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Background report by Alex Kohler, Foreign and Security Policy Expert

Cyprus or “The Great Game” in the Eastern Mediterranean

If you look at the eastern Mediterranean on a map, the island immediately catches your eye. It is located in the northeast of the eastern Mediterranean, also called the Levantine Sea. The area has been contested since ancient times, and this region, and Cyprus in particular, is once again becoming interesting for the “Great Game” of great powers. Powers that want to become great powers or consider themselves to be.

If you look at the map, there are a number of countries bordering the Levant Sea. Greek islands such as Crete, Rhodes etc. in the northwest, Turkey in the north, Syria and Lebanon in the east, Israel, the Gaza Strip in the southeast, Egypt and south in Libya. The first human civilizations have already used this sea area for goods transport and cultural exchange. Even today important trade routes run through this sea area, from the Bosporus to the Suez Canal and the Strait of Gibraltar. In such a prominent and strategically favorable position, it is not surprising that Cyprus changed hands repeatedly throughout history, including the British who leased the island from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 and completely with the entry of the Ottoman Empire into World War I annexed. With the entry into force of the Treaty of Lausanne, Cyprus became a British crown colony in 1925.

The Cyprus conflict

With so many participants, such a strategic location and such a varied history, it seems only logical that there are still disagreements in and around Cyprus today. These are known as the “Cyprus conflict”. As already mentioned, Cyprus had been controlled by Great Britain since 1878, and efforts to achieve independence were suppressed in the early 1930s. There were further uprisings that led to the independence of Cyprus in 1960.

After independence, tensions arose between the Greek majority who worked towards unification with Greece and the Turkish minority, so that in 1964 a UN peacekeeping force was stationed in Cyprus. The goal of the peacekeeping force was to prevent further escalation. This did not succeed and culminated in a putsch by Greek nationalists in 1974 who wanted to establish the connection to Greece. Turkey took this as an opportunity to intervene militarily in Cyprus and occupied the northern part of the island.

This occupation was condemned by the UN, Turkey was ordered to withdraw the troops and the UN’s territorial integrity was confirmed. Since an armistice agreement, the island has in fact been divided into a Turkish and a Greek part, with a buffer zone monitored by the UN. The Republic of Cyprus entered the EU after an attempt to resolve the conflict and bring about peaceful reunification, which failed due to a negative referendum.

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which was proclaimed in the northern part in 1983 but is not internationally recognized constitues a frozen conflict zone.

The current situation is as follows:

  • The Republic of Cyprus is a member state of the EU
  • The northern part of Cyprus is also part of the EU under international law, as the state integrity of Cyprus has been confirmed by the UN, but in fact the north of Cyprus is occupied by Turkey
  • Northern Cyprus as an independent state is only recognized by Turkey
  • Turkish troops still occupy the northern part of Cyprus
  • Two major British military bases are located in Cyprus (UK territory)

The gas rush in the Levant Sea

In addition to the already very complicated situation, there is also the discovery of rich natural gas deposits south of Cyprus.

Since the discovery of several large gas fields from 2010, such as the Leviatan gas field in the a sea area of Israel or the Zohr gas field in Egyptian territorial waters, which was discovered in 2015 and which, at 840 billion m³, is the largest gas field discovered in the Mediterranean to date, every neighboring country in the eastern Mediterranean tries to stake out claims and gain control over the transport routes.

Israel and Cyprus agreed to delimit the economic zones in 2017. Drilling licenses were then awarded to Korean, Italian, and French companies. There is also agreement between Israel and Egypt regarding the economic zones and the gas deposits located therein.

Although the gas reserves confirmed so far are south of Cyprus, Turkey also makes extensive claims on them.

In summary, one can attest to a gas rush in the eastern Mediterranean.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)

Transport routes

As already mentioned, the region is of great geostrategic importance and Cyprus occupies an outstanding position. Similar to Crimea and the Black Sea, Cyprus can control the entire region and all connections in the Eastern Mediterranean. Before the discovery of Columbus, the entire region was the traffic hub in trade between Europe and Asia. After the entire Levantine coast as far as Egypt (until 1520) was completely under Ottoman rule, trade with Asia was then completely controlled by the Ottomans; European traders were no longer allowed to travel through the region. This led to the search from Europe for alternative trade routes to Asia via a western route and around Africa, thereby discovering America.

