Greece and Cyprus look for U.S. support in tussles with Turkey

As tension mounts between Turkey and its Greek and Greek Cypriot neighbours over territorial disputes in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, Greece and Cyprus are looking for international support and hope the prospect of rich gas finds can help spur talks to reunite the divided island of Cyprus.

A Turkish patrol boat rammed a Greek coastguard vessel off uninhabited disputed Aegean outcrops last month after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suggested revising the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that agreed the borders between them.

Meanwhile, Turkish warships twice blocked an exploration vessel leased by Italian energy company Eni from drilling off the coast of Cyprus, and all eyes are on Turkey’s next move as a ship from U.S. energy giant ExxonMobil prepares to look for gas deposits off the eastern Mediterranean island.

Athens and the Greek Cypriot government of the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus are looking to the United States and the European Union to rebuff what they see as the Turkish threat.

For the leftist Syriza party leading the Greek governing coalition, it is a far cry from its anti-U.S., anti-NATO and anti-EU rhetoric of just a few years ago. Now Syriza and its right-wing junior coalition partners welcome the establishment of new U.S. military bases on Greek soil.

As well as the dispute over the rocky outcrops known as Kardak in Turkey and Imia in Greece, the two countries are at odds over Greece’s refusal to extradite eight Turkish military personnel who fled there after the collapse of the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey and Turkey’s refusal to hand back two Greek soldiers who strayed across the border this month.

The Greek Cypriot government, led by President Nikos Anastasiades also welcomes the arrival of ExxonMobil survey vessels offshore and the increased U.S. Navy presence in the region. Turkey invaded the northern third of Cyprus in 1974 and backs a breakaway Turkish Cypriot administration there.

Ocean Investigator, a survey ship leased by ExxonMobil, arrived in Cyprus on Wednesday where it is due to stay at the port of Limassol port until March 24 to load equipment, but it could depart earlier to begin its search for hydrocarbons in block 10 of Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). A second vessel, the Med Surveyor, is due to arrive on Thursday. The ships will carry out exploration ahead of possible drilling in the second half of the year.

U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus Kathleen Doherty said on Wednesday that Washington does not expect Turkey to cause any problems for the two vessels in Cyprus’ EEZ.

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan repeated in a speech on Wednesday that gas exploration off Cyprus should not take place without the involvement of the Turkish Cypriots.

Turkish Cypriots argue that according to the founding agreements of the Republic of Cyprus, they not only have a share in all the energy reserves discovered in Cyprus, but should also have a role in the decision-making process.

The internationally recognised Greek Cypriot however has said the Turkish Cypriot side would have a share of the gas profits after the solution of the Cyprus problem, seeing that as a way to encourage the restart of talks to reunite the island or resolve its division.

For Republic of Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades, the restart of negotiations holds the key for both the de-escalation of tension and the achievement of a federal solution to the Cyprus problem.

The Turkish Cypriot side agrees negotiations would help de-escalate tension, but it also wants concessions on the manner in which the talks are conducted and for the Greek Cypriots to honour political equality between the two communities. The Turkish Cypriots also insist on a timetable for the negotiations and on the need to recognise their rights to manage and exploit the island's natural resources.

With the support of the United Nations, the leaders of the two sides of the island are preparing to meet at a social event on the Green Line that divides the territory.

According to the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, this meeting could take place before a Turkey-EU summit in Bulgaria on March 26 and will aim to create the appropriate framework for a mutual compromise for the relaunch of the talks and reducing the tension around Cyprus.