Turkey launched naval exercises off two Greek islands and announced energy exploration research activity in the area, as territorial tensions escalate in the eastern Mediterranean.
The two-day naval drill to the east and south of Rhodes and Kastellorizo signals that Ankara won’t accept any agreement or move that would limit its own maritime interests in the waters. The eastern Mediterranean has become an energy hot spot with big finds for European Union member Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt in recent years, and Turkey’s push to secure a share of the resources has exacerbated strains.
The Turkish exercise was first announced on Aug. 6 — the same day Egypt and Greece signed an agreement laying out the maritime boundary between their exclusive economic zones. Turkey had earlier put exploration in the area on hold at the request of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to make it easier for her to mediate. Germany on Monday warned Ankara that unilateral action in territorial disputes with Greece could strain its ties with the EU.
“We’ve received Turkey’s decision to carry out further seismic probes in the eastern Mediterranean with concern,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Christofer Burger said at a news conference in Berlin, urging Greece and Turkey to resume talks. “That’s the wrong signal. Unilateral steps don’t bring us forward a single bit. Moreover, Turkey further burdens its relationship with the EU.”
The spat in the Mediterranean is one of several as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeks to reassert Turkey as a regional power. From conflicts in Syria and Libya to strikes in Iraq, NATO’s second-largest army has intervened with armed drones, warplanes, and tanks. Erdogan on Monday said Mediterranean countries should come together and solve disputes, but added Turkey will continue to defend its rights.
The EU has said it is weighing sanctions against Turkey over its oil and natural gas exploration off Cyprus. Greece called for an immediate end to Turkish activities in the area, calling them a serious escalation which “exposes in the most obvious way the destabilizing and peace-threatening role of Turkey.”
Turkey, however, accused Greece of fueling the tensions.
“No one can dare to exclude Turkey from the Mediterranean, which remained under Turkish rule for centuries,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said in a statement on Monday. “Those who are acting ‘as I am the sole owner’ the Mediterranean will be disappointed. Turkey has the power and capabilities to level the alliance of evils that have been formed against it.”
Turkey doesn’t recognize Greece’s claim that its territorial waters start immediately south of Kastellorizo, the most distant Greek outpost.
“We were engaged in talks with Greece for the last two-and-a-half months in Berlin and had even agreed on a joint statement but Greece announced its deal with Egypt just a day before it,” Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told CNN-Turk television late Sunday. “It is out of the question for us to approve any move that will condemn Turkey to the bay of Antalya and exclude it from the eastern Mediterranean.”
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Turkey — which sent troops and captured the northern third of Cyprus in the wake of a 1974 coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece — opposes the Cypriot drilling without an agreement on sharing any proceeds. It also has plans to drill in those waters, over the objections of Cyprus, which considers the Turkish exploration an infringement of its territorial sovereignty.
The internationally recognized government of the Republic of Cyprus has licensed several offshore exploration blocks, some of them located in disputed waters. Cyprus has an agreement with Exxon Mobil, Total SA, and Eni SpA for oil and natural gas exploration rights near an area where Turkey wants to drill.