Rohan is an MA student studying Intelligence and International Security with an interest in geopolitics and natural resource disputes. In this article he examines how Turkey and The Republic of Cyprus are contesting over natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean Sea.

In recent years, maritime disputes in the South China Sea have continued to dominate headlines across the world. A less publicised yet increasingly volatile body of water – the Mediterranean – is quietly becoming another focal point for offshore resource disputes between regional powers. Since the late 2000s, the discovery of vast natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea has seen surrounding coastal states scramble to declare their own rights to explore and tap offshore resources.[1] This competition has exacerbated existing tensions over sovereignty and maritime borders throughout the region. The Turkey-Cyprus maritime dispute serves as a pertinent example of such maritime friction in action.


International customary law has historically endowed coastal states with the sovereign right to offshore resources in a special maritime jurisdiction known as an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The concept was formally codified in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – a multilateral international agreement which established an EEZ as extending seaward from a state’s coastal baseline to 200 nautical miles.[2] At the time of writing 168 parties have ratified UNCLOS, and a further 14 others have signed but not yet acceded to the convention. Only a small cluster of 15 UN member and observer states, including Turkey, have neither signed nor ratified the agreement.[3] Once left ambiguous, Mediterranean states have now begun to explicitly declare their EEZs. Discord over overlapping boundary limits has resulted in a complex series of bilateral and multilateral regional contestation.

Rights to the exploration and exploitation of natural gas has led to a bitter stalemate between Nicosia and Ankara. Turkey ardently refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of licences awarded by the Republic of Cyprus to companies bidding to drill for oil and gas in its claimed EEZ. Rejecting that the island of Cyprus can enjoy a full EEZ, Ankara maintains that certain ‘blocks’ within Nicosia’s claimed zone actually fall under Turkish jurisdiction.

Despite holding successful licence bids from Nicosia, companies such as American ExxonMobil, Italian ENI and France’s Total have been labelled ‘bandits of the sea’ by Erdogan, who has threatened military action against perceived encroachment on Turkey’s claimed EEZ near Cyprus.[4] Ankara even lays claim to natural gas reserves off the Southern coast of Cyprus in waters closer to Egyptian and Israeli borders than Turkey’s. In early 2018 a Turkish warship forcibly blocked an Italian drilling ship owned by ENI from approaching and conducting exploratory drilling in ‘block 3’ of Cyprus’ EEZ (off the island’s South coast).[5]

Ankara’s justification for denying the Republic of Cyprus a full EEZ is rooted in the de facto division of the island. Although Cypriots of both Greek and Turkish descent make up the majority of the Cyprus’ population, a military coup attempted to unite the island with mainland Greece in 1974. Turkey immediately responded by invading Cyprus, ultimately leading to a complete split between Turkish held Northern Cyprus and the Greek Cypriot Republic centred in Nicosia. Cyprus remains divided to the present day along these lines, with the North of the island declaring independence in 1983 as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).[6] Fittingly, the only state to recognise the TRNC as a sovereign authority is Turkey itself. Nicosia and the international community instead maintain that Northern Cyprus exists under Turkish occupation.

The Turkish government is becoming increasingly ambitious in the direction and scope of resource exploration beyond its borders. Ankara has sanctioned seismic surveys and explorations drills of its own for oil and gas in the waters surrounding Cyprus, claiming the right under an extended Turkish or TRNC EEZ. In January 2020, state-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) conducted exploratory drilling in the Southern ‘block 8’ of the Republic of Cyprus’ EEZ. Ankara claims that its operations are legal under licences awarded by the TRNC.[7] Nicosia meanwhile insists that the TRNC is a wholly illegitimate entity and that block 8 has already been licenced to Eni and Total.

In July 2019, the Permanent Mission of Cyprus to the UN wrote to the Secretary-General, imploring the international community to publicly condemn the actions of Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.[8] With Turkey abstaining from joining UNCLOS, Nicosia cannot take the issue to international tribunal and has few options in the way of meaningful recourse. The correspondence came only a month after Ankara sent a letter of its own to all individual EU member states excluding Cyprus. The document underlined Turkey’s commitment to its EEZ claims in the Eastern Mediterranean and called for the establishment of a joint energy committee between the Republic of Cyprus and the TRNC.[9] As expected, Nicosia vehemently rejected the attempt by Ankara to legitimise the notion that TRNC held territory can generate an independent economic zone. This war of words has continued into 2020 – in January the Cypriot presidency issued a statement labelling Turkey a ‘pirate state’ in response to public claims made by TRNC and Turkish officials asserting their sovereign rights to drill off the coast of Cyprus.[10]

Since 2019 the EU has levied a series of political and economic sanctions against Turkey in response to Ankara’s actions in the Mediterranean.[11] Ultimately these have failed to induce meaningful economic pain and have proven to be mostly symbolic in nature. Moreover, Turkey has already proven willing and able to absorb both the threat of sanctions and their imposition with regards to its actions in Syria and Iraq, and its acquisition of Russian military hardware against the wishes of the USA.