Today, the region is not only important for a “Great Game” in terms of the classic trade routes and because of the energy resources located there, but also because of the transport routes for these raw materials. Europe and Germany in particular are primarily supplied with gas from Russia and the North Sea, and the USA also want to deliver their natural gas obtained by fracking to Europe as liquid gas (LNG – Liquid Natural Gas). The only other possible supplier that could also replace Russia due to its huge deposits would be Iran. However, the transportation of liquid gas by ship is comparatively expensive compared to a pipeline (CNG – Compressed Natural Gas) and pipelines (up to 6,000km) are much more energy efficient because the gas does not have to be liquefied first. The energy requirement for liquefaction is approximately 15% of the energy content of the gas. The pipeline infrastructure that is already being planned via Cyprus to Greece and further to Europe could later be expanded to Syria or Israel and Jordan to Iraq and further to Iran. This is currently not possible in the current situation in the region, but it is also due to the fact that some “players” are pursuing their own interests and are still fighting for control of the region. Turkey and Russia in particular want to control the east-west connections, just as the Ottoman Empire used to see in Turkey’s tradition today.

This claim is endangered by the agreement signed on January 2, 2020 by Israel, Cyprus and Greece for the EastMed Pipeline, which is to run via Cyprus to Crete and Greece and from there to Italy.

Turkey “situation”

With Erdogan at the top, Turkey is claiming and trying to powergrab it. This is not only thought of in secret, but communicated very publicly. For example, maps of a Greater Turkey are shown in the AKP area, which in addition to Northern Syria, Northern Iraq, Armenia, some Greek islands such as Rhodes, Greek Macedonia and parts of Bulgaria and Georgia also include Armenia and Syria.

In northern Syria, Turkey is currently working with a “protection zone” in which, for “humanitarian” reasons, Syrian refugees are to be settled in areas where the Kurds represent the majority of the population. Turkey also operates military bases in Iraq. It wants to use the US withdrawal from the region to take a further step towards Greater Turkey or a new Ottoman Empire. Of course, Turkey’s neighbors are not very enthusiastic about these ambitions, and it was not for nothing that Greece never tied the defense budget even during the financial crisis. Even after the Cold War, this is always above NATO’s 2% target.[18]

If we consider the frozen Cyprus conflict, the “gas rush” and a meanwhile very aggressive Turkish foreign policy, it is hardly surprising that Turkey is making claims to the gas deposits around Cyprus. For example, Erdogan warned in a speech to ACP MPs at the beginning of 2018: “Opportunistic attempts to extract gas from Cyprus and the Aegean Islands are not escaping our perception”. He adds with caution: “We warn those who are wrong in Cyprus and the Aegean. “

Of course, he also follows up with deeds. For example, the Turkish Navy and Coast Guard blockade exploration and drilling ships of the contracting parties in Cyprus and since early 2019, Turkish exploration and drilling ships have been operating under the protection of Turkish war and coast guard ships in the sovereign territories and the economic zone of Cyprus.

Most recently, an Israeli research ship was forced by the Turkish Navy to leave Cypriot waters, while Turkish drilling and research ships continue to operate south of Cyprus. Israel then announced a military exercise in the eastern Mediterranean.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias also replied meaningfully: “Greece is a European country, Turkey will not bring us to the level of the Balkan dispute. We have made it clear to everyone that we will protect our sovereignty within the framework of our constitutional rights. If necessary, we could answer alone, but we will not be alone”.

In the meantime, the Turkish leadership has heralded a new level of escalation in the conflict and is looking at North Africa.

“Turkish Africa”

If you look at the map of the current conflict region in whose “center” Cyprus is located, you will find Libya southwest of Cyprus, more precisely the region of Kyrenaica, one of the two most populous regions of Libya. If you want to build a Neo-Ottoman Empire, you must of course take every opportunity to gain decisive geopolitical advantages in the claimed region.

The “Arab Spring” led to the fall of Gaddafi in Libya in 2011. Since then, several warlords have ruled the Libyan territory. The two largest (warlord) factions are in Tripolitania in the west and in Cyrenaica in the east. The warlords in Tripolitania are generally recognized internationally as a government. European and American units are also based here because there are still smaller Danesch (IS) resistance nests – and the world’s highest quality oil deposits. The east, in which the Free Libyan Army is active, has rebel status and is supported by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Recently Russian soldiers have also been involved and the front line in front of Tripoli is shifting in favor of the Eastern Libyan “rebels”.

The Turkish government recognized the opportunity and reached an agreement with the “government” of Libya in the west to exploit natural gas deposits off Crete in the Mediterranean Sea, defined a common maritime border and effectively divided the sea area of ​​the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Libya. Base rights for the Turkish Navy in Libya were also agreed, an important prerequisite for effective control of the eastern Mediterranean.

Ankara, together with Tripoli, now claims the sea area between the two countries and would thus also control the sea and air routes between Cyprus and Greece as well as access to the Suez Canal, Egypt, Israel and Lebanon. The agreement is strongly condemned by all other neighboring countries and the EU.

