Turkey sent an oil-drilling ship into Cypriot waters late last week and stated its intention to start drilling this week, prompting Cyprus to accuse Ankara of a “severe escalation.” This unlawful gambit threatens to further fray Ankara’s relationships with Washington, Nicosia, and Athens.
The Turkish government confirmed that it plans to drill some 80 kilometers from Cypriot shores. This behavior is not new. Ankara has repeatedly sent oil ships into Nicosia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), drawing fierce protests but little in the way of tangible resistance.
Turkey occupied the northeast portion of Cyprus in 1974 and still maintains a strong political and military presence there. Since Cyprus found natural gas in the south of its EEZ, Turkey has repeatedly attempted to drill in Cypriot waters. It has also interfered with foreign ships seeking to drill legally with the permission of Cypriot authorities.
Turkey’s maritime misconduct extends to Greek waters as well. Turkish ships have illegally hunted for oil off Greek shores, prompting Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias to warn in July, “Greece does not tolerate threats of war.” In response to the most recent provocation, Greek officials condemned Turkey, warning that the European Union was likely to take further action.
The U.S. should stand strong in defense of the international laws and norms that govern maritime and energy rights, by continuing to express full support for its Greek and Cypriot partners in the face of Turkish provocations. Such a move would be consistent with longstanding U.S. policy. The 2017 National Defense Strategy calls for the U.S. to “support the diversification of energy sources, supplies, and routes at home and abroad.”
The State Department has also prioritized energy security in meetings with Eastern Mediterranean partners. Last year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged to support Cyprus’s sovereign right to develop its EEZ. During a trip to Athens this past weekend, he said that Turkey’s “illegal drilling is unacceptable.”
Beyond rhetoric, the U.S. should formally lift its 1987 arms embargo on the Cypriot government, a policy instituted under different circumstances that no longer apply. Washington assumed at the time that keeping American weapons off the island would prevent an arms race between the country’s legitimate government and Turkish occupation forces. Today, however, many recognize that Cyprus is an important partner for regional security and economic stability. Cyprus’s role thus merits not an embargo but deeper U.S. military support.
Failure to respond to Turkey’s predations would only invite further aggression. The U.S. should continue to work closely with its regional partners in presenting a unified front to deter Turkey’s EEZ gambits. Increased U.S. foreign military sales and continued diplomatic harmonization can strengthen energy security and lawful commerce in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Andrew Gabel and Mikhael Smits are research analysts at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where they also contribute to the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow Andrew and Mikhael on Twitter at @Andrew_B_Gabel and @MikhaelSmits. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.