You’ve got to feel for Cyprus. The island starts out divided between Greek Cyprus and “Turkish Northern Cyprus,” an entity created by a Turkish armed invasion in 1974 and recognized by, well, Turkey. With her historical Greek roots, Greek Cyprus – an independent nation – has extensive exposure to Greek government bonds, and has been fighting a rearguard action throughout 2011 to prevent a faster downgrading of Cypriot public debt. (Some US states now face a somewhat similar potential domino effect from the downgrading of US debt.)
Arms and the explosion
Back in January 2009, Cyprus was the unfortunate flag state of the M/V Monchegorsk, chartered by Iran to transport arms to Syria in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1747. Cyprus lies off Syria’s coast, and wanted nothing to do with confiscating the Assad regime’s prohibited arms delivery. But Cyprus ended up – under tremendous pressure – accepting the confiscated cargo: 98 containers of arms and explosives. (Sprightly account of the history on this here.)
On 11 July 2011, the arms shipment, which had been held without further processing under a makeshift structure at a Cypriot naval base for over two years, found itself in the path of a summer fire. Exploding, it killed 13 people, including the chief of the Cypriot navy, and destroyed the electric power plant that provided 53% of the power used by Greek Cyprus. The loss of power has put Cyprus in an economic tailspin. Moody’s downgraded Cypriot debt to just above junk status in late July, making it likely that EU member (and Eurozone participant) Cyprus would at some point seek a bailout along with Greece, Portugal, and Ireland.
Cypriots, blaming the government of old-style leftist Demetris Cristiofas (and, without electric power, having little else to do), have been flooding the streets in protest. Cristiofas’ parliamentary coalition was split when its major ally (the centrist Democratic Party) abruptly pulled out on Wednesday 3 August. Cristiofas holds the office of president and will not face the voters again until 2013, but the loss of his coalition means the government will be paralyzed on contentious issues. He appointed a new cabinet on Friday, but was unable to bring in any new ministers from his former ally, the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, his new finance minister put a brave face on things, asserting that “there is no issue at the moment” of Cyprus requesting a Eurozone bailout.
Gas and Turkey
This may well be due in large part to Cyprus’ determination to forge ahead with offshore gas drilling. The government in Nicosia has put the word out repeatedly over the last couple of weeks that it expects drilling off the southern coast to start on (or before) 1 October. Cyprus has been moving smartly to explore and get drilling underway since concluding a maritime boundary agreement with Israel in 2010.
But Turkey is unalterably opposed to this course. Turkey’s position is that, having invaded Cyprus and established a Turkish entity there which no one else recognizes, she is entitled to forestall all activity in the Cypriot economic exclusion zone (EEZ) until the status of Cyprus is worked out through negotiation.
That won’t be happening any time soon. On 19 July, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a significant change in the country’s negotiating stance:
The Turkish Prime Minister has sent a thunderbolt to the United Nations and leaders of Cyprus by announcing that his country is no longer prepared to accept the concessions it has agreed to in order to help with the reunification of Cyprus in line with a UN plan back in 2004.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Turkish side will accept nothing short of recognition of a two-state solution on the island, effectively meaning if the current round of UN sponsored talks fail Turkey will likely seek international recognition for the break-away state.
The “two-state solution” thing is certainly going around (and that’s a whole other post). But in the wake of this “thunderbolt” from Erdogan, Cristiofas pulled out of the UN-sponsored negotiation meeting scheduled for Friday, 5 August, without indicating a date on which he would be prepared to resume negotiations. Certainly his governing-coalition woes are a key reason for the pull-out, but they are extremely unlikely to be the only reason. It is not clear what options Cyprus has now, with the Erdogan government renouncing the previous basis for negotiations, and determined not on reunification of the island, but on a two-state solution. Cristiofas cannot feel that there is much to say to Turkey right now.
But 1 October is less than 8 weeks away. Turkey expresses continued determination to prevent a drilling start, and for implied threats of that kind there is a history. The Turkish navy has harassed exploration vessels operating in the Cypriot and Greek EEZs before – to the point of preventing their activities. In mid-November 2008, a Turkish warship prevented a Norwegian survey vessel from operating off the southern coast of Cyprus. In March of 2011, a Turkish warship interfered with an Italian vessel in the Greek EEZ off Crete, which had Athens’ permission to survey the seabed for a communications cable to be laid between Italy and Israel. (See here for an account of an escalation with Greece in 2010, via a NOTAM duel and Turkish fighter patrols over a new undersea oil/gas find.)
