The divided island at the heart of Turkey’s isolation in the Eastern Mediterranean

The upcoming presidential election in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a breakaway state that only Turkey recognises, represents a microcosm of Turkey’s tensions with Greece and its growing isolation in wider eastern Mediterranean politics.

In the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey “sees its old adversaries Greece and Cyprus, and new adversaries Egypt and Israel, linking up in a number of energy, natural gas, and security related initiatives and blocking Turkey in,” Soner Çağaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, and author of Erdoğan's Empire, told Ahval.

Cyprus has been divided since Turkey invaded the northern third of the island in 1974 in response a Greek Cypriot coup that sought unification with Greece.

The war that followed remains an unresolved conflict. Approximately 35,000 Turkish troops remain stationed in the Turkish Cypriot north of Cyprus and United Nations peacekeepers patrol its border with the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus, which joined the European Union in 2004.

Kicking off his campaign to be re-elected president of the TRNC this month, Mustafa Akıncı called for an increased urgency in efforts to reunify the island. He cautioned that the divide between the two sides of the island was becoming entrenched and that if the status quo were to continue, the territory he governs would become a de facto province of Turkey.

“Turkey actually did seek unification in 2004 during the Annan plan talks when both the Turkish government supported the talks and Turkish Cypriots voted for it. At the time it was Greek Cypriots who voted against it,” Çağaptay said, and more recent “talks collapsed again due to Greek Cypriot objections.”

Even so, Turkey is now offering strong support to Akıncı’s leading opponent in the April election, populist Prime Minister Ersin Tatar, who rejects reconciliation with the south. Representatives of the ruling coalition in Turkey have been acerbic in their criticism of Akıncı, calling for his resignation.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s position on the Cyprus issue has always been tied to domestic politics said Sibel Oktay, assistant professor of political science at the University of Illinois-Springfield.

“He used to be a champion of reunification nearly two decades ago when it was domestically advantageous for him,” she said. It helped Erdoğan “increase Turkey’s clout in the EU and establish his credentials as a liberal, Western-looking, pragmatic leader at a time when virtually everyone was suspicious of his politics.”

“Now, his strange bedfellow relationship with [the ultraconservative Nationalist Movement Party leader Devlet Bahçeli] and his electoral base strictly prevent him from adopting a pro-reunification rhetoric. Erdoğan would never want to go down in history as the leader who lost Cyprus. That’s a terrible legacy to have in Turkish politics,” Oktay said.

Complicating matters, major discoveries of natural gas reserves off Cyprus and the neighbouring territories of Israel and Egypt, have driven these states closer together. Without its own undisputed discoveries, Turkey appears determined to leverage the unresolved Cyprus issue to challenge the island’s rights to proven gas deposits.

“The search for hydrocarbons is a huge incentive for Turkey to keep the TRNC beneath its wings,” Oktay said. But Turkish foreign policy on Cyprus is short-sighted, she said, pointing to the cost of upholding the status quo “while a strategic partnership is being forged by Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel with U.S. support.”

Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt have formal bilateral treaties demarcating the maritime borders of their exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and have agreed to build an undersea pipeline with Greece to connect offshore production to European markets. Turkey could present a cheaper route for the gas, but it has been belligerent in its opposition to its neighbours’ energy cooperation.

As Ankara sees it, Çağaptay said, “Turkey needs to be maximalist in the eastern Mediterranean regarding Cyprus, which is the weakest link in the Greek-Cypriot-Israeli-Egyptian axis encircling Turkey.”

Turkey has sent drilling ships escorted by warships to explore gas blocks widely recognised as part of Cyprus’s EEZ and does not recognise the principle of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that says islands like Cyprus and Greece’s Crete can have rights to EEZs.

To challenge the apparent “maritime wall stretching from Athens to Tel Aviv,” said Çağaptay, Turkey is “aggressively pushing for the victory of the internationally recognised government in Tripoli in Libya’s civil war, a government that has signed a treaty with Ankara establishing Turkey and Libya as maritime neighbours and allowing Turkey to pierce through this Greek-Cypriot-Egyptian-Israeli axis through a Turkish-Libyan cutting line.”

The treaty has, however, been widely condemned. Greece and Cyprus asserted, with the backing of the EU, that the agreement is void and violates UNCLOS. Egypt called it illegal and Israel said it threatened peace and stability.

The United States has also shifted its strategy in the eastern Mediterranean to rely on strengthened partnerships with Greece, Cyprus, and Israel. The bipartisan Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act was passed as a part of the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act for the 2020 fiscal year.

“It is mainly a measure to counter Russian interests in the region and it curbs Turkish ambitions along the way, or at least sends a very strong political message that Turkey is being sidelined,” Oktay said.

In addition to requiring a report on Russian activities in the region, the EastMed Act lifts the United States’ longstanding arms embargo on Cyprus, authorises new security assistance to Cyprus and Greece, and requires the secretary of state to submit a strategy for enhancing U.S. security and energy cooperation with countries in the region.

“It’s a win-win for the countries involved in this partnership and a huge strategic loss for Turkey,” Oktay concluded.

Turkey may believe support for the anti-reunification candidate for president of the TRNC will help it undermine cooperation among its regional adversaries, but it could produce the opposite effect of hardening the bloc coalescing against it in the eastern Mediterranean.

Erdoğan has proven willing to seek the reunification of Cyprus before, but with few allies in the region he will likely hold fast for now to Turkey’s strategy of unilateral belligerence on Cypriot politics, oil and gas exploration, and the rejection of Greek and Cypriot maritime claims.


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.