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According to Harris Samaras, an expert on the Cypriot EEZ and chairman of the international investment banking firm Pytheas, “The East Med Pipeline… is of the utmost importance. At the last trilateral meeting of Israel, Cyprus and Greece, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was present and supported the project.” Pictured: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets in Jerusalem with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on March 20, 2019. (Image source: Israel Government Press Office)

Turkey’s latest provocation against the Republic of Cyprus — drilling for gas in the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the eastern Mediterranean — has elicited harsh reactions from the international community.

Likening Turkey’s encroachment to “a second invasion,” Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades said that the action constitutes a “violation of international law;” his Foreign Ministry submitted a map delineating its EEZ boundaries with Turkey to the United Nations. In addition, Cypriot Foreign Minister Nicos Christodoulides said that his government is seeking an international arrest warrant for the crew of “Fatih,” the drilling vessel that Ankara dispatched to Cypriot waters.

EU High Representative and Vice President, Federica Mogherini promptly issued a statement “urgently call[ing] on Turkey to show restraint, respect the sovereign rights of Cyprus in its exclusive economic zone and refrain from any such illegal action to which the European Union will respond appropriately and in full solidarity with Cyprus.”

The U.S. State Department also urged Turkey to halt the drilling.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry lashed out with a statement of its own:

“[T]he attempts of the third parties to act as an international court in determining maritime boundaries is unacceptable. In this context, the statement of the US calling Turkey by expressing that “there exists Greek Cypriot claims over the area” is neither constructive nor compatible with international law, given the fact that there is no valid maritime delimitation agreement in the region.”

In a recent interview with the Gatestone Institute, Harris Samaras, an expert on the Cypriot EEZ and chairman of the international investment banking firm Pytheas, explained:

“Although Turkey has been violating Cyprus’s sovereignty since 1974, the current highly volatile internal political and economic situation in Turkey has made the Turkish government get even more aggressive in the eastern Mediterranean. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling AKP party have to save face by sustaining the dogma of supranationalism that granted him and his party power.

“Another factor that triggered Turkey here was the confirmation of commercial hydrocarbons within Cyprus’ EEZ and the announced interest of oil and gas conglomerates, such as ExxonMobil, ENI and Total to continue their activities. Last year, ENI was obstructed by Turkey’s gunboats from continuing operations. But ExxonMobil was not. Why? Because it was accompanied by the US Navy, so Turkey could not do anything.

“Meanwhile, the natural gas discoveries by ExxonMobil have demonstrated that Cyprus could eventually establish a liquefaction plant to serve Cypriot and regional deposits. This would almost automatically transform Cyprus into a regional hydrocarbon hub, and at the same time reduce Turkey’s energy importance, plans and investments.

“Politically, the biggest regional threat to Turkey’s targeting of Cyprus is Israel. The strongest energy link for Israel is Cyprus, a democratic, EU member state. So, for Mr. Erdogan’s plans to succeed, Cyprus needs to be eliminated. Moreover, Egypt is a significant regional force with the Zhor natural gas fields in its arsenal. Despite past differences, Israeli and Egyptian relationships have improved.

“Mr. Erdogan is aware that it will be impossible for Turkey to achieve its goals of regional hegemony if US interests in particular, but also French ones, develop a firm foothold in Cyprus. This is his biggest fear.

“In addition, Turkey’s relationship with Russia has strengthened in recent years. If Turkey ends up installing Russian S-400s, Mr. Erdogan knows that his geopolitical span and influence will be in many ways limited, as they will come into direct conflict with US and Israeli interests. ‘Neutralizing’ Cyprus, the weakest link in the equation, in many ways disarms Israel’s regional geopolitical effectiveness.

The East Med Pipeline, then — which has been started with the blessing of the US — is of the utmost importance. At the last trilateral meeting of Israel, Cyprus and Greece, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was present and supported the project. If it goes ahead, it will be a major slap in the face for Turkey’s energy plans.”

Theodoros Tsakiris, assistant professor of energy policy and geopolitics at the University of Nicosia, told Gatestone:

“Turkey started targeting the Cyprus’ EEZ in 2011, when it signed a demarcation agreement of its continental shelf with the Turkish occupied area of Cyprus that only Turkey recognizes as an independent state — the so-called ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (TRNC). Not only are the Turkish activities in Cyprus’s EEZ illegal, but the Turkish ships are also causing serious difficulties for Cypriot and international companies operating in the area. In February 2018, for example, the Turkish navy blocked the attempted drilling of the Italian oil company ENI in the demarcated Cypriot EEZ. Meanwhile, more Turkish drilling ships may be on their way.

“Concrete steps should be taken to stop Turkish violations against Cyprus’s EEZ. Sanctions should be imposed at the level of the European Council to the persons and companies responsible for the drilling. All pre-accession funds to Turkey should be blocked, and Turkish access to loans by the European Investment Bank should be eliminated. Additional options, if Turkey escalates the situation further, are imposing sanctions on Turkey’s banking sector and freezing the accession process altogether. The US also needs to lift the irrational arms embargo it imposed on the Republic of Cyprus in 1987, and help it to rearm and modernize its ability to defend itself, while keeping the UN peace keeping mission (UNFICYP) intact.”

Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.

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