The ‘Drilling War’ in the Eastern Mediterranean from an International Law Perspective

On October 8, 2019, Egypt, Greece and the Greek Cypriot Administration of Southern Cyprus  called on the Turkish government to cease what they call illegal drilling for hydrocarbon resources in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin, off the coast of  Cyprus. However, Turkey rejects these assertions, claiming that its drilling activities in the area are legitimate.

The Eastern Mediterranean Basin, often referred to as the cradle of civilization, has witnessed severe confrontations between numerous political powers throughout the course of its history. This continues today with vital disputes continuing to disconcert regional players as well as global powers pursuing their own interests in the region. Presently, some of the most complicated and heated disputes are the overlapping claims on the maritime territories in the Eastern Mediterranean by several coastal states. In particular, the contrasting claims of Turkey, Greece, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and the Greek Cypriot Administration of Southern Cyprus [which is commonly referred to as the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) by many states, but in this text will be referred to as GC] have built towards a major escalation throughout 2019.

In 2019, Turkey conducted the largest naval exercise ever held in Turkish history, named ‘Blue Homeland 2019’ with 103 military ships and thousands of soldiers participating in the exercise. It was countered by ‘Medusa 8’ which was a joint naval and air exercise between the Egyptian, Greek and GC forces. The GC has reached international maritime boundary delimitation agreements with some states, such as Israel and Egypt without taking Turkey’s and TRNC’s counterclaims into consideration. In response, Turkey took the decision to give drilling licenses to some oil giants in the maritime zones, some of which allegedly overlap Turkey’s maritime territories. Although the Turkish government had already decided to carry out some exploration and drilling activities off the coasts of Cyprus before the summer of 2019, its launch of offshore drilling operations by the Turkish flagged drill ships Fatih and Yavuz on May 3 and July 7 this year brought tensions to a new breaking point.

These operations were based on the drilling licenses granted by the Turkish and TRNC governments to the Turkish Petroleum Corp. Such bold steps by Turkey drew furious opposition and condemnation not only from the GC, but also other neighboring states and international powers such as the European Union (EU) and United States (US). As the GC is the only internationally recognized government on the island of Cyprus and a member of the EU, European leaders issued a formal statement declaring Turkey’s drilling operations illegal. The EU also imposed sanctions which will reduce the EU’s financial assistance to Turkey, suspend negotiations on an aviation agreement and halt high-level talks with the country. The Turkish government, in return, declared that it saw these sanctions as “valueless” and that it would stand its grounds despite the external pressure.

It is yet to be seen to what extent the escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean will grow. However, even at this stage it is crystal clear that this escalation not only signals a sharp and worrying return of power politics regarding the Cyprus problem, but also jeopardizes the security of the whole region as repercussions of the dispute would affect many other regional actors such as Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon and Syria.

A Brief History of the ‘Drilling Dispute’ 

The main reason behind the escalation has been the increased discoveries of significant oil and hydrocarbon fields in the East Mediterranean Basin in recent years. These discoveries have revived the historical ‘Cyprus problem’, namely the lack of a mutually recognized final status of the island of Cyprus by Turkey and Greece. Moreover, this problem extends far beyond the island’s territorial boundaries, to the maritime zones.

The roots of the Cyprus problem date back to the period of the Ottoman Empire’s decline. In 1878, it leased Cyprus to the United Kingdom and this agreement was still in place 82 years later when Cyprus became an independent country in 1960. At that time the population consisted of both Greek- and Turkish-speaking communities. They did not succeed in reaching a mutual agreement for a unified state and the island witnessed an outbreak of violence between the nationalist groups of both sides. In 1974, when the military junta in Greece staged a military coup and the threat of the annexation of Cyprus as a part of Greece emerged, the Turkish military intervened to advocate the rights of the Turkish-speaking Northern Cypriots and captured the northern part of the island. This intervention caused a serious military confrontation until it was contained by a United Nations (UN)-backed ceasefire following the declaration of a buffer zone running through the island, between north and south. Afterwards, the government formed in the north was recognized only by Turkey and the UN Security Council, whilst most of the international community recognized it as a territory of the “Republic of Cyprus currently under Turkish occupation.” Turkey insisted that it would not withdraw its forces until a fair agreement ensuring the equal participation and representation of the Turkish Cypriots in any unified governance model was reached. Diplomatic relations between Turkey and the GC have been suspended ever since with numerous negotiations between both sides and attempts by the UN to solve this crisis having failed.

Hence, the dispute on the Eastern Mediterranean is such a multi-layered problem. The divergent views on the recognition of Cyprus’s status have repercussions on the claims for the maritime zones off the island’s coast because of the main international law principle which states: “Land dominates the sea and it dominates it by the intermediary of the coastal front.” That is to say, when the recognition of an entity such as the TRNC or GC is controversial, it also becomes controversial to whom the coast of that entity, thus the sovereign rights deriving from the ownership of that coast, belong. Assuming the TRNC is entitled to have its own sovereign rights, Turkey and the TRNC have been insistently claiming the illegality of the GC’s maritime delimitation agreements with other coastal states. It also strongly disputes the legality of its licensing activities since 2011 for the hydrocarbon exploration and drilling operations of some major US, Italian and Korean oil companies (Noble, ENI and KOGAS respectively) on behalf of the entire island.

