Turkish drilling intent escalates tensions in Eastern Mediterranean

State-run television in Greece said the country’s armed forces had been placed on a state of readiness.
Tuesday 21/07/2020
A file picture of Oruc Reis seismic research vessel docked at Haydarpasa port, in Istanbul. (AFP)
A file picture of Oruc Reis seismic research vessel docked at Haydarpasa port, in Istanbul. (AFP)

ATHENS - Turkey announced plans Tuesday to send oil and gas research vessels into disputed waters in the Eastern Mediterranean, raising tensions with neighbour Greece and flaunting calls from European nations to alter its designs.

State-run television in Greece said the country’s armed forces had been placed on a state of readiness.

Turkish authorities said the research vessel Oruc Reis and two support vessels would carry out operations through August 2 in waters south of the Greek islands of Rhodes, Karpathos and Kastelorizo.

“Turkey has added another notch to its aggressive actions toward Greece, toward Cyprus, and toward the European Union as a whole,” Greece Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said.

NATO allies Greece and Turkey are at odds over drilling rights in the region, with the European Union and the United States increasingly critical of Ankara’s plans to expand exploration and drilling operations in the coming weeks into areas Athens claims as its own.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, in Athens on a scheduled visit, urged Turkey to avoid “provocative actions” and fully engage in planned talks with the EU.

“We have a very clear position: international law must be respected. Therefore, progress in relations with Turkey can only be achieved if Ankara avoids provocations in the eastern Mediterranean,” Maas said after talks in Athens with his Greek counterpart, Nikos Dendias.

Turkey has accused Greece of trying to exclude it from the benefits of oil and gas finds in the Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean and used a deal it signed with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) to claim a more favourable maritime border demarcation map.

Athens says Turkey is in clear violation of international law.

Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz escorted by Turkish Navy frigate TCG Gemlik (F-492) in the eastern Mediterranean Sea off Cyprus. (Reuters)
Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz escorted by Turkish Navy frigate TCG Gemlik (F-492) in the eastern Mediterranean Sea off Cyprus. (Reuters)

In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara would press ahead with its efforts to search and drill for hydrocarbons in the Mediterranean.

“We are not subjected to anyone’s permission (concerning) our seismic exploration vessels or our drilling vessels,” Erdogan said in a speech marking the second anniversary of Turkey’s transition to a new political system that increased the president’s hold on power.

“Whatever the international maritime laws require, whatever our rights in the eastern Mediterranean are, we have taken our steps within that framework and we will continue to take these steps in the same way.”

Greece is pressing other EU member states to prepare “crippling sanctions” against Turkey if it proceeds with the oil-and-gas exploration plans detailed in May by Turkey’s state-run oil company, TPAO.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last week said he would launch an initiative to engage Turkey in talks, citing “worrying developments” in the Eastern Mediterranean and the war in Libya.

Germany has already hosted unannounced talks with senior Greek and Turkish officials to try and restart discussions to ease the tension.

The EU is unhappy at what it says is Turkey’s illegal drilling for oil and gas off the coast of Cyprus, as well as Ankara’s actions in support of the Islamist-dominated government in Libya and accusations Erdogan’s government is eroding rights and democracy at home.

Turkish intervention in Libya included sending weapons and thousands of mercenaries to help the Tripoli-based government. Egypt’s parliament on Monday greenlighted a possible deployment of troops in Libya, a move which Maas said could “escalate” matters.

There is also concern at the direction Turkey has taken under Erdogan, with the decision to turn Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia back into a mosque the latest source of contention.

There are calls from some quarters to punish Turkey over some or all of these disputes, but the EU’s Borrell, who travelled to Ankara for talks with Turkish ministers last week, has stressed the need to defuse tensions through dialogue.

Germany, which took over the rotating six-month European Council presidency on July 1, is also placing migration high on its agenda.

“We want a common European answer on the migration issue,” the German minister said.

Escalating tensions on another front, Erdogan said Tuesday that Turkish forces, which have carried out several incursions into northern Syria since 2016, would remain in the country until Syrians can live in freedom and safety.

“Until the Syrian people are free, peaceful and safe, we will remain in this country,” he said in a speech in Ankara.