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Diplomatic Crisis Looms as Turkey Steps Into Cypriot Controversy

  • Dorian Jones

Turkey’s decision to dispatch a warship to Cyprus to protect an oil and gas research ship is threatening to provoke a diplomatic crisis.

Greek Cypriots have suspended island unification talks and called for Ankara's EU bid to be suspended.

And on Friday, Greece has warned NATO partner Turkey not to intimidate Cyprus over Turkish efforts to develop off-shore natural gas fields. The Greek intervention is the latest ratcheting up of regional tensions over the disputed energy fields.

Last month, Turkey dispatched a warship to Cyprus to protect one of its research ships that is exploring for gas on behalf of the Turkish Cypriot regime, which only Ankara recognizes.

The internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government in Nicosia condemned the move and broke off United Nations sponsored island reunification efforts.

Carnegie Institute visiting scholar Sinan Ulgen said the decision to suspend talks could be far reaching.

"They had reached a critical stage,” Ulgen said. “ All the more so since it was the first time since the failure of the Annan (reunification) plan back in 2004, that the negotiations had reached such an advanced stage. And given that, this may have been a last effort to reach settlement on Cyprus."

Cyprus was split by a 1974 Turkish invasion triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup.

Turkey insists it is searching for gas only in Turkish Cypriot waters, but Nicosia says, as the only internationally recognized government it has sole control over energy resources.

In past disputes with the Cyprus government, which is a member of the European Union, Turkey quickly faced pressure from Brussels over its ongoing negotiations to join the bloc.

Last month, Brussels issued a stern warning to Turkey over Cyprus. But analyst Ulgen said such warnings do not carry the weight they once did.

"Practically, the European Union today has much less leverage on Turkey than in the past,” he said. “It cannot credibly threaten Turkey with suspending the negotiations given that already, for the four years really, the negotiations have stalled."

Washington has also voiced concern over the dispute, but argues the potential energy bonanza should be an impetus for reunifying Cyprus.

Diplomatic columnist Kadri Gursel of Turkey’s Milliyet Newspaper and Al Monitor website, said such hopes may be misplaced.

"There is no hope for a solution for the foreseeable future, that is why the Cyprus question is now related to energy politics and security politics,” Gursel said. “The natural gas can be a catalyst for both solution and ... conflict, it depends on the attitudes of the political actors."

Ankara’s stance over Cyprus comes as it faces growing international criticism that it is failing to do enough to counter the threat of Jihadist fighting in neighboring Iraq and Syria.

But Ulgen said its importance to the international community is emboldening Turkey.

"Ankara is determined, and given that the very serious security challenges that both Turkey, but also the world, faces in the region - Iraq and Syria with the rise of ISIS, and Turkey’s potential role in mitigating and managing these threats,” Ulgen said. “Ankara feels confident, it will not be alienated by the international community on Cyprus."

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