Due to its geostrategic position in the eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus has functioned as a magnet for great powers throughout history, ranging from the Romans to the British Empire. Today, the island is inhabited by Greek and Turkish Cypriots, both of whom have historical claims to the land based on the legacies of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires’ imperial past.
The friction between the island's communities first became evident when Greece declared independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821. Then, the Greek Cypriots sought to unite the island with Greece, a goal which was later associated with the political ideal of “Enosis” (Union). The Greek separatist trend continued under British rule. Britain’s traditional “divide and rule” method further deepened the rift between the two communities. The Greek Cypriots' calls for “Enosis” with Greece were answered by the Turkish Cypriots' demands for “Taksim” [partition].
To a certain extent, this predicament was averted with the enactment of the Treaty of Zurich and the Treaty of Guarantee in 1960, both of which paved the way for Cyprus’ independence, while simultaneously granting Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom rights to intervene in Cyprus’ affairs in cases of aggression.
The island's fragile modus vivendi deteriorated as political deadlock between the Greek and Turkish politicians became routine and intra-communal violence spiked, with the formation of armed guerilla groups on the both sides. The tension between the two parties entered a new phase on July 15, 1974, when a Greek military junta toppled the Greek Cypriot President Makarios III and replaced him with Nikos Sampson, a Greek Cypriot militant committed to the “Enosis” ideal. For Ankara, this coup was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Five days later, Turkey conducted an amphibious landing on the northern shores of the island, exercising rights derived from the Treaty of Guarantee. However, Turkey's operation lost legitimacy when it resumed the fighting during the peace conference in Geneva.
Since then, the island and its capital city, Nicosia, have been bifurcated, with Greeks in the south and Turks in the north. In 1980, following population exchanges, the Turks established their own sovereign state, called "the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" (TRNC), which is not recognized by any state other than Turkey. Meanwhile, the Greek Cypriots in the south inherited the name "the Republic of Cyprus" (RoC), and from the international community's perspective, act as the island's sole legal entity.
Until this point in the island's history, the Cypriot question was a resolvable ethno-religious inter-communal conflict, due to population exchange, lack of daily violence, and, more importantly, lack of sacred sites - granting the parties flexibility on possible land swaps or jurisdiction transfers.
However, the situation underwent a drastic change in February 2003, when the RoC signed an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) border agreement with Egypt. This agreement led to pivotal EEZ agreements with Lebanon in 2006 and Israel in 2010. After securing its southern and south-eastern EEZ borders, RoC divided its EEZ into 13 blocks and awarded the American Noble Energy Company with rights to extract natural gas. The most significant development took place on December 2011, when Noble announced natural gas discovery in the block 12, which is known as “Aphrodite.”
Aphrodite's geographic proximity to the rich Israeli “Leviathan” and “Tamar” natural gas fields has greatly enhanced the block's significance. Identifying a dramatic change in the power equilibrium, Turkey refused to recognize the Greek Cypriot's EEZ and bilateral agreements with the other eastern Mediterranean states. Instead, TRNC published its own EEZ map with F and G blocks overlapping with RoC’s 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 12, and 13 blocks (see the map). Turkey attempted to delegitimize RoC’s natural gas program with political statements and naval demonstrations of power in the eastern Mediterranean, while dispatching its seismic ship “Piri Reis” to search for regional natural gas reserves.
It is also important to note that while these tensions were developing, Israeli-Turkish relations suffered a serious blow, with the May 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla crisis. This unprecedented crisis reached its peak when the Turkish government, under former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, imposed sanctions against Israel, while assigning the Turkish navy to secure the right of navigation in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s stance vis-à-vis Israel further toughened when the Ankara government openly declared that the Turkish Armed Forces’ (Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri – TSK) NATO based friend and foe identification software system was replaced with one made in Turkey. Thereby, the new system provided the TSK with the ability to open fire on the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Greek air force during potential dogfights over the Aegean Sea.
Indeed, the crisis in Israeli-Turkish relations was largely welcomed by Greece and the RoC. Ironically, Ankara’s disproportionately pro-Palestinian stance helped craft a new partnership between Jerusalem, Nicosia, and Athens. Ankara’s ideological policies, such as supporting Hamas and delegitimizing Egypt’s al-Sisi in the aftermath of 2013 coup, lacked realpolitik and further deteriorated Turkey’s strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean. This atmosphere provided Athens, Nicosia, and Jerusalem with a common denominator, producing cooperation in many fields, including natural gas projects. Trilateral summits bore fruit in April 2017, when Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz signed an agreement on a pipeline of 2200 kilometers connecting Israel to Italy via Cyprus and Greece – world's longest pipeline. Unsurprisingly, Turkey did not respond docilely, instead launching operation “Mediterranean Shield” and dispatching its navy to the region. In addition, Turkey sent its new sophisticated seismic ship “Barbaros Hayreddin Paşa” to the region to claim disputed EEZ blocks. Moreover, in order to send a clear message to RoC, on April 17, the TSK launched the “Bülent Erdem” (named after a Turkish soldier killed in the 1974 War) amphibious military landing drill in western Turkey.
Despite the pressure it exerted, Turkey did not achieve the concrete success of drastic policy change in Nicosia. The recent unsuccessful June 28 peace negotiations between the RoC and the TRNC can be seen as another indicator of the RoC’s growing self-confidence, to a great extent the result of the RoC’s European Union membership. It is also quite likely that the Israeli-RoC-Greek-Italian pipeline will further fortify the RoC’s position against the TRNC and Turkey. Additionally, changing alliances provide Israel with important leverage on the island. In the short run, this new atmosphere has already paid off for Israel. For example, on March 28, Greece’s air forces hosted the Israeli air force in a joint military drill. Later, on June 10, the RoC opened Cyprus’ “Lebanon-like” mountainous terrain to IDF military training. Indeed, this trilateral military cooperation serves as a replacement for the Israeli-Turkish military cooperation that ended in 2009, when Turkey unilaterally cancelled Israel’s attendance at the “Anatolian Eagle” military drill in the city of Konya.
Despite tiffs, it is crucial to state that Israel and Turkey managed to end their diplomatic crisis last year. While relations between the two countries are not at their best, compared to relations during the 1990s, urgent common interests, like tourism and energy, are important areas of cooperation. As such, despite having signed an agreement with the RoC, Greece, and Italy, Israeli energy minister Yuval Steinitz nonetheless visited Turkey in October 2016 and July 2017. During his last visit, the Israeli minister announced Israel’s intention to conclude the Israeli-Turkish pipeline agreement, while assuring that it would not come at the expense of the Israeli-RoC-Greek-Italian pipeline.
If Jerusalem were to construct both pipelines, it could alter the essence of the Cypriot equation and maximize Israeli interests vis-à-vis Ankara, Athens, and Nicosia respectively, creating a genuine inter-dependency eliminating all future uses of the pipelines as a means of exerting pressure.
Dr. Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak is a Researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies (MDC), Tel Aviv University. He serves as Turkey analyst for the Doron Halpern Middle East Network Analysis Desk’s publication, Beehive, and is co-editor of Turkeyscope. hayeytan[at]tauex.tau.ac.il.