With potential offshore oil and gas discoveries around Cyprus, some analysts, diplomats, and politicians, suggested that hydrocarbon prospects would provide the needed incentives for Cyprus’s feuding Greeks and Turks to finally reach a mutually acceptable compromise.

A win – win opportunity that contributes to greater prosperity for all. Well, maybe not. Experts estimate that the Eastern Mediterranean has 3.5 trillion cubic metres of natural gas and 1.7 billion barrels of oil. That constitutes a whole lot of potential for i) a bankrupt Greek Cyprus and Greece, ii) an isolated Turkish Cyprus that is looking for sustainable growth opportunities, and iii) a Turkey that has ambitious growth targets and increasing resource demands. Apparently, an agreement to settle the Cyprus conflict and recognition amongst the conflicting parties (i.e. Greece and Greek Cyprus to one side, and Turkey and Turkish Cyprus to other) are necessary for the two camps to do business with one another. The proponents of this position are either naïve, out of touch with reality, or simply trying to pull a fast one over Turkish Cyprus.

Adversaries and competitors have done business with one another since the beginning of time. Two countries need not be akin to one another or on good terms to engage in profitable trade or commercial relations. For example, neither the People’s Republic of China (China) nor the Republic of China (Taiwan) recognize each other’s existence and both claim to be the sovereign authority over China-proper, yet the adversarial “Chinas”, who live with the genuine possibility of war with one another, are actively engaged in very profitable trade, investments, and business relations across the disputed South China Sea.

Clearly, the Cyprus conflict does not need to be settled in order to extract and distribute hydrocarbons from the Eastern Mediterranean in an inclusive, acceptable, and profitable manner. The only limiting factor is whether Greek Cyprus wants to do business with Turkish Cyprus as peers and partners. Note to file — this is the real reason why the Cyprus conflict has not been resolved for over 55 years and why tension is escalating. Greek Cyprus is not willing to accept Turkish Cyprus as an equal partner and sees itself as the exclusive sovereign over all of Cyprus, including its resources.

Anyone with a basic understanding of politics knows that states are unitary rational actors that strive to maximize their gains and minimize their losses. The international system in which states exist is anarchic and international institutions only matter if the powerful states that underwrite their existence choose to make them matter. It is therefore only natural for Greek Cyprus and Turkish Cyprus to work within these parameters to pursue their national, and almost always conflicting, interests. Everyone should expect Greek Cyprus and Turkish Cyprus to do everything in their respective ability to locate, extract, and profit from offshore resources without consideration for the other. After all, the two “Cypruses” are in existential competition with one another.

With respect to Greek Cyprus, this includes leveraging its status as a European Union (EU) member-state and benefiting from being the only internationally recognized state in Cyprus; Turkish Cyprus is only recognized by Turkey. As witnessed with recent developments, Greek Cyprus will exhaust all its options to further isolate and limit Turkish Cyprus’s opportunities, whereas Turkish Cyprus will counter Greek Cyprus’s strategy by leveraging its relationship with Turkey. Turkey’s superior position of power cannot be compared to Greek Cyprus or Greece, be it individually or in combination. Yet EU member-states will use Greek Cyprus and Greece to aggravate and agitate Turkey with the intention of checking Turkey’s growing regional power and influence.

At the heart of this geo-political conflict is the status of Greek Cyprus and Turkish Cyprus, and the implications of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea across the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey is not a signatory of the Law of the Sea, because Greece could apply this convention to effectively transform the Aegean Sea into a Greek Lake, limiting Turkey’s access and rights in the region; something Turkey is not willing to accept. Greek Cyprus, which benefits from its illegitimate and unconstitutional usurpation of the bi-national, 1960 Republic of Cyprus (RoC), is also a signatory of the Convention and claims an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around Cyprus. Greek Cyprus’s EEZ encompasses more than 70,000 km2 and is parcelled into 13 exploration blocks. Exxon, ENI-KOGAS, Nobel, Qatar Petroleum, Shell, and Total are amongst the highest profile names involved in Greek Cyprus’s exploration and drilling activities. Greek Cyprus’s EEZ exploits, however, conflict with Turkish Cyprus and Turkey’s interests as the Turks do not accept Greek Cyprus as the sole arbiter of the bi-national island. Turkish Cyprus and Turkey have responded to Greek Cyprus’s offshore exploration activities and drilling with their own. At present, RV Barbaros Hayrettin Paşa is surveying opportunities around Cyprus, while Turkish flagged drill-ships Fatih and Yavuz are on Cyprus’s West and East coasts, respectively. All operations and vessels are being monitored closely by the Turkish navy, including frigates and submarines. There are also Turkish drones flying above to provide aerial support and surveillance.

In an attempt to contain Turkish Cyprus and Turkey’s hydrocarbons strategy, Greek Cyprus and Greece developed closer relations with Egypt, Israel, and Lebanon, two of which (Egypt and Israel) have had soured relations with Turkey since the 2010 – 2011 period. Greek Cyprus, with Greece’s backing, recently engaged the EU to assert further pressure on Turkey; the EU threatened sanctions, called off high-level political meetings, and reduced funding allocated for Turkey’s EU accession process. The EU’s bark did not have any impact on Turkey, because Turkey’s EU accession process is effectively dead anyway and Turkey is not willing to comprise on the Turkish Cyprus’s rights or the Turkish camp’s potential gains.

In late July 2019, the plot thickened as Alexander Novak, Russia’s Energy Minister, advised that Russian oil companies could, in cooperation with Turkey, join in on further offshore explorations and drilling in the region. Russia has tactfully been wedging a distance between Turkey and its traditional western allies, particularly the United States and NATO, as Turkey recently acquired Russia’s S-400 advanced air-defence system. Assisting Turkey and Turkish Cyprus with hydrocarbon opportunities could be a further ace in Russia’s diplomatic offensive against the West and its maneuvering to draw Turkey away from its traditional allies and orientation.

Throughout the centuries, Cyprus has always been a strategic military asset in the Eastern Mediterranean. With hydrocarbon prospects and the potential for a financial windfall, the island’s strategic portfolio has further appreciated and will consequently make it even more difficult to achieve a mutually acceptable settlement between the island’s Greeks and Turks. As Greek Cyprus hardens its position in not accepting Turkish Cyprus as a peer and equal partner, and as EU member-states and Russia become more embroiled in the Cyprus conflict, Cyprus’s two sides will be pushed further apart and tensions will escalate. The involved actors should pay due respect to the realities on the island, including its sensitivities, and accept that inclusive benefits can be drawn for all involved parties even without a resolution of the age-old Cyprus conflict. More importantly, greater stability can also be provided with clearer lines of demarcation and exploration if everyone recognizes the existence of two equal, sovereign, and independent republics on the island – a Turkish in the north and a Greek to the south.