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Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean: Crisis between Turkey and Greece

Greece and Turkey are one step away from armed conflict in the eastern Mediterranean.
Their warships are facing missiles ready to launch off Cyprus and at the disputed Greek island of Kastellorizo, 2.5 km from the Turkish coast. A clash son of ancient rivalries on the brink of deflagration. For months now the tug-of-war between the two-member countries of NATO has been getting tighter and tighter.
But what is the object of the dispute?
The definition of the respective territorial waters boundaries and the rights for the exploitation of underwater gas and oil fields.
The point of no return is becoming a tragic reality and European mediation efforts seem to serve little purpose.
The most recent tensions are also worrying countries not directly involved in the dispute, but which for one reason or another could suffer the consequences: for example, some states of the European Union, North Africa and the Middle East.

The situation
In the last month, the provocations of the Turkish research ships Barbaros in Cyprus and Oruc in Kastellorizo were joined by an intense presence of 39 frigates and 2 submarines in Greek waters: a few days ago off Cape Sounio, the temple of Poseidon in the Athenian navy, scenes from films were experienced.
A Turkish submarine went under the coast but was forced to escape from a couple of Greek helicopters. This increased the tension between the two countries exponentially.
Last week, a Turkish reconnaissance ship and a Greek warship collided in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The Turkish ship was escorting the Oruc Reis, a large exploration ship that was searching for oil and natural gas deposits. The accident took place in waters claimed by both Greece and Turkey, two countries that have been competing for control of the resources of this piece of the sea for years.

The exploration activities of the Oruc Reis had started at the end of July. Before the start of the research, Turkey had put out a notice of restriction of navigation – known as “Navtex” – to signal its presence between the Greek island of Crete and Cyprus. Tensions increased when the ship reached Kastellorizo which is a Greek island, despite being about 150 kilometres east of Rhodes (Greece) and only 2 kilometres from the Turkish coast.
According to Greece, the Turks had violated their waters; according to Turkey, it was absurd that Greece could exercise its jurisdiction in such an extensive area so close to Turkish territory. After the first tensions, it seemed that Turkey and Greece could come to an agreement thanks to the intervention of Germany, but then it was all over.

At the beginning of August, Greece had signed an agreement with Egypt to delimit an area of exclusive territorial competence, but this overlapped with some areas of interest to the Turkish government. Turkey’s reaction was to further intensify operations in that area.
This is not the first time that Greece and Turkey are in conflict over control of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. The longest and most important dispute is the one for the island of Cyprus, which is still today divided between the Republic of Cyprus, of Greek influence and internationally recognized, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is recognized only by Turkey.
The Turkish claims of a state that is not recognised by anyone create further complications in resolving legal disputes over the exploitation of the area’s resources.
For example, last year, Turkish Vice President Farou Oktay said that Turkey and the Republic of Northern Cyprus could not be “excluded from the equation of energy resources in the region” and that they conducted research and extraction activities within the legitimacy of international law.

What is clear is that both Greece and Turkey claim the waters of Kastellorizo and those of other areas because they believe that they are part of their own “continental platforms”, i.e. the submerged part of the continents that extends from the coastline to a depth established by convention.

The Kastellorizo dispute, however, concerns more widely the rivalry for exclusive economic zones (EEZs), i.e. those maritime areas where a state exercises its authority and where it can, therefore, decide how to exploit resources, both marine and submarine.
This rivalry between Greece and Turkey for the exploitation of natural resources in the eastern Mediterranean has intensified since 2015, after the discovery by the energy company ENI of vast deposits of natural gas in Egyptian waters.

As ENI was the main company involved in gas extraction activities in Cyprus, the discovery of the field led to the hypothesis of the construction of an underwater gas pipeline that could connect the fields of Egypt, Cyprus and Israel, to bring gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Greece, Italy and other interested countries.

Turkey, however, was cut off from this project. At the end of 2019, the Turkish government signed an EEZ agreement with Libya: the agreement allowed Turkey to exploit energy resources in larger areas of the eastern Mediterranean, and Libya to request military assistance from Turkey in case of need. These exclusive zones claimed in the agreement between Turkey and Libya, however, do not take into account the effects on the Greek island of Crete, which is located in the middle of the area claimed by Turkey.
Turkey argues that its position in the Eastern Mediterranean is defensive; however, many analysts think that this is not the reason.

