The discovery over the last decade of sizable natural gas fields lying beneath the eastern Mediterranean has driven a vision of the region’s often-divided nations cooperating to exploit the reserves. They would enrich themselves, while their exports would help Europe reduce its dependence on Russian gas. One catch: Turkey wasn’t part of the picture, and with an active navy in the region, it’s playing the part of spoiler. Its recent maritime pact with Libya has added another snarl.

1. How much gas does the eastern Mediterranean hold?

The big finds are the Aphrodite field off Cyprus (thought to hold 8 trillion cubic feet of gas); the Tamar and Leviathan fields off Israel’s coast, (11 and 22 trillion cubic feet respectively; and Egypt’s Zohr field (30 trillion cubic feet). Zohr ranks as the world’s 20th-largest gas field, but it’s a fraction the size of the whoppers on the list, which are concentrated in Russia. Still, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 2010 that there were 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas in the Levant Basin and an additional 223 trillion cubic feet in the Nile Delta Basin, raising the prospect that there’s more to be found.

2. What’s the vision for cooperation?

In early 2019, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt together with neighbors Greece, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Italy founded the East Mediterranean Gas Forum. It’s an effort to establish a regional gas market and an exporting hub to Europe, which is eager to diversify its sourcing to guard against further disruptions of supply from Russia. Cooperation is an imperative in part because pipelines are needed to connect producers to consumers. One project envisions an undersea pipe carrying gas from Israeli and Cypriot reserves to Greece and then beyond.

3. Why was Turkey left out?

Because the Republic of Cyprus was included, and the two are bitter foes. Cyprus was in effect partitioned in 1963 when fighting erupted between Turkish Cypriots in the north and Greek Cypriots in the south. It was fully divided in 1974 after Turkey captured the northern third of the island following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. The breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north is recognized only by Turkey, which continues to base troops there. The government in the south is recognized internationally.

4. What has Turkey said?

Turkish officials oppose exploitation of gas resources by the Republic of Cyprus without an agreement on sharing proceeds with Turkish Cypriots. Beyond that, they say no energy project in the region has a chance to survive without Turkey’s participation. They argue that the shortest route for a gas pipeline from the region to Europe would cut through waters under Turkey’s domain.

5. What’s Turkey done?

It’s used its warships to interfere with gas exploration. Turkish vessels in 2018 blocked a ship contracted by the Italian oil company Eni SpA from approaching a work site off Cyprus. And Turkey has deployed newly procured drilling ships to search for gas in the area. A vessel called the Fatih is drilling in waters below Cyprus’s finger-like Karpas peninsula under an agreement with the Turkish Cypriots. The Barbaros is searching for energy in waters south of the island. And another, the Yavuz, is plying an area off the southwestern corner of the island called block 7, over which both Turkey and Cyprus claim drilling rights. Cyprus has an agreement with Eni and France’s Total SA to explore for oil and gas there.

6. How do both countries claim drilling rights?

Under the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea, coastal nations maintain an exclusive economic zone as far out as 200 nautical miles from their coast where they are entitled to fishing, mining and drilling rights. Where two zones intersect, as they do in the case of Turkey and Cyprus, the countries are obligated to come to a settlement. But Turkey hasn’t ratified the convention. It takes the unorthodox position that island states such as Cyprus are only entitled to rights within their legal territorial waters, which go out just 12 nautical miles. Cyprus has petitioned the International Court of Justice to intervene.

7. What’s the latest complication?

Turkey and Libya in December approved a deal demarcating an 18.6-nautical mile (35-kilometer) line that will form the maritime boundary separating their economic zones. Greece, Cyprus and Egypt see the deal as a brazen Turkish bid for dominance in the eastern Mediterranean. Libya is also in conflict with Greece over offshore exploration licenses Athens issued for waters south of the Greek island Crete, which is located between Turkey and Libya. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the agreement with Libya will enable joint exploration activities in the Mediterranean.

8. How have other countries responded?

The U.S. said it is deeply concerned by Turkey’s gas explorations in the waters off Cyprus and has urged Turkey to halt them. The European Union has responded to the operations by freezing most high-level contacts with Turkey and cutting the flow of funds to Ankara that were to have eased Turkey’s integration with the bloc. It’s also weighing sanctions. Accusing its Western allies of siding with Cyprus, Turkey has vowed to continue its explorations, demonstrating its desire for an increasingly independent role in regional policies.

To contact the reporter on this story: Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Onur Ant at, Lisa Beyer, Amy Teibel

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