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Aphrodite’s Gift: Can Cypriot Gas Power a New Dialogue?
Aphrodite’s Gift: Can Cypriot Gas Power a New Dialogue?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?
Report 216 / Europe & Central Asia

Aphrodite’s Gift: Can Cypriot Gas Power a New Dialogue?

Though newly discovered gas reserves off Cyprus are currently driving the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities further apart, they could offer both newfound wealth if, together with Turkey, they would start a new dialogue.

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Executive Summary

Eastern Mediterranean tensions have risen since late 2011, when Greek Cypriots unilaterally began drilling in their rich offshore hydrocarbon reserves and Turkey responded with tough criticism and threatening naval manoeuvres. Contested maritime boundaries and exploration of natural gas deposits off the divided island are the sources of the current dispute, but tensions also result from the slowdown of UN-mediated Cyprus reunification talks. A paradigm shift is needed. The gas can drive the communities further apart and increase discords, or it can provide an opportunity for officials from all sides, including Turkey, to sit down and reach agreements on the exploitation and transportation of this new find.

A year ago, when the Cyprus negotiations were already at an impasse, Crisis Group proposed six steps to build confidence and help establish an environment more conducive to an overall agreement. None of these were implemented; instead the talks dried up and trust between the parties eroded further. As we wrote in February 2011, neither Greek nor Turkish Cypriots can fulfil their potential on an island whose future is divided, uncertain, militarised and facing new economic difficulties. Turkey’s European Union (EU) membership negotiations are at risk, and with Cyprus out of NATO and Turkey in, their disputes continue to hamstring EU-NATO cooperation. The start of offshore drilling in September 2011 has now put these threats into sharper focus.

In September 2011, the Republic of Cyprus, with the help of U.S.-based Noble Energy Inc., started offshore drilling south of the island and discovered significant gas reserves in the Aphrodite field, where drilling started. It is likely to find more and in February 2012, bidding for the remaining blocks was announced. It considers that it has a sovereign right to drill in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which it has delineated with Egypt, Lebanon and Israel, but not Turkey, Syria or Greece. Further complicating the situation, Noble Energy’s operating company is 30 per cent owned by Israeli interests and the Aphrodite field is partly in Israel’s EEZ. Turkey also now has frictions with both Cyprus and Israel, which have recently signed defence and cooperation agreements.

Turkey does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus, and contests its right to enter into EEZ agreements or to exploit unilaterally natural resources until there is a comprehensive settlement. It argues that the Greek Cypriot government does not represent the interests of Turkish Cypriots or a united island, refutes Greek Cypriot claims to exclusive sovereignty, saying sovereignty is being negotiated in the current talks, and evokes its status as a guarantor state under the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee to protect Turkish Cypriots’ rights. Greek Cypriot drilling thus provoked a harsh reaction, with Ankara sending ships close to Greek Cypriot installations, signing maritime boundary agreements with the Turkish Cypriots, delineating the continental shelf between the Turkish coast and the north of the island, beginning its own gas prospecting off Cyprus, and announcing it will drill on land in the north on behalf of Turkish Cypriots.

The Republic of Cyprus has a sovereign right to explore and exploit inside its maritime zones, has an acute economic need for new revenues, and can justifiably complain about Turkey’s actions and threats. Nevertheless, its unilateral start of exploration is a violation of the pledge to share natural resources, and undermines the already fragile reunification talks. Vague Greek Cypriot promises of sharing gas revenues in the future do not satisfy the Turkish Cypriot community. But the latter and Turkey, too, are acting provocatively and against the spirit of the talks by signing a continental shelf delimitation agreement, prospecting and drilling. Turkey, with its long coastline, has genuine concerns about losing its fair share of any eastern Mediterranean maritime zones as the Republic of Cyprus, and possibly Greece, establish EEZs; but Ankara needs to stop refusing offers of dialogue and engage with Greek Cypriots to defend its claims.

The Greek Cypriots say they will have to decide quickly on how to transport this new gas. Pumping the Cypriot gas to Turkey and on to the EU would be a much better option politically, and possibly economically. This is highly unlikely in the current circumstances, meaning Greek Cypriots may choose a more expensive liquefied natural gas (LNG) option, bypassing Turkey and Turkish Cypriots. But the extra risks associated with the unresolved conflict will make any LNG development more expensive to finance and difficult to find markets for, Turkish threats will likely keep most major oil companies on the sidelines, there is not yet enough Cypriot gas to make an LNG plant truly profitable, and extra Israeli volumes seem unlikely. Energy executives say such circumstances will result in long delays.

The prospect of this costly tit-for-tat should make all recommit to a comprehensive settlement to reunify the island, divided politically since Greek Cypriots seized control of the Republic of Cyprus in 1963 and militarily since a Turkish invasion in 1974 created a Turkish Cypriot zone on its northern third. Greek and Turkish Cypriots have agreed that natural resources and international agreements, including those delineating maritime boundaries, will be a federal competence in a reunited island. But progress over the next year in the UN-mediated talks seems unlikely. The UN, Turkey and Turkish Cypriots see a natural deadline when the Republic of Cyprus takes over the rotating EU presidency on 1 July 2012. Reaching substantive compromise is even more unlikely now that the Greek Cypriot political scene is indexed to the February 2013 presidential elections.

