Turkey drills for oil in offshore Cyprus, raising sovereignty concerns

Turkey has advanced its plans for offshore drilling operations within Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone, eliciting deep concern from the European Union and United States, escalating tensions between President Erdogan and Turkey’s supposed Western allies. The Cyprus foreign ministry said it “strongly condemns” Turkey’s drilling operations and “This provocative action by Turkey constitutes a flagrant violation of the sovereign rights of the Republic of Cyprus.

The island of Cyprus was divided in 1974 after a Turkish invasion triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup. Numerous peacemaking efforts have failed and offshore resources have increasingly complicated peace negotiations. North Cyprus, which is supported by Turkey, says that any offshore wealth also belongs to them, as partners in the establishment of the Republic of Cyprus in 1960.

Last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced “we are starting drilling” in the region where Turkey and the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government have overlapping claims of jurisdiction for offshore oil and gas research in the eastern Mediterranean, a region thought to be rich in natural gas. Speaking from Northern Cyprus, Minister Cavusoglu said a Turkish seismic research vessel was continuing work in the region and “We will conduct drilling in areas of Turkey’s continental shelf and we are starting our drilling work at points identified by Barbaros Hayrettin Pasa.”

In February, Minister Cavusoglu said Turkey would soon begin drilling for oil and gas near Cyprus. The country launched its first drill ship off the coast of Turkey’s southern Antalya province in October, which Refinitiv Eikon shipping data showed was located 70 kilometers off the west coast of Cyprus on Monday.

Speaking at NATO’s North Atlantic Council Mediterranean Dialogue meeting in Ankara on Monday, President Tayyip Erdogan said he expected NATO to support Turkey’s rights in the Mediterranean: “The legitimate rights of Turkey and the Northern Cypriot Turks over energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean are not open for argument. Our country is determined to defend its rights and those of Cypriot Turks. We expect NATO to respect Turkey’s rights in this process and support us in preventing tensions.”

EU foreign policy head Federica Mogherini expressed “grave concern” about Turkey’s intentions and said, “We urgently call 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.” Following these comments, United States State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said, “The United States is deeply concerned by Turkey’s announced intentions to begin offshore drilling operations in an area claimed by the Republic of Cyprus as its Exclusive Economic Zone,” and “This step is highly provocative and risks raising tensions in the region. We urge Turkish authorities to halt these operations and encourage all parties to act with restraint.”

Turkey stopped purchasing Iranian oil as US waivers granted last November to eight buyers expired on May 1. The country’s largest oil refiner Tupras urged Washington to grant them an extension of the import waiver, which was not granted. A senior Turkish official said Ankara did not agree with US sanctions policy on Iran: “We don’t believe in sanctions, but as a strategic ally we respect the U.S. decision.”

Analysts say Turkey is replacing Iranian oil with supplies from Iraq, Russia, and Kazakhstan, as Refinitiv tracking data reports no tankers loaded in Iran arrived at Turkish ports since May 1. In November, the United States reimposed sanctions on Iran after pulling out of an Obama-era 2015 nuclear accord between Tehran and six world powers. Aiming to cut Iran’s sales to zero, Washington this month ended sanctions waivers for importers of Iranian oil, ending a six-month reprieve for Turkey and seven other big importers including China and India.