LIMASSOL, Cyprus, Sept. 28 (UPI) -- The confrontation between the energy-poor states of Israel, Turkey and Cyprus over gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean has worsened as a Turkish research ship began exploratory drilling off war-divided Cyprus.
"We have an economic energy conflict that now is kind of coinciding with a political crisis and it's an explosive situation," said Israeli energy specialist Amit Mor.
The vessel, the Koca Piri Reis named after a 16th-century Ottoman admiral, was escorted by a Turkish navy frigate and circling warplanes.
In what appeared to be a deliberate provocation, it started drilling Monday 50 miles off the Greek-controlled southern sector of Cyprus.
That was in retaliation for exploratory drilling by the Texas company Nobel Energy company in nearby waters off the south of the island. Nobel discovered major natural gas fields off Israel in 2009-10 linked to gas deposits off Cyprus.
Israel plans to join forces with the Greek Cypriots to transport their combined gas exports via underwater pipelines to Europe through Greece, Turkey's longtime adversary.
Turkey was once a strategic ally of Israel but they split over Israel's 44-year-old occupation of Palestinian land and the killing of nine Turks by Israeli naval commandos who intercepted a humanitarian aid convoy headed for the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip May 31, 2010.
Israel has infuriated Turkey by refusing Ankara's repeated demands for an apology for the bloodletting in international waters.
Turkey and Greece are historical rivals, even though both are NATO members.
The Turks invaded Cyprus in 1974, seizing the northern part of the island and proclaiming it the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Only Ankara recognizes the breakaway enclave. The Greek Cypriot government in Nicosia is recognized worldwide.
Muslim Turkey, which is striving to become the major power in the region, has threatened to use naval power to prevent drilling until there is a peace agreement between the Cypriot factions, including a sharing of the proceeds from gas exports.
Ankara has also warned that Turkish warships will escort any further aid convoys to Gaza to break the Israeli blockade of the Palestinian coastal enclave.
The Turks have reportedly deployed fighter aircraft in northern Cyprus.
That heightens the threat of a naval confrontation that could impede offshore drilling operations and damage the long-term economic prospects of not only Israel and Cyprus but other littoral states like Syria and Lebanon.
Tiny Lebanon, whose only natural resource is water, is already in dispute with Israel over the rich gas fields found by Nobel Energy off Haifa that contain an estimated 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Both countries, technically in a state of war, have threatened military action.
"The confirmation of hydrocarbon deposits in the Levant Basin has stoked already tense relations between the energy-poor states of the eastern Mediterranean," Oxford Analytica observed in an analysis Wednesday.
"The prospect these discoveries offer long-term energy security and significant new revenue streams have revived two long-standing disputes over offshore sovereignty -- between the Republic of Cyprus and Turkey and between Israel and Lebanon.
"Amid a deterioration in Israeli-Turkish relations, these developments are forging new alliances and contributing to the reshaping of regional politics," the analysis noted.
"Turkey will do everything it can to help the Lebanese argument regarding its territorial waters and drilling rights," said Mor.
"I'm much more worried about possible clashed between Israeli and Turkish ships in the Cyprus area than in the Gaza area."
The energy stakes are high, which suggests the countries involved could at some point resort to military action to protect their economic prizes.
The U.S. Geological Survey reported in 2010 that the Levant Basin, which encompasses the territorial waters of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the Gaza Strip, Cyprus and possibly Egypt, contains up to 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas and perhaps 2 billion barrels of oil.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan emphasized Ankara's determination to enforce its will when he attended the induction of Turkey's first domestically built warship, a 300-foot corvette Heybeliada, into the navy Thursday.
He pointedly noted that the ceremony took place on the 473rd anniversary of the Battle of Preveza in northwestern Greece, where an Ottoman fleet destroyed a large Christian force.
"I recommend the international community take the necessary lessons from the Preveza victory," Erdogan declared.