Naval vessels from both countries made a show of force in the contested region of the Eastern Mediterranean on Tuesday as a race for gas and oil reserves adds a new point of friction to old disputes.
While the NATO allies have been engaging in gunboat diplomacy that has pulled more countries into the dispute, Germany has been looking to de-escalate the tensions that threaten to spill over regionally.
“The conversation windows between Greece and Turkey must now be opened further — and not closed. In addition, instead of new provocations, we now finally need steps to relax and an initiation of direct discussions,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted ahead of visits to both Athens and Ankara on Tuesday in an effort to get the two countries back to the negotiation table.
Tensions flared when Ankara announced that it is extending the duration of a seismic exploration mission in the disputed waters originally expected to end on Monday in a maritime navigational note using the global NAVTEX system. The Oruc Reis survey vessel is accompanied by naval ships and the Turkish defense ministry announced maritime exercises in the area.
“Turkish and allied navy ships will conduct maritime trainings at eastern Mediterranean on 25 August 2020 in order to promote coordination and interoperability,” the defense ministry said in a tweet on Tuesday.
According to a 2010 study by the US Geological Survey, there is an estimated 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 122 trillion cubic feet of gas in the Levant Basin section of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Greece considers the Turkish gas exploration illegal. Athens has responded by issuing a counter NAVTEX message and announcing naval exercises in the same location to the south of Turkey and the Greek island of Kastellorizo, which lies just over one mile from the Turkish coast.
“Greece is responding calmly and with readiness both on a diplomatic and on an operational level. And with national confidence it does everything needed to defend its sovereign rights,” Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas told reporters on Monday according to Reuters.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the Greek response “spoilt” and said it “endangers navigational safety” for ships in the area. “As of now, Greece will be the only one responsible for any negative development in the region,” Erdogan said on Monday.
German efforts to bring about an agreement between Greece and Turkey failed earlier in July. Turkey paused seismic surveys for gas in the disputed area while negotiations were ongoing. But, according to the Turkish government, those talks failed after Greece signed a partial maritime demarcation agreement with Egypt.
Since then Turkey has been carrying out surveys in the contested waters. “Our drill ships continue their operations as planned. Our case is strong under international law. Greece gangs up with certain countries to seem right, because it lacks credibility,” Turkey’s Energy Minister Fatih Donmez said on Tuesday.
Donmez appeared to be referring to the support Greece, which is a member of the European Union, has received from France and the United Arab Emirates.
In a show of solidarity with Greece, France said it will boost its military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean in response to Turkey’s hydrocarbon exploration and sent in fighter jets and warships to the Greek island of Crete in mid-August.
The territorial dispute between Turkey, Greece and the divided island of Cyprus has been rumbling regionally for years. But, “the region’s offshore natural gas resources have changed everything [in the eastern Mediterranean] over the course of the past five years,” says Michael Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies. This has turned it into “a key battleground in which larger geopolitical fault lines involving the EU and the Middle East and North Africa region converge,” he added.
The disputed area is also linked to territorial claims from Cyprus. The island remains divided between the Greek-speaking EU member and internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus in the south, and the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is recognized only by Turkey.
The Republic of Cyprus has granted international companies, such as Italy’s ENI and France’s Total, licenses to exploit gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish government has argued that this cuts out Turkish Cypriots from hydrocarbon resources in the region.
“Both France and its close partner the United Arab Emirates compete with Turkey for influence throughout the Middle East and Africa. The Eastern Mediterranean is where France and the UAE can pressure Turkey in a region that Turkey views as vital for its national interests. This has put Turkey back on its heels and Ankara has responded by doubling down with repeated rounds of escalation,” Tanchum said.
But the risks of the stand-off are obvious. “There has already been one collision between a Greek warship and a Turkish warship, in which the Turkish vessel took some damage,” Tanchum said, referring to an incident reported in August. “The danger of miscalculation or further accidents touching off an open clash that no one wants is now dangerously high.”