The Legal Claims of Both Sides

The main problem with the distribution of resources in the Eastern Mediterranean is the principles and methods used while delimiting each state’s maritime territories. As per international maritime law, every coastal state has a right to claim its sovereign rights on maritime zones off its coasts. There are different categories of such zones; such as territorial waters, contiguous zones, continental shelf and exclusive economic zones (EEZ), each of which entails different sets of rights. Of course, each of these zones have their own maximum distance limits. For example, the EEZ gives a coastal state the right to exploit the marine and subsoil sources within an area which extends no more than 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from its coastlines, whilst continental shelf zones give similar rights but only on the seabed and in subsoil. Therefore, when there is not enough space for each coastal state’s claims, and those claims therefore overlap, the delimitation rules come into play.

Today, the main sources of the delimitation rules are UN Conventions on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and some other international treaties. The decisions on the numerous disputes brought by contesting states to the international tribunals also provide important guidance for shedding light on the relevant rules and principles. Accordingly, the most essential principle for maritime delimitation cases is to bring about an ‘equitable solution’ for all parties. What constitutes an equitable solution is decided according to some special geographical (i.e. configuration of coasts, proportionality, location of islands) or non-geographical (i.e. historical rights, security) circumstances of each case. The equitable solution in the Eastern Mediterranean must be discussed against this backdrop.

From Turkey’s perspective, on the basis of the 1960 Cyprus Accords and Constitution, the Turkish Cypriots have just as equal, inalienable and inherent rights on offshore reserves as the GC. The GC cannot represent the entire island as the Republic of Cyprus until reunification is carried out with the mutual consent of both sides. Until such a reunification occurs, Turkey recognizes the TRNC as an independent state which has its own sovereign rights on its maritime zones. As a result of this approach, Turkey started to collaborate with the TRNC in restoring the political balance in the Eastern Mediterranean and both governments signed an agreement demarcating the continental shelf between the Island of Cyprus’ northern coast and Turkey in September 2011. Following this, the Turkish Petroleum Corp  received authorization to conduct exploration for oil and gas, as well as drilling wells in some maritime zones of the TRNC.

Since the GC and the EU consider the north as territories under illegal occupation and subsequently belonging to the Republic of Cyprus, they also consider the waters surrounding it to be part of its maritime territories. Therefore, the GC claims that Turkey’s deployment of drilling ships is a violation of the sovereignty of the Republic of Cyprus.

Additionally, independent from the TRNC, Turkey also has legal rights in the Eastern Mediterranean. Even if Turkey has not declared an EEZ yet, it has the rights deriving from its continental shelf, which is considered an integral part of a state’s territories, therefore not subject to declaration. Turkey argues that some of the licensed exploration areas claimed by the GC are partially overlapping Turkey’s continental shelf, and potential EEZ. In fact, according to the universally recognized principles of equitable solution, Turkey’s claim has some merits as its coastal length is much longer than the GC’s and the Greek islands close to Turkey can be given restricted maritime territories. However, the question of how to measure such standards remains unclear because of the problem of recognition regarding the TRNC.

Picture121 Picture11

Source: GC officials (Figure-1) and TUDAV (Figure-2)


The Cyprus dispute is today about the maritime jurisdiction of areas in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and no longer merely about an island divided by a green line patrolled by the UN peacekeeping troops. To smoothen the ongoing escalation and exploit the rich resources of the East Mediterranean mutually in a peaceful environment, the best solution for the coastal states is constructive dialogue, which must lead to cooperation and a resolution plan in compliance with international law and principles. The primary step to achieving a successful settlement is to reach a maritime boundary delimitation agreement which avoids violating other parties’ rights in the basin. If they ultimately fail to reach an agreement, instead of continuing the show of strength, the parties should at least agree on resolving the crisis through judicial means, be it by international tribunals or arbitration panels.

On the other hand, until reaching a settlement the parties could develop provisional arrangements of a practical nature such as a ‘Joint development & joint management formula’. To date, the TRNC government has so far made three proposals for offshore cooperation through the UN Secretary General, in September 2011, September 2012 and July 2019. These proposals were also supported by the Turkish government but not welcomed by the GC.

If, instead of the solutions proposed by international law, the parties insist on agreeing to disagree and continue pure power politics, it would be harmful for both sides as well as the prosperity and security of the Eastern Mediterranean states, because the efficient and fair use of potential wealth will be impossible. In the absence of any agreement, plans for the transportation of the oil and gas resources from the Eastern Mediterranean through a pipeline via Turkey, will be impossible despite it being the most viable way. Moreover, the more the crisis deepens, the more the region will be open to interference from external powers as seen in the statement by the Russian Presidential spokeswoman Maria Zakharova which criticized the EU sanctions against Turkey, saying they were shaped by the mentality gained by years of colonialism. Clearly, it is better for the Eastern Mediterranean states to reach a settlement before the dispute gets more complicated. As the saying goes; a stitch in time saves nine.