The eastern Mediterranean Sea has been living some intense years due to the multiple conflicts in the area. The Syrian and Libyan civil wars and the Israeli / Palestinian “situation” are the most gruesome and active, but many other, less “kinetic” situations exist. Among this less known, tense but (up till now) military-less confrontations there is one involving mainly France, Italy, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus over Cyprus EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) waters extents and the exploitation of natural resources found within them.

The background

Since the events of 1974 the Island of Cyprus is divided in two, on the south the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus (which is also member of the European Union and administered by Greece) while on the north the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) which is recognised only by Turkey.

Turkey is not a signatory country of UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and doesn’t recognise the Republic of Cyprus EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) which are areas of sea extending beyond territorial waters where resources exploitation is controlled by the country of whom the EEZ belongs to. Main, original, reason for Turkey not signing UNCLOS is tied to its disputes with Greece over the Aegean Sea islands, but in last years the dispute over Cyprus EEZ became even more important as recent discoveries revealed the presence of massive natural gas reserves below the sea floor south of the island.

Turkey claims that EEZ use and revenue should be administered by both “republics” present on Cyprus while UN (following UNCLOS) recognised the boundaries drawn by the Republic of Cyprus after talks and agreements with the other countries with confining EEZs (Egypt and Israel specifically). Being Cyprus rich of gas and a union member, the EU got very interested in the situation as it has been seeking ways to diminish its energy dependance from Russia.

Ignoring Turkish claims, the Republic of Cyprus moved on following international law and divided its EEZ into blocks which are being “leased” to international energy companies for both exploration and drilling. Among the top purchasers of such exploitation rights there are Italian ENI and French Total which have both been in recent years growing their presence in Cyprus EEZ. At the same time, Turkey has been ignoring the EEZ it doesn’t recognise and has been performing its own exploration and drilling operations (illegally by international law defined by UN).

Rising tensions

For the first time in 2018, the situation got more serious since an Italian drill ship (from ENI) was blocked by the Turkish navy claiming military operations in the area and effectively stopping the ENI leased vessel which after a short “standoff” period had to return to port.

Beginning in mid 2019 Turkey became more active with both exploration vessels and drillship sent to operate within Cyprus EEZ often escorted by Turkish Navy vessels.

Interesting OSINT thread from early July 2019 tracking Turkish research and drill activities in Cyprus EEZ. Of particular interest the BARBAROS HAYREDDIN survey vessel which will show up again later in the article.

The rising intensity of Turkish operations, especially after Fatih drillings in the first half of 2019 pushed EU to issue sanctions against Turkey in hope to control diplomatically the brewing crisis.

Then in late 2019 Turkish drillship Yavuz begun drilling in block 7 for which ENI and Total hold exploration rights hence raising the level of the confrontation once more as for the first time Turkish operations where being carried out in waters directly assigned to EU countries. Satellite pictures show us that the operation lasted from early October 2019 to early January 2020 with both media and European governments covering the event in multiple occasions.

Today

Using multiple satellite sources we where able to detect a new Turkish drillship mission well within Cyprus EEZ and exploiting a block (8) once more “owned” by both ENI (60%) and Total (40%).

While we can’t be sure of the name of the vessel (can just exclude Fatih as she is anchored near Taşucu) there are multiple indicators pointing towards its Turkish origin:

  • It is being resupplied weekly by a Turkish vessel (Osman Bey in 2 occasions – AIS data)
  • It has AIS turned off which is pretty suspect.
  • Constant military presence nearby can be seen via satellite pictures (at least one frigate sized military vessel)

While weather over the area hasn’t been clement in recent period, we can be rather precise about the vessel arrival at its drilling position thanks to Sentinel-1 CSAR satellite whose radar sensor isn’t effected by clouds. It made passes both on January 18 and 19 2020 showing the large vessel arrival sometime between the two dates.

SENTINEL-1 satellite CSAR (C band Synthetic Aperture Radar) view of the arrival and stay of Turkish drill ship in Cyprus EEZ block 8.

What looks a lot like a military frigate (size, proportions and colours lead to this “guess”) has also been visible in every satellite shot of the drillship

While we know rather precisely when the vessel reached its final drilling position, we can’t (currently at least) be sure about when the mission actually started, with previous YAVUZ mission for example, before settling in a spot the vessel moved around a rather wide area for little more than a week (maybe looking for the best spot ?).

