Imagine an Atlantic region where Canada, Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela teamed up to sign a new landmark NAFTA-like agreement, distributing amongst themselves the oil and natural gas reserves off the coast of the Americas. Such an alliance over so precarious an area for so valuable a resource would mean nothing other than the isolation of the vast land mass that is the United States. Imagine further that the Union of South American Nations (USAN) imposed devastating sanctions on the US, crippling its regional economy and ensuring that it has no share of any of the vast resources which have been discovered. Would that regional hegemon, which never lets anything escape its notice within its own backyard, let the situation go and be willing to pass the deal without giving a suitable response?
Such is the situation with Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean – its own historical and geographical backyard – which is now facing isolation and negligence at the hands of its neighbours. Cyprus, Greece and Israel struck a deal in June to build a pipeline harnessing the natural gas reserves off the southern shores of the island. This EastMed pipeline, which is predicted to produce a profit of $9 billion over eighteen years, will supply gas from the eastern Mediterranean to countries across Europe.
Turkey might not be anywhere near the global power that the US is, but it nevertheless prides itself on being a regional power; a mediator in its neighbours' conflicts; a geopolitical decision-maker; and a country which is a force to reckon with. It is indeed one of the most prominent countries straddling Europe and the Middle East, making it the financial and geographical giant in its neighbourhood, holding a significant amount of sway.
It comes as no surprise then, that Turkey has expressed its displeasure at being excluded from such a deal in the region, and has sent its own drilling vessels to the waters off the eastern shores of Cyprus to explore for further gas reserves. The joint condemnation of this by the Republic of Cyprus, Greece and the European Union has not stopped Turkey, and the sanctions that were imposed on it by the EU in the middle of this month have only made the government in Ankara more resolute. When Cyprus and its partners in the deal were approached with an offer by Turkey to share the resources and come to a peaceful agreement, Ankara was rebuffed.
Turkey's actions in this regard are, ultimately, a manifestation of its encirclement in recent years. It is being undermined by a myriad of factors: the US decision to back and arm the Kurdish Peoples' Protection Units (YPG), Turkey's primary enemy in Syria; the general abandonment of Turkey in northern Syria by its allies within NATO; and now condemnation and sanctions by Europe for what Turkey believes is the protection of its vital interests and the proposed sharing of resources in the Mediterranean. Add to that the ever-present fear of another coup attempt following the ongoing aftershocks of the failed attempt to overthrow the government in July 2016, and you have a Turkey very much concerned about its standing in the region.
The issue here, of course, is not that Turkey is undergoing strained relations with Greece and Cyprus – that has long been a staple part of Ankara's foreign relations and strategy – but whether this incident is merely bravado on the part of Turkey and one of its many controversial moves, or even the prelude to a new military conflict between the players in the eastern Mediterranean.
Ever since Turkey's intervention in Cyprus in 1974 to protect the island's Turkish population amidst political turmoil, there has been a stalemate in negotiations between the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, with the ever-present threat of further military conflict. Could this new development in the eastern Mediterranean, which is unlike any before in Turkish-Cypriot relations, be the catalyst for the long-feared renewal of the conflict?
Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself announced that, if necessary, Turkey's armed forces would launch a similar operation to the one in 1974 "for the lives and security of Turkish Cypriots." The reason for that intervention, he explained, was "to protect the rights and interests of Turkish Cypriots who are the co-owners of the island."
The primary concern for Turkey in 1974 was equal political representation for the Turks on Cyprus, which in turn was a source of human capital for Ankara's geopolitical interests in the region. The primary factor today is on an equal footing with that, in terms of the vast energy resources which, if ignored by Turkey, would contribute solely to the EastMed pipeline consortium and Ankara's regional rivals.
While it is in Turkey's best interests to get a stake in the energy reserves around Cyprus, it is also in its best interests to avoid a military confrontation. It wouldn't just be the Republic of Cyprus that it would have to deal with, but also the US, EU and potentially Greece, Israel and Egypt, all of whom have a stake in the reserves.
Nevertheless, Turkey has already made its preparations for a conflict and reinforced its foothold on Cyprus by establishing a military and naval base in the north-east of the island, in coordination with the government of Northern Cyprus. It has also implemented plans for the long-term redevelopment of the island by the renovation of many closed-off areas and "ghost cities" in the Turkish Republic which were abandoned following the 1974 intervention.
Despite these escalations, Turkey will continue to drill for its own energy reserves in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean; any military conflict will depend on the actions of the Republic of Cyprus and its allies. The EastMed dispute will, meanwhile, remain yet another front on the political and diplomatic encirclement of Turkey, akin to that of its role in northern Syria and its strained relations with the US.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.