In return for the agreement, which is very advantageous to them, Turkey assures the Libyan “government”, in addition to participating in the exploitation of the gas fields off Crete, that it will send troops and military equipment to actively intervene in the conflict and the “government”  power keep. Turkish troops have already been dispatched to Libya, whereupon the “rebels” have already threatened to attack Turkish military transports.

In this situation, the dilemma of European foreign policy is now becoming apparent.

Italy is on the Libyan “government” side, while France, Greece and Cyprus are on the side of the rebels.

The rebel chief Haftar was invited to Greece for talks immediately after the agreement between Erdogan and the Libyan leadership was concluded.

Ankara is currently heavily upgrading and modernizing its navy in order to be able to implement its growing demands in the Mediterranean with presence and blockades. When it comes to marine technology, Turkey is currently still heavily dependent on foreign suppliers, especially Germany. Since ships and sea-based weapon systems cannot be used against the Kurds, there is little opposition in Germany to the supply of warships and equipment to Turkey. It is apparently completely overlooked that these systems are particularly suitable for use against the Israeli, Greek, Egyptian, Cypriot, French and Italian “raw material lovers” in the race for gas deposits.

The Libyan-Turkish agreement on raw material exploitation off Crete has yet another effect. The construction of the EastMed natural gas pipeline from Egypt and Israel via Cyprus to Greece to the European end consumers planned by Greece, Cyprus, Israel, the USA and Egypt is made even more difficult and could be prevented entirely by Turkey

Cyprus security architecture

The previous text highlighted the conflict over natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Turkish actions to date, which obviously have the aim of cutting off a very large piece of the “gas cake”. Turkey’s ambitions to rise to the neo-Ottoman power and the development of the Cyprus conflict to date have also been discussed. From this and because of its central location, an acute threat to the sovereignty of Cyprus, which was already severely restricted by the occupation of Northern Cyprus, is clearly recognizable.

In order to assess the possibilities of the Republic of Cyprus to stand up to Turkey’s aggressive behavior, let us first take a look at Turkey’s position.

Turkey is a member of NATO, Cyprus is not. Turkey has the second largest military in NATO, which has been significantly weakened by the purging of the Erdogan era. In addition, Turkey, as cynical as it may sound, knows how to use the refugee situation that persisted due to the conflicts in the region as a means of exerting pressure against the EU.

In addition, there are large Turkish minorities in some European countries, some of which can be organized well through the religious associations supported and controlled by the Turkish Ministry of Religion (e.g. DiTiB e.V. in Germany).

At the same time, Turkey uses its position as a NATO partner as well as its strategic importance to keep “the allies” in NATO calm and at the same time to emancipate itself more and establish better contacts with the competitors in the region. In addition to being a dialogue partner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Turkey is also trying to become self-employed in weapon production, developing battle tanks based on a South Korean model, trying to develop its own aircraft and drones, and buying modern Russian air defense systems (including the S-400) ,

In addition, Ankara is also flirting with the development of nuclear capacities, which not only affect the nuclear reactor on the Turkish south coast that is being built with Russian help, because a major power that is self-sufficient, like the Turkish one, also needs its own nuclear weapons if the Americans would clear the bases in Turkey along with their nuclear weapons.

The strategy of the Republic of Cyprus is therefore to cooperate with other countries that have common interests and can offer security, primarily due to linguistic, historical and cultural proximity to Greece, which, like Turkey, is a NATO member and one for “security reasons” has increased military budget.

On the other hand, there are cooperation agreements with Israel, France and there are two large bases of the former colonial power Great Britain and US facilities on the island, for “energy-strategic” reasons Egypt is also added as a cooperation partner. There are also deep relationships between Russia and Cyprus.

With regard to military support obligations, a look at the Lisbon Treaty is also worthwhile. Article 42 (7) reads: “In the event of an armed attack on the territory of a Member State, the other Member States owe it all its help and support.” This obligation to assist is considerably stronger than that in Article 5 of the NATO North Atlantic Treaty, after which it also exaggerates a strict condemnation in writing would suffice.

This would mean that a breach of Cypriot territory (or accidental fire) would result in a European response. After the attacks in Paris, France appealed to it and demanded this from its European partners.


In summary, it can beattested that the southeastern Mediterranean is like a powder keg with Cyprus at its center. Individual EU countries sometimes work against each other and can thus be played off against each other. The EU must define a forward-looking, robust and collaborative approach and take on the challenges. This would not only ensure stability on the southern flank of the EU, but would also have a long-term stabilizing effect on the south-eastern and southern Mediterranean.


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