Turkey is in disputes with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt over gas and oil deposits under the eastern Mediterranean. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, wants to mediate, as she did once before last month, but tensions are escalating.
After Ms Merkel’s talks with Greek and Turkish leaders at the end of July, both sides withdrew warships confronting each other near the Greek island of Kastellorizo (or Megisti). Now both have announced naval manoeuvres with gunnery exercises.
Both in the 30-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Turkey and Greece had agreed on dialogue about energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean. The reconversion of Hagia Sophia is also causing bad blood in the European Union, which Turkey wants to join and to which Greece also belongs.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has sent a seismic surveying ship to the area to prospect for gas and oil under the seabed southeast of Crete and south of Rhodes until 23 August. Warships from both sides are eyeing each other off, say government sources in Athens. Both islands are close to the southern Turkish coast.
The Greeks are running naval war games off southern Crete.
This is not the only area in the Aegean where the two countries dispute ownership of undersea fossil fuel deposits. Experts on the region also see Turkey out to strengthen its military power.
The Turkish energy minister Fatih Dönmez wrote on Twitter: “For Turkey’s energy independence our activities in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea will continue uninterrupted.”
A spokesman for the German foreign office has said that with its latest actions Ankara has further worsened its relationship with the EU. “In that respect more seismic exploration is certainly the wrong signal.” He added that the German government calls on both governments to solve the issues by dialogue.
Athens’ stance is that Turkey’s search for gas south of the Greek islands is illegal because the region belongs to Greece’s socalled exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The EU has also condemned the Turkish actions and demanded that Ankara stop them.
Turkey’s stance is that islands such as Crete have “territorial waters” but no “exclusive economic zones”. (The difference between territorial sea and exclusive economic zone is that the first confers full sovereignty over the waters, whereas the second refers to the coastal state’s rights below the surface of the sea.) According to an agreement recently reached between Greece and Egypt the Turks have no right to be prospecting in the area.
The two neighbours have for decades disputed sovereignty claims on the Aegean and the Mediterranean. Turkey does not accept the Greek definition of sovereign territory. In the late 1990s the two NATO members came close to war.
Turkey is also fighting with Cyprus and Egypt over the right to rich undersea gas deposits. Ankara rejects the sovereignty claims of Athens, Nicosia and Cairo in the region and therefore deploys its own research ships into those Mediterranean areas the others claim as their areas of influence.
Last autumn Turkey entered a treaty with the Libyan government, which declares large areas of the eastern Mediterranean a Turkish zone. The other countries do not recognise that pact. Last week Greece treatied with Egypt the delineation of economic zones in the Mediterranean which clashes with the Turkish-Libyan agreement. Turkey does not honour this.
By deploying the gas prospecting ship Oruc Reis to an area where the borders between the Greek, Cypriot and Egyptian economic zones abut Ankara is underlining Turkish claims to the area.