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I have been following the news about the ongoing explorations for gas reserves in Eastern Mediterranean from the sidelines. As usual, when it comes to Cyprus, I have been slightly worried—a reflex from childhood that I have still to overcome. Still I did not think the dispute between Cyprus and Turkey could really escalate.

When the other day my sister told me on the phone the Russians are now also getting involved, I thought, maybe I should now take a closer look. I still do not ‘really’ worry, but …

Briefly the facts—to the extent that they could be established: (Sources: articles in Guardian, Foreign Policy, Haaretz, Global Warming Policy Foundation and Facts Company).

  • In 2010 the US Geological Survey agency published the results of a study into the natural gas reserves in the Levant Basin region, which is the sea area in the south-east of Cyprus and west of Israel and Lebanon. The amount of natural gas was estimated at 122 trillion cubic feet, that of oil to 4.2 billion barrels.
  • The discovery and the subsequent decision by Israel to proceed with further exploratory drilling and seismic studies stirred Lebanon’s opposition and resulted in a case brought forward to the UN for determining the maritime borders between the two countries.
  • In December 2010 Cyprus and Israel signed an exclusive economic zone agreement (EEZ) to regulate the respective exploitation of their territorial waters. Cyprus’ share in the gas reserves has still to be determined, but in any case the island is expected to play a role with regard to the issuing of transportation licenses.
  • In September 2011 Cyprus gave green light to the US company Noble Energy to begin drilling off its shores. Noble Energy has been carrying out studies on behalf of the Cyprus government since 2009.
  • Turkey reacted to the announcement by proceeding to sign an own EEZ agreement with Northern Cyprus, which it occupies since 1974. In the meantime it has also deployed a seismic vessel in the area and an escort of gunboats. Turkey’s official position is that no decision on the exploitation of the gas reserves should be taken before a political solution is found to the Cyprus problem.
  • During the past week Turkish and Israeli fighter planes have been cruising the area. A Russian aircraft carrier vessel is also expected to arrive in the region this month, supposedly as part of standard exercises.

And here is some more contextual information:

  • The gas reserves in the Levant Basic region are ‘gigantic’—but their exploitation will neither be easy, nor (environmentally) safe, since the gas fields are located at least 1,500 meters below sea level.
  • Europe is currently dependent on Russia for gas which is not a comfortable situation, hence also the strategic significance of the Nabucco gas pipeline, which bypasses Russia but goes through Turkey.
  • Israel and Turkey used to be allies, but relations have frozen since the Gaza flotilla raid in May 2010. Recent attempts by Turkey to position itself as a role model for Arab countries and as a regional superpower have alienated Israel even further.
  • Cyprus has good foreign, economic and offshore banking relations with Russia. At the political level these have been especially strong with AKEL, which currently heads the government.

If you made it reading till here and now have a headache, I don’t blame you. But, I am afraid, there is even more cause for headache, and its source is domestic politics. This is a field often ignored by foreign policy—wrongly so, since it frequently drives decisions in the field of international relations.

  • Israel is governed by a right-wing coalition with extremist elements. As shown by the recent Tel-Aviv protests that have been going on for weeks, the government is steadily losing in popularity and its nationalist-security discourse is slowly wearing off. Early elections in 2012 are not unlikely.
  • Turkey’s Erdogan appears triumphant following his electoral victory earlier this year as well as his successes in curtailing the influence of the military and his inroads in changing the country’s Constitution. But getting rid of some generals is not the same as gaining control over the army—and in Turkey nationalist and military discourse has always come in handy in terms of unifying a heterogeneous population.
  • Russia is holding legislative elections in December this year and presidential elections in March 2012. Putin has declared his candidacy for the president’s post and Medvedev is expected to tag along as prime-minister. Sounds all settled, but like Turkey, Russia has now to redefine its foreign policy and that is a distorting element for the campaigns.
  • And not to forget Cyprus: President Christofias of AKEL has recently come under heavy pressure to resign in connection with an explosion at Mari naval base which destroyed the country’s biggest electricity plan. Moreover, Cyprus is due to take over the EU presidency in June 2012.

In other words, despite the fact that all parties to the dispute over the gas reserves stand to lose from a confrontation (and everyone stands to gain from collaboration), the governments in each are seeking to rally the declining support of their populations by populist means.

War games are better than real wars, but still.

Moreover, it might be useful to remember that given that the Levant is an earthquake region, exploitation of the gas reserves, if ever possible, will be extremely expensive and therefore nothing to be realized in the near future.