On the contrary, the aim of Turkish policies seems to be more linked to expansionist thrusts, which would be linked to the idea of “Mavi Vatan” (Blue Homeland), that is Turkey’s ambition to obtain supremacy over the Eastern Mediterranean.
Moreover, the problem of Turkey’s finances should be highlighted. In fact, Turkish finances are going through a complicated time and for some time now the Turkish President has understood that his only lifeline is under the heading of energy.
For this reason, for three years now, he has launched a strategy of claiming rights in Cypriot and Greek waters in order to take part in the exploitation of submarine deposits, but his naval initiatives are implemented in violation of international law, both in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Cyprus and in Greece, i.e. in contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Montego Bay Convention.
In 2019, the European Union imposed sanctions on Turkey for drilling illegally in the areas around Northern Cyprus.

Diplomatic relations with the European Union have now become more complex, and the situation between Greece and Turkey has deteriorated considerably for two other reasons. For the crisis of migrants, especially when last February Turkey opened its borders to people who were eager to reach Europe via Greece. Furthermore, for the recent conversion of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul into a mosque, as requested by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and much contested by Greece.
The European Union, although it has acknowledged the Turkish government’s violations, at the moment would like to continue on the path of dialogue with Turkey and avoid conflict.
According to the Economist, the European Union will have to make considerable diplomatic efforts to start a dialogue with Turkey without forgetting the infringements committed by the Turkish government.

Greece, on the other hand, can count on the support of France, Egypt, Cyprus and Israel, with whom the United Arab Emirates have recently established an important agreement. This agreement is aimed, among other things, to promote Turkey’s containment policies in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In the meantime, it must be said that in the late evening of 27 August, the Greek Parliament approved and then ratified the maritime agreement with Egypt. The Athens-Cairo agreement is considered as a response to the Turkish-Libyan agreement signed in 2019, which allows Turkey access to areas of the region where large oil fields have been discovered, as I have already written before.
Under this treaty, Egypt and Greece can now seek maximum benefit from the resources available in an exclusive economic zone, including oil and gas reserves.

International positions
● Berlin has carved out the role of mediator between Athens and Ankara. Angela Merkel was one of the first to move. Telephone conversations were organised between the German Chancellor and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This was stated by the German Defence Minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, speaking with the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell. Chancellor Merkel said: “We are very alarmed about the tensions in the Mediterranean, especially as they also affect NATO partners” and went on to say that Germany is “very committed” to de-escalation.
● A completely different position is that of France. France has taken on a defensive role towards Greece. Paris has, in fact, warned Turkey: the eastern Mediterranean cannot represent the “playing field” for the “ambitions of some”. This was stated by Defence Minister Florence Parly, after the start of a joint French military exercise together with Cyprus, Italy and Greece in the area.
According to Florence Parley, the French Armed Forces Minister, the eastern Mediterranean is becoming a serious region of tension.
“Respect for international law should be the rule, not the exception,” Florence Parley said in a tweet, adding that the region “should not be a playground for anyone’s ambitions, it’s a common good”, referring to the Turkish disjointed moves.
“Our message is simple: priority in dialogue, cooperation and diplomacy so that the Eastern Mediterranean becomes an area of stability and respect for international law”, she concluded.

