Hunt for energy resources in eastern Mediterranean fuels tension

The struggle for rich gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean is fuelling tension between Turkey, Cyprus and Egypt due to political rivalries and disputes over maritime jurisdiction.

The eastern Mediterranean has seen some of the world’s biggest gas discoveries in the past decade, at a time when Europe is looking to diversify supplies from Russia. The huge Zohr gas field in Egyptian waters is particularly exciting for Cyprus, whose exclusive economic zone (EEZ) borders the estimated 30-trillion-cubic-feet gas field.

The Republic of Cyprus signed an agreement to demarcate its EEZ with Egypt in 2003 and has signed agreements with a number of international energy companies to search for possible oil and gas reserves around the island.

But Turkey does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus as sovereign over the whole island and instead backs a breakaway Turkish Cypriot administration in the north of Cyprus that it invaded in 1974. Turkey says any exploitation of the energy reserves by the Republic of Cyprus would deny Turkish Cypriots a share of the potential wealth.

Tensions between Turkey and Cyprus shot up when the deepwater drillship Saipem 12000, leased by Italian energy firm Eni arrived off Cyprus in December.

Turkey responded by flexing its muscles and issued warnings that it was conducting military exercises in the area, but did not interfere with the drillship.

Eni announced on Feb. 8 it had made a gas discovery in Block 6 of the Cyprus EEZ and Turkey stepped up its pressure, physically blocking Saipem 12000 with its warships, despite calls from the European Union and the United States.

Egypt also supported Cyprus and warned Turkey against any infringement of its economic rights in the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey and Egypt have been at odds since widespread protests backed by the military toppled Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Turkey, alongside Qatar, was one of Morsi’s main backers.

Egypt’s military said on Feb. 20 its navy had begun patrols of the Zohr gas field, near the demarcation line between Egypt and Cyprus in order to combat potential threats. The move was seen as a message to Turkey.

After its ship was blocked a second time, Eni stopped its exploration activities off Cyprus and Saipem 12000 moved to Morocco where it had been due to begin work.

Turkey has followed what U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called gunboat diplomacy, but it remains to be seen what policy it will follow when exploration ships belonging to U.S. energy giant ExxonMobil move into the Cyprus EEZ, possibly backed up by the U.S. Navy.

Now non-states actors may also become party to this struggle. Two notable non-state organisations, Hezbollah and Islamic State (ISIS) are active in volatile region.

Israel and Lebanon have not signed any demarcation deal between each other, but have done so with Cyprus.

Lebanon this month signed its first offshore exploration and exploitation agreements with a consortium of French Total, Eni and Russian Novatek. The agreement includes a block on the disputed maritime delineation line that Israeli authorities say is theirs.

After Israel protested the agreement, Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah joined the fray.  Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, threatened Israel. "If you prevent and bomb us, we will bomb you, and if you hit us, we will hit you," he said.

Israeli officials have said the probability of going to war with Hezbollah in 2018 is becoming increasingly likely.

Hezbollah’s threat to Israeli offshore facilities should not be underestimated considering the sophisticated arms in its arsenal such as unmanned aerial vehicles, anti-ship missiles, guided missiles and rockets. Hezbollah managed to hit an Israeli warship, INS Hanit, with an anti-ship missile in 2006 and the force also has naval commandos.

The presence of Islamic State (ISIS) in the Sinai Peninsula could also complicate matters. The group shot down a Russian passenger jet attack in 2015, killing 224 people and has also attacked Egyptian naval units in the Mediterranean, most notably killing eight servicemen in an attack 70 km from Egypt’s coast in 2014.

Up to now, ISIS insurgents in Sinai have not attacked any Egyptian offshore facility, nor threatened them, but the Egyptian Navy deployment to the Zohr gas field by may be in part a precaution against a possible attack.