Turkey’s hunt for gas and oil reserves in waters claimed by Greece has put a huge strain on the relationship between the two NATO members.
An editorial in the Guardian puts into context Turkey’s position, showing a lurch towards authoritarianism under the executive presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while the country’s military, economic and cultural power has expanded.
Not since the Ottoman empire has the Turkish military had such a sprawling global footprint, with troops and drones recently saving a UN-recognised government in Tripoli from defeat. Despite a Covid recession, Turkish companies retain a global edge – taking advantage of cheap labour, made even cheaper by a weak Turkish lira, and access to European markets. Mr Erdoğan has also won favour in the Sunni Arab world by hosting 4 million Syrian refugees.
What irks Mr Erdoğan is that his nation cannot explore, and exploit, the Mediterranean seabed. If Egypt, Israel and Cyprus have been able to strike it rich with gas finds, he thinks, then why not Turkey? Ankara claims that a wall of Greek islands prevents Turkey from exploiting its own continental shelf. The question is to what degree an archipelago off the Turkish coast should be taken into account when determining the boundaries of economic zones. The UN Convention on the law of the sea, which Turkey has not signed, supports Greece and the status quo.
Turkeys threats of war upped the rhetoric
Head of Turkish National Movement Party Devlet Bahçeli has declared that war with Greece is “just a matter of time”, The New Khaleej reported on Friday.
“It is inconceivable to turn our backs on our historical interests in the Mediterranean and the Aegean,” Bahçeli announced in a statement reported by the Arabic news website.
“It seems that Greece’s appetite and desire to be thrown into the sea has swelled again,” stressing that war in the Mediterranean and the Aegean is “just a matter of time”.
He added: “Greece’s goal is to come again and occupy our lands from where we threw them out 98 years ago. We are facing a new invasion plan.”
The Turkish politician, who is an ally of the Turkish ruling party, continued: “From now on, the attitude and behaviour of Greece will be what will determine the increasing tensions that will cause bleeding or an abominable confrontation.”
Turkey and Greece are at odds over the demarcation of sea borders in the Mediterranean and the right to explore hydrocarbon resources there.
On Thursday, NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg announced that Greece are agreed to start talks with Turkey to deescalate tension, but Greece has denied this.
Responding to Greece’s denial, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was reported by Anadolu Agency on Friday stating:
They [Athens] initially agreed [to the discussions] then told they did not. It is, in fact, Greece that is lying and not the secretary-general. Greece once again showed they are not in favour of dialogue.
Later on, Stoltenberg announced the start of talks between the two countries.
“We believe that there is a need to have technical talks on how to develop enhanced mechanisms for deconfliction,” Stoltenberg was reported by Anadolu Agency stating at a news conference after the meeting of NATO ambassadors.
“No agreement has been reached yet, but the talks have started,” Stoltenberg confirmed.
Erdogan: Turkey ‘will not back down’ in Mediterranean standoff
Meanwhile in what can be seen as an act of provocation Turkey has begin military exercises in Northern Cyprus
As tensions run high, the Turkish military began its exercises called “Mediterranean Storm” with the Turkish Cypriot Security Command, Vice President Fuat Oktay said on Twitter.
“The security priorities of our country and the TRNC [Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus] are indispensable, along with diplomatic solutions in the eastern Mediterranean,” Oktay said.
The Turkish defence ministry also tweeted the military exercises, which last until Thursday, continued “successfully”.
Cyprus is divided between the Greek Cypriot-run south – an EU member state – and the Turkish Cypriot north.
Turkey has stationed tens of thousands of troops in the north of the island since its 1974 invasion, which followed a coup engineered by military rulers in Greece.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and European Council President Charles Michel discussed developments in the eastern Mediterranean on Sunday during a phone call.
The Turkish leader “invited EU institutions and member states to be fair, impartial, and objective and to act responsibly on regional issues, particularly the eastern Mediterranean”, the president’s office said in a statement.
Michel said on Friday that European Union leaders will decide on a “carrot and stick” approach to Turkey when they meet on September 24-25, proposing a conference to defuse tensions.
Erdogan on Saturday raised the stakes by warning Greece: “They will either understand the language of politics and diplomacy or on the field through bitter experiences.”
France said Turkey’s escalating conflict with Greece and Cyprus will be the main subject at this month’s European Council meeting, when sanctions will be considered against Ankara.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he and his counterparts in other EU countries had already discussed “the range of reprisals we could take with regards to Turkey”.
Turkey embarked on a military-backed hydrocarbon exploration venture in waters between Greece and Cyprus on August 10, ratcheting up tensions in a strategic corridor of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Greece responded with naval exercises to defend its maritime territory, which were later bolstered by the deployment of French frigates and fighter jets.
‘Up to the Turks’
The dispute between NATO members has underscored the rising geopolitical risks in the area as Turkey pursues more aggressively nationalist policies under Erdogan.
The European Union’s diplomatic chief Josep Borrell has also raised the possibility of sanctions against Ankara, but so far Paris has been unable to persuade other EU nations to join its hardline response.
Le Drian urged Erdogan to begin talks over its Eastern Mediterranean ambitions between now and the European Council meeting.
“It’s up to the Turks to show that this matter … can be discussed,” he told France Inter radio. “If so, we can create a virtuous circle for all the problems on the table.”
While he declined to specify the type of sanctions Ankara could face, he said there was an “entire series of measures”.
“We are not short of options – and he knows that,” said Le Drian referring to Erdogan.