Even in the absence of an overall Cyprus settlement, the parties should re-examine the benefits of independent confidence-building moves, seek mutual advantage and avert a deepening of the crisis by taking these steps specific to the energy issue:

  • The Greek Cypriot leadership should commit to share 20 per cent of any net revenue or gas from any offshore hydrocarbon resources with Turkish Cypriots, possibly distributed through a UN-supervised arrangement, as long as both parties remain formally committed to reunification. Turkish Cypriots should commit to share with the Greek Cypriots an inverse proportion of their hydrocarbon revenues from their ongoing onshore drilling activities.
  • Greek Cypriots should agree with Turkish Cypriots to form a bi-communal, advisory ad hoc committee to discuss energy issues, and to plan potential domestic and industrial use of the gas throughout the island.
  • Turkey and Turkish Cypriots should stop using threatening rhetoric and naval manoeuvres inside the island’s EEZ, even if they dispute its limits; and formally commit not to interfere with, or to drill in, offshore hydrocarbon blocks that are in these waters, including the new Aphrodite field and areas west of Cyprus, pending an arrangement.

If the basic environment for dialogue is established:

  • Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus should agree, possibly with third-party mediation, to discuss eastern Mediterranean energy issues, without prejudice to the UN-facilitated talks, or to any official recognition that will follow a settlement. They should study the feasibility of and consider possible cooperation on a gas export pipeline to Turkey, and onwards to Europe, with strong third-party arbitration clauses.
  • Turkey, Cyprus and Greece should agree to take their claims for EEZs in the eastern Mediterranean to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or an arbitral tribunal.

Cooperation on the exploitation of significant gas finds, which Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders agree are a common heritage, can help build confidence without prejudicing the eventual outcome of comprehensive talks. If the sides continue engaging in unilateral actions, tensions will rise, accidents will become more likely, and Turks and Greek Cypriots will be on course for a head-on collision in the eastern Mediterranean.

Nicosia/Istanbul/Brussels, 2 April 2012

Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?

Originally published in Valdai

Last weekend, the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia met in Ankara to discuss, among other things, the latest developments in Syria amid Turkish concerns over the consequences of a Syrian government offensive in the last rebel enclave, Idlib. 

The Russian-backed offensive against that last opposition enclave is aimed at keeping the rebels at arm’s length from the Russian air base in Latakia, re-opening the Damascus-Aleppo highway and eventually retaking the city of Idlib, the provincial capital that has been held by the rebels since 2015. As such and for the past six months, much of Idlib and its environs have been under intense attack from the Syrian Arab Army on the ground and Russian warplanes in the air. The government forces have been able to seize strategic villages, including the medieval fortress town of Qalaat al-Madiq, a major crossing point into Idlib, and the towns of Kafr Nabudah and Khan Shaykhoun. The long-dreaded offensive has left 1,089 civilians dead and 600,000 displaced.

In September 2017, the three Astana guarantors, (Turkey, Iran, and Russia), negotiated a partial ceasefire in Idlib under a “de-escalation” agreement, monitored on the opposition side through twelve Turkish military outposts deployed along a blurry deconfliction line between the rebels and government forces. A year later, a deal between Turkey and Russia, announced in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, headed off a seemingly imminent Syrian army offensive and reinforced the earlier deal. The Turkish-Russian agreement tacitly committed Turkey to oversee the withdrawal of jihadis along with all heavy weapons, tanks, rockets systems and mortars held by all rebel groups from a 15-20 km “demilitarised zone” bordering government-controlled areas, and allowed the re-opening of the Latakia-Aleppo and Damascus-Aleppo highways, which pass through Idlib.

The fate of Idlib Governorate and its three million inhabitants could be determined by the leaders of the Astana trio.

Ankara and Moscow, however, remain at odds over the interpretations of the Sochi deal and its implementation. Moscow has made clear that a de-escalation arrangement is by no means a permanent alternative to the eventual return of the state to north west Syria. On the other hand, Turkey views the deal primarily as a tool to prevent a Syrian offensive on Idlib, and preserve a “de-escalation zone” out of Syrian government control until a broader political settlement can be reached for the eight-year old Syria crisis. As such, Turkey has agreed that moderate rebel groups would be separated from radicals and the latter would lay down arms and move out of a defined demilitarised zone. However, Moscow and Ankara remain at loggerheads over which rebel groups in Idlib should be designated as terrorists. When the agreement was announced, Hai’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a group formerly linked to al Qaeda, controlled around 50% of Idlib Governorate; today they control almost all of it. Ankara believes that much of HTS is fundamentally pragmatic and a potential ally for eliminating radical transnational jihadists, while Russia treats HTS uniformly as a terrorist group, and describes the Sochi ceasefire as conditional upon HTS’s removal from the demilitarised zone and “separation” from the armed opposition. In terms of implementation, Turkey claims that they have successfully rolled back jihadis and cleared the demilitarized zone of all heavy weaponry. On the other hand, the Russian Ministry of Defence has stated that HTS attempted to attack Russia’s Hmeimim Airbase twelve times in April 2019 using unmanned aerial vehicles.

The fate of Idlib Governorate and its three million inhabitants could be determined by the leaders of the Astana trio. It is no secret that if Russia greenlights an all-out offensive, an opposition-led infantry ground force will not be able to stop it. Nonetheless, a military solution in Idlib would still be exceptionally costly for all parties, Russia included. Retaking Idlib militarily would strain Moscow’s relations with Turkey and would require force levels that could only inevitably lead to a bloodbath in the densely-populated province. More significantly, capturing Idlib militarily would risk scattering jihadi militants now inside Idlib across Syria, and globally, including into post-Soviet states. If Russia hopes to avoid that, it needs to consider an alternative to a catastrophic military victory.

Today, a return to the existing Sochi understanding will do little good, in part because – to acknowledge an uncomfortable reality – any agreement that is to prove sustainable needs to address the divergent views between Russia and Turkey over some of the key actors in Idlib, including HTS. Russia can help the Syrian government crush Idlib, if it so chooses, and if it is willing to absorb the grave cost of victory, including thousands of jihadis scattered across Syria and beyond. If it hopes to spare itself that cost, however, it needs to consider alternatives to a military victory, which would have grave security consequences.