18/2/2020

While reviewing the article AIS data brought up some new and important informations. A new geological survey mission lead by the Turkish flagged BARBAROS HAYREDDIN PASA and supported by Apollo Moon (same vessel combo used for the survey mission in 2019 that lead to todays drilling in block 8) appears to be underway between blocks 2 and 3 assigned to ENI, TOTAL and KOGAS (South Korean), possibly indicating new interests for another contested Cyprus EEZ block. At the same time, an Offshore Supply Vessel, the ERTUGRUL BEY is on its way towards the drilling site in block 8, interestingly the vessel is reporting as its destination “YAVUZ” possibly clearing all doubts about which Turkish drillship is the one operating in the contested block.

The reactions

Not much has been said publicly about the current situation and Turkish latest “illegal” drilling mission, but OSINT data allows us to at least speculate a bit.

Interestingly on January 16 France president Macron announced that the French Nuclear powered Aircraft Carrier Charles de Gaulle would be deployed to the eastern Mediterranean to support the coalition against ISIS. The aircraft carrier has been, since her arrival in late January, operating South and East of Cyprus, often just few miles from the military escorted Turkish drilling operation (which goes against French interests).

An Italian military vessel has also briefly appeared on AIS in the area.

AIS data from marinetraffic.com shows an “ITALIAN WARSHIP” in the waters south of Cyprus.

There is no way for us to establish a direct connection between the French and Italian navies deployments in the area and the Turkish drilling operation. Region is strategically important for many other military operations in which all tree countries involved have a stake, Syrian conflict is re-heating up and tensions with Russia (which has a permanent naval presence in Syria) are once more on the rise, but if anything we can speculate that among other main goals, there is that of showing support for their country energy industry and send some kind of message to Turkey.

Update 18/2/2020

SENTINEL-2 satellites caught an impressive image showing how packed and tense the sea south of Cyprus is. In the span of few dozens of kilometres, the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, multiple military vessels which are hard to identify, the YAVUZ drillship with the Ertugrul BEY supply ship approaching her and even a Royal Air Force tanker refuelling 2 fighter jets. Missing from the picture in the bottom right corner an Israeli ELINT G550 and just north east of the image the BARBAROS HAYREDDIN geological survey vessel exploring blocks 2 and 3 (assigned to ENI, TOTAL and KOGAS)

This article will continue to be updated with additional info from the situation as we are able to gather and analyse it.

Update 22/2/2020

Thanks to SENTINEL-1 C-SAR sensor and their capability to detect radar signals from certain hardware, we have some decent evidence of at least one Italian Navy vessel operating in the area. First spotting via satellite detected interferences is from 26/1/2020 (the day before an Italian Navy vessel appearance on AIS) and the vessel appears to still be in the area. Vessel is/are probably Italian given their radar systems (EMPAR and KRONOS Grand) and how they show up on SENTINEL-1 images.

SENTINEL-1 image from 18/2/2020, highlighted in red the strong interferences consistent with EMPAR or KRONOS radar systems on Italian Navy vessels.

To further corroborate the Italian provenience of the detected interferences, the Italian Navy announced a 2 days port call in Cyprus, from February 8 to 10, of one of its FREMM frigates which employ the Leonardo made KRONOS Grand radar (which is detectable by SENTINEL-1 C-SAR sensor).

Update 28/2/2020

The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle made a port call in Limassol, Cyprus starting sometime between 19/2/2020 and 22/2/2020 up till the morning of February 26.

French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle spotted on satellite docked in Limassol, Cyprus.

On the morning of February 22 Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades , visited the French carrier and made a public statement from there in which he underlined the growing alignment between Cyprus and France and their shared economical and defence interests, he also used the occasion to bring up Turkish drilling operations.

Update 4/5/2020

YAVUZ left the are sometime between April 5 and 6 2020 ending a 10 week mission into Cyprus EEZ.

SENTINEL-1 CSAR sensor time-lapse of the last month of YAVUZ presence at drill site.

Update 14/5/2020

Between April 20 and 21 (2020) Yavuz reached a new drill site in Cyprus EEZ Block 6 (once more attributed to ENI and Total), interestingly this time she is transmitting position and status on AIS. As in the past a military frigate (possibly Turkish escort) was noted nearby.

Yavuz drillship caught by PlanetScope satellite on April 26 2020, of notice the support vessels and the military one just few miles north.
Sentinel-1 CSAR satellite images of current YAVUZ deployment since her arrival
Updated map of the area with recent past “illegal” Turkish drill operations in Cyprus EEZ.

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