For much of the international community watching, ‘Ayşe will go on holiday again’ means very little. Especially if 1974 is before your time, you may have wondered what such a bizarrely innocuous phrase could possibly have to do with Meral Akşener – the Turkish president Erdoğan’s political opponent – or her recent speech on the rising Turkish-Cypriot tensions. Yet to Cypriots, to Turks, to detractors of Turkish foreign policy, it means something very grave. It means war.
‘Ayşe will go on holiday again’ is the code phrase that initiated the 1974 invasion of Cyprus by Turkey. Even 44 years after Turkey seized the northern third of Cyprus, the political climate is anything but stable. 40,000 Turkish troops remain stationed at the border of the so-called ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (The TRNC, recognised only by Turkey), and there is a deep cultural divide within the region that poses a consistent threat to internal harmony.
Recent developments have, however, amplified existing issues significantly. In February 2018, a gas deposit was found off the southern coast of Cyprus, which is potentially as large as the gas deposit within Egypt’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which is a colossal 30 trillion cubic feet. Within that month, Turkish warships stopped the Italian drillship Saipem 12000 from entering the hotly contested sea blocks 6, 8 and 10. The drillship was licensed by Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades.
The Turkish administration has subsequently warned ExxonMobil (Which is exploring in block 10), a leading American fossil fuel corporation, not to drill in Cypriot waters. The Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy reiterated this message on the 18th November, citing that the “unilateral exploration for hydrocarbons” in the area is significant in the ‘specific and delicate balance relation’ necessary to resolving the tensions between Turkey and Cyprus at this time. On 1st December, President Erdoğan condemned Greek Cypriots’ search for gas deposits, citing it as an unacceptable violation of the rights of Turkish Cypriots.
Exacerbating tensions further are Cypriot plans to drill 12 exploration wells, according to the Greek-Cypriot Energy Minister Yiorgos Lakkotrypis. These wells are to be drilled off this southern coast of Cyprus, including in some areas that fall within Turkey’s EEZ, rather than purely in the waters under the marine jurisdiction of both Turkey and Greece. Turkey responded in kind by demonstrating its military might at the 35th anniversary of the foundation of the TRNC as high-tech Turkish jets flew over the Cypriot capital of Nicosia, and the Turkish state oil company TPAO was commissioned by Erdoğan to join foreign companies in exploring for oil in the waters south of Cyprus.
The growing tensions are a cause for concern for the EU, whose parliamentary rapporteur Kati Piri has condemned Turkey as an “autocracy” with which there is no negotiation – but despite this, there appears to be little sign of interventionist policy being formed or implemented regarding Turkish-Cypriot tensions. The ultimate response from the international community is perhaps summarised most honestly by Neil Chapman, ExxonMobil SVP, who has answered questions on Erdoğan with the diplomatically neutral assertion that this is a matter ‘for Turkey and Cyprus to resolve’.
The last attempt at peace talks to de-escalate the situation took place in July 2017 in Switzerland, and were wholly unsuccessful. There have been no arrangements made for peace talks since. This is perhaps unsurprising, as neither Greek-Cypriot nor Turkish government officials show any sign of surrendering control of any of the potential gas deposit sites off Cyprus’ coast. This is, after all, a battle of wits and will between both parties. The resolution – or the lack thereof – to the tensions over the potential gas deposits will surely dictate future interactions between the Erdoğan administration and surrounding powers, of all sizes.