Haggai Carmon: Attorney and Author

Neighborhood Bulling in Turkey — Cyprus Conflict

Huffington Post Op Eds 09/09/2011

Turkey is at it again behaving like the schoolyard bully. This time, Turkey’s target is not Israel but the Republic of Cyprus. In an interview to Zaman, a Turkish newspaper, Turkish EU Minister Egemen Bağış has threatened that if the Republic of Cyprus enters claimed Turkish terrestrial waters during their oil exploration efforts in the Mediterranean, Turkey will not hesitate to deploy war ships.

“They [Republic of Cyprus] know that Turkey is serious and that all options are on the table,” he said. The exploration is scheduled to start on October 1.

Therefore, time is short before the region becomes a conflict area again. Not that it would be new. Turks and Greeks are sworn enemies for centuries, and not much is needed to torch the area again. The most recent Turkish Greek war was between 1919 and 1922 when the Turks led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk won. The war ended with the Treaty of Lausanne, which also led to the international recognition of the sovereignty of the new Republic of Turkey as the successor state of the defunct Ottoman Empire.

Since 1974 when Turkey invaded Cyprus, the island is divided roughly between the Republic of Cyprus an EU member which controls 2/3 of the territory and is populated mostly by people of Greek descent, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) mostly populated by people of Turkish descent, as well by new Turks emigrating from Turkey. KKTC is recognized only by Turkey. Reunification talks of the four-decade divided Cyprus have failed with each side blaming the other. Soon Cyprus will assume the rotating presidency of the EU, and Turkey announced that it would begin to work on “alternatives” for the future of KKTC. This unveiled threat was apparently meant to cause the West into pressuring the Republic of Cyprus to make concessions.

In November 2008 the Cypriot government said that a Turkish Naval ship was harassing two vessels in international waters. One of these ships was conducting an oil and gas exploration mission off the south coast of Cyprus when the Turkish Navy forced it to cease operations. Turkey’s official position was that the exploration was encroaching on its continental shelf. The Cyprus government insisted said the incidents occurred in the Republic of Cyprus Exclusive Economic Zone.

The Cyprus government has recently entered into a production-sharing agreement with U.S.-based Noble Energy to explore energy in a 324,000-hectare economic zone in the southeast of Cyprus which borders Israeli waters which discovered substantial gas fields under the seabed. The gas reserves in the area to be explored by Cyprus are expected to be in excess of 10 trillion cubic feet. The fact that there are cooperation agreements between Cyprus and Israel regarding the explorations in the region is definitely not helping the Turks to accept the recent developments.

Why is the Turkish government opposing the exploration? As the big brother of Turkish Cypriots, Turkey cannot agree that a mostly Greek Republic of Cyprus would be allowed to explore and financially gain from the gas fields, leaving the Turkish Cypriots empty handed. The Republic of Cyprus which does not recognize the legitimacy of KKTC and regards it as an areas occupied by Turkey, does not seem to be deterred, maybe because it has the protection of its own big brother – Greece. Indeed Greek Defense Minister Panos Beglitis said, “We watch the developments with our necessary strategy and determination,” further hinting that Greece is not afraid of any threats posed by Turkey. Greek Cypriots are also encouraged by the involvement of a US exploration company politically backed by the U.S and also after hearing that the Russians have verbally supported the project. Coincidentally – or not – this week the Greek defense minister making the first official visit by a Greek defense minister to Israel, and his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, signed a cooperation memorandum on security in Jerusalem.

These developments and public supports may not be enough to make Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip to think twice before torching the area. Erdoğan is trying to drum up popular support for a new constitution, and with a trail of political failures (but with a very strong and growing economy) it is unlikely that Turkey will just sit and watch.

The neighborhood bully picks on you not because of what you did, but because he wants to show who he is. For your future reference.