Military tension is building up among Greece, Turkey and Israel as Cyprus prepares to start exploratory drilling for gas offshore Monday, Sept. 19 in the face of threats from Ankara. All three have placed their air and sea forces in a state of preparedness along with the Cypriot army.
From Wednesday, Sept 14, Turkish warplanes and fighters kept watch on the Homer Ferrington rig belonging to Houston-based Noble Energy as it moved from Israel's offshore field Noa opposite Ashdod to Cyprus's Aphrodite (Block 12) field ready to start work.
It was the first time since the Mavis Marmara episode of May 2010 that Turkish warships came less than 80 kilometers from Israel's territorial waters. DEBKAfile's military sources report that Israeli missile ships and drones kept watch from afar on the Noble rig's movement and tracked Turkish surveillance.
As the rig moved into position opposite Cyprus, so too did two Turkish frigates. A Cypriot spokesman said Turkish warships and fighters had not entered the island's territorial waters.
Ankara questions the rights of Israel and Cyprus to drill for hydrocarbon reserves in the respective Exclusive Economic Zones marked out in an accord they concluded last year.
The UN-approved Law of the Sea authorizes nations to mark out their Exclusive Economic Zones for the exploration of natural resources to a distance of 200 miles outside their territorial waters. Israel has never signed this treaty.
Thursday, Sept. 15, in Tunis, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan continued to inveigh against Israel declaring: "They will see what our decisions will be on this subject. Our navy attack ships can be there at any moment."
Without specifically mentioning Cyprus, he said: "Israel cannot do as it pleases in the Mediterranean" and "Turkey is committed to preserving the freedom of navigation in international waters."
Erdogan avoided linking Israel to the Turkish dispute with Greece and Greek Cyprus but is obviously galled by the connection and its three manifestations.
1. Cyprus's Block 12 where drilling starts Monday borders on the huge Leviathan field Israel is developing in the eastern Mediterranean, whose proven gas reserves are calculated to be 8.5 trillion cubic feet. This would supply the entire US economy's needs for a year.
2. Noble Energy of Houston has a license to drill in Cyrus's Aphrodite while the Israeli company Delek which is developing the Israeli offshore gas fields also has an option in the Cypriot field.
3. Greece and Israel concluded a mutual defense pact on Sept. 4, 2011. Ten days later, Prime Ministers George Papandreou and Binyamin Netanyahu agreed to activate the pact in the light of Turkish threats against Israel and to exploration activity in the Mediterranean basin.
Israel and Greece have therefore begun to coordinate their fleet movements in the eastern Mediterranean and around Cyprus.
Erdogan's threats were followed up this week by a Turkish Foreign Ministry statement saying: “It has been agreed that Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus will conclude a continental shelf delimitation agreement should the Greek Cypriot administration proceed with offshore drilling activities in the south of the island.”
Ankara's problem is that the Turkish Republic of Cyprus is not recognized by any country but Turkey.
Washington has not only given Noble Energy a green light to start drilling off Cyprus but backed it up with a State Department statement Thursday: "The US supports the efforts to enhance energy diversity in Europe, noting the fact a US company was involved was also positive."
Since last Tuesday, Sept. 13, Turkish troop reinforcements are reported by DEBKAfile's military sources as having landed in North Cyprus along with drilling equipment.
These preparations indicate that Turkey is planning to start drilling in the Cypriot EEZ without reference to Nicosia. This would mean that Prime Minister Erdogan, while spouting high-sounding pledges to "preserve "freedom of navigation in international waters," is preparing a wildcat breach of international law and treaties. Friday, the Greek government in Athens warned Ankara against pursuing this step.
However, it would be in keeping with his past defiance of international norms. Even though Turkey accepted the UN Palmer commission's mediation in its dispute with Israel over the flotilla escapade, Erdogan declared its findings "null and void" –- after the panel ruled that Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip was legal and justified.
Next Monday, therefore, many eyes will be alertly watching to see what happens when the Noble rig starts drilling in Cyprus' Block 12 of the Mediterranean.
The Turkish prime minister has painted himself into a corner: If he orders his naval and/or air units to strike the American rig, he will have to take the consequences, possibly a confrontation with the US, Israel, Greece and Cyprus.
If he does nothing, or nothing more than a token drilling off the Turkish side of the island, he will lose face as a leader able to back up his threats.
He could take a third course like other Muslim rulers and vent his ire on Israel.
The guessing in Washington, NATO and Israel is that the most likely arena for a potential clash of arms in the Mediterranean is offshore Cyprus and it is most likely to evolve into sea and air confrontatons involving Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and Israel.