ISTANBUL - Turkey has deployed armed drones to northern Cyprus as tensions escalate in the gas-rich eastern Mediterranean over energy resources and control of their distribution. Greek- and Turkish Cypriots remain at loggerheads over the issue with the dispute now drawing in other nations.
The drones arrived after the Turkish Cypriot government, which is recognized only by Ankara, granted permission for their deployment. The drones are intended to protect Turkish research ships searching for hydrocarbons in contested waters of the Mediterranean Island.
"It's a tactical move with strategic implications," said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University. "What it does, it increases the feeling of security on the Turkish side [of Cyprus], with developments in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and that Turkey is ready to take risks defending Turkish Cypriots and its [Turkey's] rights."
Cyprus is partitioned between Turkish- and Greek Cypriot communities following Turkey's 1974 invasion in response to an Athens-inspired coup. Only the Greek Cypriot government is internationally recognized. The offshore discovery of natural gas is the center of rising tensions over control and ownership of territorial waters between the two communities.
The dispute is exacerbating regional tensions, with Israel the latest country to find itself embroiled in the disagreement. Israel, along with Egypt, signed a mutual energy research pact with the Greek Cypriot government.
According to Israel media reports, Turkish warships forced an Israeli research ship searching for energy to leave contested Cypriot waters two weeks ago. Last weekend, in what is being reported as Israeli retaliation, jets flew low over a Turkish research ship in the same area.
"The [Turkish] strategy is to have an equitable solution to the matter," said former Turkish Ambassador Mithat Rende, who is now a regional energy expert. "Because we have overlapping claims overlapping declarations of maritime zones and Turkey is left alone in the Mediterranean."
The Greek Cypriots backed by Athens are looking to their fellow European Union members for support against Ankara. Last week, Italian and French warships held a joint exercise off Cyprus in cooperation with Nicosia. Italy's Eni and France's Total energy companies are searching for hydrocarbons in Cypriot waters.
"Turkey will not be intimidated," said Bagci. "The more there is no solution, the more the events will force Turkey to take more military steps and more military deployments, including possibly building a naval base in Cyprus."
The intractable division of Cyprus complicates efforts to find a diplomatic solution. "There is a deadlock," said political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Athens University.
"The Greek Cypriots say they are ready to share the goodies [energy], but this should happen in a reunified island. Whereas Turkey says no way, it[energy reserves] belongs to the North (Turkish Cypriots) as well, and we are representing the North and we will push for it even by force. They keep repeating this all the time if necessary, do it by force."
Turkey, Greece and Britain are guarantors of Cyprus under an international treaty that granted independence to the Mediterranean Island.
But some analysts suggest hard economics remains Ankara's key card in its efforts to secure its goals. "Exxon Mobile [American oil companies] and many other important players in the region are considering Turkey as the only viable solution to monetize gas discovered by the Greek Cypriots," said Rende.
"Because if you strike gas, it's only the first stage, then you have to spend billions in building platforms and try to pump the gas to the markets. That's why the only viable solution is to send gas to Turkey to monetize the gas."
Turkey is proposing that it become an energy distribution hub for not only Cypriot gas but also Israel's vast reserves, as part of a broader agreement on ownership of Cyprus's energy.
"In the last two days, the Turkish state, the Turkish government is secretly talking with the Israeli government, there will be possibly new negotiations and agreements," said Bagci. "I think the Israelis can change their direction in the long term; Turkey is more important than the Greeks and Greek Cypriots."
For several years, Israeli-Turkish relations have been deeply strained, fueled by open animosity between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Analysts point out that despite the tensions, bilateral trade has been mostly unaffected.
Some analysts see pragmatism as offering the best chance to defusing increasing regional tensions over the search for energy. Turkey is the most viable route for the Greek Cypriots and Israeli to cash with alternative pipelines widely viewed as prohibitively expensive.
The alternative appears to further tensions. "The issue will become international. The European Union will get involved. It will become a crisis. It will create problems it will create skirmishes and chaos in the eastern Mediterranean," said Aktar.
"Who will fight against Turkey, NATO? Who is going to fight Turkey?" Bagci said. "One should be careful that the situation escalates so far and tensions go so far that irrational actions are taken. Tayyip Erdogan can do anything to gain a foreign policy success." Turkey has two drilling vessels in the eastern Mediterranean amid the threat of sanctions from the European Union.
In a related development, Turkey last month signed a deal with Libya on maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean. Reports say Greece accused Turkey of violating international law with the agreement. Ankara denies the accusation and says the deal is intended to defend its rights in the region.