Turkey is playing with fire in the Eastern Mediterranean – New Europe

The Israeli Navy’s INS Lahav (L), the USS Donald Cook (2-R) from the United States Navy, the Fremm Auvergne (C) from the French Navy’s, and Greek Navy’s HS Aegaeon (R) take part in a joint military exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Greek officials are up in arms after the Turkish government reneged on its previous pledge to halt illegal energy exploration activities on the Greek continental shelf. The officials told New Europe that the situation went “From the anticipation of an invitation… to a provocation’ when Turkey issued a new NAVTEX that extends to October 22 for research vessel Oruc Reis to carry out research activities in Greece’s Exclusive Economic Zone of the country.

This new act of provocation, however, goes beyond any previous move by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since the northeastern side of the territory included in the NAVTEX is located only 10.5 kilometers from the coast of Kastelorizo; Greece’s territorial waters extend to 9.5 kilometers from the island’s coast. According to International Law, Greece withholds the right to unilaterally expand its territorial waters from 9.5 to 19.3 kilometers. Turkey, however, has said that if Greece opts to legally extend its territorial claims, the Turkish government would consider the move a casus belli and a justification for war.

In recent months, Turkey dramatically ratcheted up tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean with increasingly bellicose and provocative actions. Earlier in October, Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias in Bratislava and promised to set a date for the relaunch of the so-called exploratory talks between the two countries on the delimitation of maritime zones.

Germany has been putting pressure upon Turkey to make sure that the exploratory talks remain top of the agenda for the Turkish government. However, late on October 11, the Turkish authorities opted to throw out any semblance of wanting to find a peaceful compromise with the international community and issued a NAVTEX. This effectively brings things back to the boiling point that brought the entire Eastern Mediterranean to the brink of a major crisis in late August and early September.

A Greek source told New Europe that the return to the status quo ante comes under far worse circumstances than in August.

Several European key players were completely taken aback by Turkey’s sudden reversal. Even those who have taken a very moderate and pro-dialogue approach towards the Erdogan regime, including German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, slammed Turkey’s move as a “provocation” and described the Turkish government’s stance as a total breach of confidence and a move made in bad faith. A

According to New Europe information, German officials were by their Greek counterparts, just shortly before Ankara’s announcement, that Turkey was going to make a major move that could destabilize the situation. Officials who are familiar with the details of the meeting between Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Maas on October 13 told New Europe that Maas was extremely angered by Erdogan’s actions, but was preoccupied with how Turkey would react and whether or not a stiffer response would further infuriate the Turks.

Maas did, however, cancel a scheduled trip to Ankara that was set to take place on October 14. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is, according to reports provided to New Europe, also deeply irritated by Erdogan’s latest provocation.

What is not clear at this point, and which is keeping the Eastern Mediterranean on a knife’s edge, is the fact that many of Europe’s key actors appear to suffer from a lack of clarity on how to formulate a strategic plan to contain Turkey or who are genuinely paralyzed by their concerns about how Erdogan and his Islamist/ultra-nationalist allies in Turkey’s governing establishment will respond if harsh counter-measures are employed to halt Turkey’s illegal activities.

The Turkish government appears dissatisfied by the framework of the exploratory talks and wants to radically expand the scope of the debate. Greece, as well as its powerful allies in the Eastern Mediterranean and the United States, do not recognize any other internationally accepted legal framework with Turkey other than the current delimitation of the continental shelf and the Exclusive Economic Zone.

A Greek Air Force F-16 fighter jet is seen during a refuelling-by-air exercise with an American KC-135 aircraft from the US airbase at Chania, Crete. EPA-EFE//STEFANOS RAPANIS

Further complicating matters is the fact that Greece and its allies have flatly rejected Turkey’s demands that the Greek government fully de-militarization certain Greek islands. Many Western observers, as well as officials in Athens, now believe that Erdogan is hoping to engineer an incident at sea that would give him an excuse with the Turkish public to create new tensions in the region with the goal of forcing a dialogue under new terms.

An internationally mediated conflict resolution process might force the two countries to hold comprehensive discussions in order to avoid the battlefield. It is because of this reason that a high-ranking Greek official told New Europe that, despite the large Greek naval presence in the area now in focus, the Hellenic Navy will gain by keeping its cool and avoiding any sort of trap that Erdogan is hoping to set.

Athens is also sending strong signals to Brussels that the EU can no longer be a neutral observer in the crisis, especially in light of Turkey’s most recent action. Reports from across the EU have indicated that some European leaders are finally beginning to grow weary of Erdogan’s continued attempts to stir up conflict so near to the EU’s borders.

Source: Turkey is playing with fire in the Eastern Mediterranean | New Europe