Greece has taken note of a pointed statement by Erdogan at a 2011 naval conference in Ankara:
We want a navy to dominate the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, and also stand before the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
Nothing is happening in isolation in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Cyprus, geographically and politically, is in the middle of it all. The Arab Spring has upset one set of assumptions, putting Syria (and Egypt) in play. The perennial security concerns of the major nations – Russia, Greece, Turkey – are dictated by geography and history: if Syria is in play, that causes strategic discomfort for the other big nations. Russia’s concern is particularly acute because Turkey lies across her maritime path out of the Black Sea, and on the other side of the restive, largely Muslim Caucasus. Turkey asserting a new, peculiarly Turkish realm of influence (e.g., by pilfering Syria as a client from Iran) would regenerate an Ottoman-like vulnerability on Russia’s southern flank.
Geography and geostrategy
The facts of geo-history combine with undersea resources to make Cyprus a strategic prize in the Eastern Mediterranean. Considered in the light of Erdogan’s recent electoral victory, his suppression of internal checks on his power, and his various statements indicating neo-Ottoman aspirations, the July 2011 about-face on Cyprus policy comes off as a clear determination to keep Turkey in absolute control of at least part of Cyprus. There are two geographic reasons for this: Cyprus’ proximity to the Levant Basin oil and gas reserves, and Cyprus’ relation to the coast of Syria. Basically, Cyprus commands the Syrian coast. Holding Cyprus and being able to fortify it is a means of holding Syria at risk from the sea.
That would come in handy if either Russia or Iran got in a position in Syria to project power from the Syrian coast. It’s a blocking move on Turkey’s part as much as anything. Iran, fighting hard just to keep the Assad regime in power (see here and here), is somewhat distracted at the moment, but Russia has a very long historic and geostrategic vista of security concerns about formerly-Ottoman Turkey, the Aegean, and the Black Sea. That is why Russia has sought to maintain at least one Mediterranean base whenever possible over the last two-plus centuries, to be able to flank her Black Sea neighbors and influence conditions in the Mediterranean when necessary.
Cyprus has become uniquely vulnerable at a uniquely unstable time. It doesn’t all boil down to oil and gas: Americans are almost the only people on earth who don’t have to think 24/7 about geography as a key component of their security, and we foolishly dismiss the geographic security orientation of other nations, supposing that everything is “about” either oil or ideology. But Russia can very easily be held at risk by Turkey because of geography, and the more Ottoman-sounding Erdogan’s rhetoric and actions are, the more Russia will worry about that and take steps to avert it. Maneuvering over Cyprus because of her relative location is as high a priority as anything else.
The unreliability of US power contributes to the uneasy mindset of various actors around the “Great Crossroads” of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The EU, the US, and our collective defense organization (NATO) are failing in Libya and looking tired and dispirited in Afghanistan. It is less and less unthinkable that Turkey will render the UN process in Cyprus moot because she has no intention of giving up her free hand in Northern Cyprus – and that she will add new offensive capabilities to the 30,000 troops she has occupying the island.
Unfortunately, the stage is set for Cyprus to matter a great deal. If having a naval base in Syria becomes untenable for Russia, having the use of bases in Greece – perhaps even in Greek Cyprus – is not out of the question. So much has the Pax Americana faded that Britain, France, and Italy would be likely to quietly welcome such a development, rather than regarding it with suspicion and alarm.
If Turkey’s posture in the Eastern Med seems to come off somewhat like China’s in the waters of East Asia, it should not be surprising that the two nations, which have conducted unprecedented military exercises together over the last year, have also been conducting unprecedented naval task force deployments to distant seas. In 2010, China, for the first time ever, sent an operational naval task force to the Mediterranean for a series of port visits. Turkey, for the first time since Ottoman days (i.e., World War I), deployed a task force for a non-NATO “patrol” of the Mediterranean.
This summer, Turkey sent a four-ship naval task force to the Indian Ocean and East Asia. Turkey (like China) has maintained a presence in the antipiracy operations off Somalia, but this summer’s deployment has so far entailed port visits in Oman, Abu Dhabi (UAE – “for the first time in centuries”), India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, and Japan.