After all, Emmanuel Macron has taken a clear stance against Turkey and has also sent two Dassault Rafale fighters to Cyprus. Also on the table, there is also the supply to Greece of two new frigates for 2.5 billion euros (this deal is currently frozen by Athens for the COVID emergency).
● Italy, for its part, is trying to play the role of mediator, even if it seems clear that Italian trends are more inclined towards the European ally: Greece.
The Minister of Defence, Lorenzo Guerini said: “There is no risk of war between Turkey and Greece, absolutely not”, on the sidelines of the informal meeting in Berlin. According to the minister, “every spark” must be avoided and it is necessary to speak with the “language of responsibility”. The minister went on to say that: “I am interested in reaffirming Italy’s position aimed at asserting the principles of international law, but also at seeking political solutions to ease the tension. And I believe that this is the objective of all European countries”.
● In this context, it is interesting to observe how the United States of America is moving. In fact, on one side of the Atlantic, the American President, Donald Trump, called the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, expressing concern about the tensions between Greece and Turkey. He also said that the two NATO allies must commit themselves to dialogue.
At the same time, however, there have been military exercises between the USA and Turkey in recent days. Turkish military ships conducted yesterday military exercises with an American destroyer in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara has, in fact, announced that: “The Turkish frigate TCG Barbaros and corvette TCG Burgazada conducted military training exercises with the US destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill”.
The tensions that are happening in the Eastern Mediterranean show a huge change in the region. The decline of the power of the United States or, rather, the decline of the Trump administration’s strategic interest in what happens there. While it is true that the US suspended Turkey from the F-35 warplane programme after the purchase of advanced Russian surface-to-air missiles, at the same time there was no real US pressure on Turkey to solve the problems it has created within NATO, in Syria and elsewhere.

Military manoeuvres in the Mediterranean
What is certain is that both the manoeuvres and the military exercises carried out in the Eastern Mediterranean certainly do not help to ease tensions between Greece and Turkey.
In fact, in the last few days, in addition to the joint exercise between the United States and Turkey, there has also been that of the European Quad States (which includes Cyprus, Greece, Italy and France). The purpose of this exercise was to strengthen security in the macro-area that geopolitically includes Syria and Libya, but also to highlight their naval and air presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer at the end of a summit with her EU counterparts in Berlin expressed her disappointment regarding these exercises in the Mediterranean.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said: “What we need to find now is a new beginning to get back into a political discussion and negotiation”, adding that “the manoeuvres that have been held in recent days certainly do not help” in this negotiation process.

The positions of the two contenders: Turkey and Greece
The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warned that Ankara “will not make concessions” in the Eastern Mediterranean and warned Greece to take steps that could lead to its “ruin”.
“We have no ambition on the territory, sovereignty and interests of someone else, but we will not make concessions on what is ours,” Erdogan assured, urging Athens to “avoid mistakes that would be a path to ruin”.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan went on to say about hydrocarbon exploration: “Let no one dare test Turkey’s patience because Ankara has no intention of allowing anyone to target its interests and sovereignty. We want everyone to acknowledge that Turkey is no longer a state to test its patience, determination, ability and courage”.
Greece, on the other hand, wants to extend its borders into the sea.
It intends to extend its territorial waters by 6-12 nautical miles in the Ionian Sea, off its west coast. This is what Premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis anticipated in Parliament where the government will shortly present a draft law to this effect, right in the midst of tensions with Turkey over drilling in the Aegean off the Greek east coast.
The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis pointed out that this is the exercise of an “inalienable sovereign right” provided on the basis of Article 3 of the Maritime Law Convention.

Mitsotakis, as can be read in the online newspaper Ekathimerini, has also specified that the country will be able to extend its territorial waters also to other maritime areas, always in compliance with the Convention and the application of the median line where the distance between the two coasts is less than 24 miles, a step that Turkey has already said it considers as a casus belli, where it happens in the East”.

Heiko Mass, the German Foreign Minister, at the end of a series of talks in Athens and Ankara said that: “Any spark, even the smallest, could lead to disaster”. Greece and Turkey are therefore one step away from armed conflict in the eastern Mediterranean.
To make the situation worse, there were the statements made by Turkey on the evening of 27 August. Turkey has in fact extended the operation of a seismic reconnaissance ship in the eastern Mediterranean and has also declared that it will hold fire exercises in the region next week.
The situation is therefore very delicate and the latest warlike statements by Recep Tayyip Erdogan do not bode well. The Turkish Prime Minister in fact publicly no longer excludes the option of using force, asserting that: “Our country will never compromise on what belongs to us. We are ready to do whatever is necessary on political, economic and military terms”.

By Michele Brunori

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