Conflicting interests lead to dilemma for Turkey in Eastern Mediterranean

Despite standing alone on the issue in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey has firmly opposed both neighbouring countries and international energy companies’ activities in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claimed by the Greek Cypriot administration. This stance returned to the agenda on November 23 when Binali Yıldırım, the speaker of Turkey’s Grand National Assembly, warned international energy firms against oil and gas explorations in the waters around Cyprus.

Ankara argues that the Greek Cypriot EEZ infringes on Turkey's own continental shelf, and that in any case, exploitation of energy resources around the island would amount to violating the rights of Turkish Cypriots, who have controlled Northern Cyprus since the island was divided in 1974.

Yet the issue is not as simple as it seems, and Turkey faces a huge dilemma as some oil giants and their states have joint ventures with Turkey not only in the energy sector, but also in defence. The Turkish defence industry has changed significantly since the early 2000s, as Turkey increased its involvement in co-production and co-development projects with other countries. Many energy firms from these countries are active in the Eastern Mediterranean and Turkey.

The most active firm in Greek Cyprus’s EEZ is the Italian energy company ENI. ENI’s partners are the South Korean firm KOGAS and French company TOTAL. Last February, the Turkish Navy twice blocked survey vessels leased by ENI off Cyprus. However, ENI has important ventures in Turkey. ENI and Russian energy giant Gazprom sell natural gas supplied by Russia and transported through the Blue Stream underwater pipeline on the Turkish market. Moreover, ENI’s chemical subsidiary Versalis Kimya operates in the Turkish chemical sector.

Moreover, in February, Turkey blocked an oil firm from a country with which it has very important joint defence ventures. Italy is a leading defence partner of Turkey’s, and the T129 ATAK attack helicopter is one of the most significant products of that relationship. Based on Leonardo’s A129 Mangusta, the T129 ATAK helicopter was developed by Turkish Aerospace Industries, and today is actively used in anti-terror operations and operations in Northern Syria by the Turkish Army. In July, Turkey concluded an agreement with Pakistan to sell 30 T129 in exchange for $1.5 billion.

The Turkish Navy that blocked ENI’s survey ship is also a prominent customer of Italian defence firms. It selected Alenia Aermacchi’s ATR-72 as a maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft, and has equipped its warships with Otomelara gun systems including Milgem Class Corvette and Selex communication systems. The defence firms that produce these systems are subsidiaries of the Italian company Lonardo.

Another major area of defence where Turkey collaborates with Italy is in developing a long range air and missile defence system. Turkey signed a letter of intent with Italy and France to strengthen cooperation on a joint defence project in 2017, and has awarded the Franco-Italian consortium EUROSAM along with Turkish firms the tender to develop a new system based on the SAMP-T missile system.

Another oil firm active in Greek Cyprus’s EEZ is TOTAL. TOTAL has operated through different sectors like lubricants, chemicals, natural gas, international transport supply and petrochemicals in Turkey since 1992. The company is a partner in the Baku-Tiflis-Ceyhan pipeline project with a 5 percent stake. It also sells liquefied natural gas from Nigeria to Turkey via Nigeria LNG Limited, whose stakeholders are TOTAL, ENI and SHELL with 51 percent control of the shares. All these companies operste in Greek Cyprus’s EEZ.

Besides long range air and missile defence systems, Turkey and France are participants in the A400M airlifter programme, and French-made corvettes and mine hunting vessels have been in service in the Turkish Navy since the year 2000. The French defence giant Thales is a main supplier to the Turkish Navy, and almost all European and Turkish-made surface combatant and maritime patrol aircrafts in the Turkish Navy are equipped with Thales naval combat systems including radars and command control systems.

South Korea, a country whose Hyundai firm is a partner of ENI, has been one of Turkey’s main defence project partners in recent years, especially in terms of technology transfer. For the ambitious Altay project aiming to build a domestic Turkish tank, Hyundai Rotem was chosen as the technical support and design assistance provider. And Turkey’s self-propelled T-155 FIRTINA howitzer system is based on Korean defence giant Samsung Techwin’s K-9 howitzer.

At the moment, the Turkish Air Force uses the Korean-made KT-1 as a basic training aircraft. A total of 55 KT-1 aircrafts have been delivered to the Turkish Air Force at a cost of $500 million. Turkish Navy has also collaborated with Korean firm LIGnex1 on the Akya heavy torpedo, which will be used for next generation Reis-class submarine project.

Unlike with ENI’s activities, Turkey has not interfered in drilling operations near Cyprus pursued by U.S. oil giants Exxonmobil and Noble Energy, even though Exxonmobil started drilling in Greek Cyprus’s EEZ on November 16 while Noble Energy started in 2011.

Why hasn’t Turkey intervened on the U.S. energy firms? For one thing, the U.S. energy firms help Turkey to explore and exploit hydrocarbon reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s first drillship Fatih has been conducting drill operations off Antalya with help of the US oilfield services giant Schlumberger. A drillship belonging to another U.S. firm, Rowan, has also started drilling off the southern Turkish city of Mersin.

There are also military reasons that Turkey refrains from intervening on the U.S. activities near Cyprus. As the world’s number one arms exporter, the United States is Turkey’s biggest arms supplier. According to data released by the Defence and Aerospace Industry Manufacturers’ Association (SASAD), Turkey’s total defence imports reached $1.54 billion in 2017, and the United States received 35 percent of Turkey’s total market share.

The Turkish Armed Forces heavily depend on US-made arms, including fighter jets, early warning aircrafts, tanker aircrafts, helicopters and guided missiles, and therefore Turkey has good reason to stay on good side of the United States, which has on occasion applied arms embargoes on Turkey. For example, the arms embargo on Turkey between 1975-1978 because of Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus.

While the U.S. Congress has already temporarily suspended the transfer of F-35 stealth fighters due to Turkey’s plans to purchase Russian S-400 air defence system, Turkey likely understands that further irritating the United States by blocking its vessels could easily lead to further sanctions or a full-on arms embargo.

Thus Turkey is evidently faced with a difficult balancing act when it comes to the Eastern Mediterranean, where it must pick its fights carefully if it wishes to deter gas exploration without damaging its own interests in other areas.


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