in the region. Turkey recently rejected an offer from Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to share 30% of oil revenue with Northern Cyprus.
The dispute in Cyprus is concerning for a number of reasons.
First, it complicates relations between the EU and Turkey, at a time when partnership is more important than ever. Federica Mogherini, former High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has expressed “great concern” over Turkey’s plans, and called for “Turkey to show restraint, respect the sovereign rights of Cyprus … and refrain from … illegal action to which the EU will respond appropriately.”
It also has the potential to cause rifts within NATO. Both Turkey and Greece are NATO members, and in the context of conflict in the Middle East, an assertive Russia, and a growing unwillingness on the part of America to commit funds to the organization, threats to NATO’s unity may be more damaging than ever. The deployment of French warships to the region, as well as the threat of EU sanctions on Turkey, has the potential to escalate rather than dampen tensions, especially given the complex interlinking of the Aegean dispute with conflicts elsewhere in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
Whilst war doesn’t seem likely, Turkey and Greece have nearly come to blows in the Aegean before. Keith Johnson, writing for Foreign Policy, argues that with Erdogan looking weak at home, the opportunity to make domestic political capital out of a war in Cyprus might seem highly tempting.
Furthermore, the complications surrounding the dispute are exacerbated by its links to the war in Libya. Turkish agreements with the Libyan Government of National Accord over drilling rights in the Mediterranean have been leveraged by Ankara to support their claims to reserves claimed by Greece, and French willingness to support Greece may in part stem from the fact that Paris and Ankara support opposing factions in the Libyan conflict.
It seems clear that, as in previous cases of Aegean escalation, the only way to effectively dampen tension is through international mediation. Unilateral action by France may reduce tensions in the short term, however one might be concerned that the intersection of conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean with conflict in Libya might eventually serve to exacerbate both. It is also clear that the issue of hydrocarbons is only one part of a larger issue – that of territorial claims in the Aegean, and the imperfect and unrecognized division of Cyprus. International mediators must work to treat the core problem rather than the symptoms – that is, there must be a concerted effort to resolve the dispute over Aegean island territories. Previous attempts – including one as recent as 2017 – have ended in failure. However, by learning from mistakes made before, and encouraging compromise rather than conflict between involved parties, a potentially dangerous situation might be effectively de-escalated.