Turkey’s increasingly assertive foreign policy can perhaps be understood as part of a wider trend of Ankara’s vision of a strong Turkish state capable of wielding a truly global influence. At the heart of Eurasia, the country retains incredibly vital strategic importance and is capable of ‘opening the gates’ on the movement of Syrian refugees flowing towards Europe.[12] Turkey’s robust military capabilities are another factor potentially deterring a meaningful response to its Mediterranean policy. In October 2018 a Greek frigate’s attempt to block a Turkish drilling ship in the Eastern Mediterranean was itself thwarted by the vessel’s accompanying navy escort of Turkish warships.[13] Turkey is indeed flexing its military prowess throughout the region. Turkish violations into Greek airspace have surged in recent months, whilst its military presence in the TRNC is only becoming more embedded; Ankara recently suggested the establishment of a permanent military naval base on the island.[14] Work is also underway to operationalise Turkey’s first aircraft carrier, the TCG Anadolu, for service by 2021.

Washington’s response to the Turkey-Cyprus maritime dispute has been slow in coming, although recent moves indicate a desire to emphasise alignment with Nicosia’s position. In November 2018 the US and Cyprus signed a statement of intent to strengthen and develop their bilateral security relationship. Although lacking meaningful policy significance, the statement explicitly mentioned ‘maritime and border security’.[15] In late 2019 Washington passed the more concrete Eastern Mediterranean Security & Energy Partnership Act, lifting an arms embargo on the Republic of Cyprus in place since 1987 (whilst continuing its arms embargo against the TRNC) and authorising the Trump administration to enter into energy cooperation agreements with Nicosia.[16] Whilst the USA is yet to formally challenge Turkish regional ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean, Washington has made it clear that it will side with the Republic of Cyprus in the event of potential crisis. Nonetheless, prevailing political and military realities suggest that Ankara will likely be able to continue acting with impunity unless foreign powers actively resist Turkish military coercion in the Mediterranean (perhaps through naval escorts of their own for commercial drilling ships).

The prospect of Cypriot unification might enhance the chances of a peaceful solution to the maritime dispute. Unfortunately, mediated negotiations continue to stall with the latest round of talks in Switzerland collapsing in 2017. In the meantime, the status quo will likely continue as the Cyprus-Turkey issue simmers. In February 2020 TPAO added another drilling vessel to its fleet for further exploration activities in the Mediterranean.[17] Turkey also recently concluded an extended EEZ boundary agreement with the Libyan GNA led by Fayez al-Sarraj, marginalising Egyptian, Greek and Italian maritime claims (whether the understanding will last will depend on the ability of the GNA to resist military advances from General Khalifa Haftar’s LNA forces).[18]

However, the potential for overt conflict still remains possible in the event of a failure in military brinkmanship by Turkey or other competing powers. France has recently pledged to dispatch war frigates to the Mediterranean in the event of another standoff between Turkey and Greece.[19] Furthermore, the Cyprus-Turkey case is not an isolated resource dispute in the region. Egypt, Israel, Greece, Lebanon and Libya are also simultaneously vying for influence over untapped spoils throughout the Mediterranean.

The idea of sovereign rights to offshore resources in accordance with a state’s EEZ will remain important in the geostrategic sphere. Overlapping EEZ boundaries will undoubtedly continue to form the basis for disputes between states clamouring for offshore energy resources. Looking forward, the universal threat of climate change and associated rise in sea levels will likely trouble littoral island states around the globe. Rising waters will disproportionately impact the maritime zones of smaller states by pushing boundaries inwards or even submerging islands which usually claim an EEZ.[20]


  1. Foreign Affairs, ‘Egypt’s Gift From God’, September 2015
  2. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
  3. United Nations Treaty Collection, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
  4. The Guardian, ‘Turkey warns oil companies against drilling near Cyprus’, November 2018
  5. Reuters, ‘Standoff in high seas as Cyprus says Turkey blocks gas drill ship’, February 2018
  6. Foreign Affairs, ‘One Cyprus?’, October 2016
  7. Hurriyet Daily News, ‘Turkish Cyprus to continue drilling in licensed areas, minister says’, January 2020
  8. United Nations, Letter dated 11 July 2019 from the Chargé d’affaires a.i. of the Permanent Mission of Cyprus to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General
  9. Keep Talking Greece, ‘Turkey sends non paper to EU, warning to stay away from Cyprus EEZ’ June 2019
  10. Middle East Eye, ‘Cyprus brands Turkey ‘pirate state’ in gas drilling row’, January 2020
  11. Bloomberg, ‘EU to Sanction Turkish Nationals Over Gas Drilling Off Cyprus’, February 2020
  12. Al Jazeera, ‘Erdogan: Turkey could open the gates of Europe to refugees’, September 2019
  13. Asia Times, ‘Mediterranean gas hunt threatened by Cyprus stand-off’, October 2018
  14. The Guardian, ‘France to send warships to support Greece in Turkish standoff’, January 2020
    Daily Sabah, ‘Turkey plans to establish naval base in Cyprus’, February 2020
  15. US Department of State, US Relations with Cyprus (Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet) June 2019
  16. The Intercept, ‘Congress Quietly Adopts Exxon Mobil-Backed Law Promoting New Gas Pipeline, Arms To Cyprus’, February 2020
  17. Hurriyet Daily News, ‘Turkey procures its third drillship: Report’, February 2020
  18. Financial Times, ‘Turkey’s territorial deal with Libya stokes Mediterranean tensions’, December 2019
  19. The Guardian, ‘France to send warships to support Greece in Turkish standoff’, January 2020
  20. Tuna Pacific, ‘Pacific countries move to protect EEZ waters in face of climate change’, December 2018























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