Turkey is pushing its 'neo-Ottoman' ambitions forcefully into the Mediterranean Sea. Image: Facebook

Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doubled down on a Mediterranean drilling showdown with Greece over the weekend, signaling he would not be deterred by attempted French policing of the conflict.

“We will never bow to banditry on our continental shelf, nor will we pull back in the face of sanctions and threats,” Erdogan told party loyalists gathered in the Black Sea city of Rize on August 15.

Erdogan’s defiant speech came days after French forces joined Greek and Cypriot warships and planes for military exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean, threatening an even greater internationalization of the Turko-Hellenic dispute.

One week ago, Ankara dispatched an oil and gas survey and drilling ship, under naval escort, to an area of the sea long claimed by Greece. In response to the perceived intrusion of the Oruc Reis vessel, Athens placed its armed forces on high alert.

Mobilizing armed forces across the country, on August 11, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias called on Turkey to “end its illegal actions that undermine peace and security in the region.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu responded by saying Turkey would not “compromise” in exercising its sovereign rights.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu says his country would never give up its sovereignty. Photo: AFP/Adem Altan

This escalation comes after months of claims and counter-claims over regional maritime boundaries between neighbors Greece, Cyprus and Turkey.

These disputes also now involve the North African states of Libya and Egypt, after Ankara agreed to a sea boundary deal with the UN-recognized Libyan government in Tripoli last November, and Athens agreed to a partial deal on maritime limits with Cairo last week.

The Greek-Egyptian deal – which Ankara rejects – triggered the dispatch of the Oruc Reis. It also sank negotiations between Greece and Turkey to resolve recent disputes that had been underway under the auspices of the European Union (EU) term-president, Germany.

This new confrontation has led to calls from Paris for European action against Turkey.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced August 13 that France would be “temporarily reinforcing” its military presence in the region, to mark his country’s “determination to uphold international law.”

Tearing up Lausanne

For Ankara, much of the issue traces back to the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, the post-World War accord which set most of Turkey’s modern frontiers.

Under this, almost all the islands of the Aegean Sea – the northeast extension of the Eastern Mediterranean – went to Greece. Many of these islands, however, lie very close to Turkey’s shore.

Under the most recent UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, these islands serve to extend Greece’s maritime boundaries right up to and around the Turkish coast.

Cyprus – de facto divided since the Turkish invasion of 1974 – also has maritime claims, leaving Ankara feeling it has little access to its surrounding waters.

Turkey “is being squeezed into a very small and unjust sea area,” said Associate Professor Altug Gunal from Turkey’s Ege University. “Not only the current government of Turkey, but any other one would do its best to break these walls being built around it in the Mediterranean.”

When international oil and gas companies discovered gas reserves in waters claimed by Cyprus in 2011, the value of these maritime areas was also heightened.

Since then, more gas has been discovered in Cypriot waters – although ownership has been increasingly challenged by an increasingly assertive Turkey.

Last year, Ankara sent its own seismic survey and drilling ships into these waters, provoking outrage from Cyprus – and from France, with France’s Total one of the international oil and gas companies behind the gas discoveries.

The November 2019 Turkey-Libya deal also extended Turkish maritime claims right across the Eastern Mediterranean, between Greece and Cyprus.

“This pulled the trigger for Greece to make a deal with Egypt,” Associate Professor Sotiris Serbos, from the Athens-based Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, told Asia Times.

The area of the Greek-Egyptian deal cuts across the region staked out by the Libya-Turkey deal, in what Gunal sees as “a race between Turkey and Greece to sign new pacts with the Mediterranean states.”

This, Serbos says, is because “each side is seeking to bolster its legal case and standing,” by bringing in neighbors supportive of its cause, preparatory to any future international negotiations.

Indeed, “by signing a deal with Egypt, Greece wanted to balance Turkey,” said Gunal, “and hoped to sit at the negotiating table with comparatively equal terms.”

Turkish seismic research vessel ‘Oruc Reis’ heading in the west of Antalya on the Mediterranean Sea on August 12, 2020. Photo: AFP/Turkish Defense Ministry

On a knife edge

The Oruc Reis is now at the center of this diplomatic and security storm, sailing in a region roughly halfway between the Greek island of Crete and Cyprus and due south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo.

The ship’s positioning may also be a clue as to how much room for negotiation there still is.

“Turkey has chosen for the Oruc Reis a territory between Greece and Cyprus that is not delineated,” said Serbos.

Indeed, while closely cooperating in many areas, Greece and Cyprus have never agreed maritime boundaries between themselves.

At the same time, the ship is “also not within the region covered by Egypt’s claim,” he adds. “This shows Turkey wants a low-risk confrontation, in which Germany and the US can step up and de-escalate things.”

The US State Department has called Turkey’s actions “counter-productive and provocative,” yet has so far taken no official role in negotiations for a solution. Germany, meanwhile, has repeatedly called for a resumption of dialogue and – better still – direct talks.

Now, many are watching carefully to see where the Oruc Reis goes next – as its course across the sparkling Eastern Mediterranean may also be the course of a far wider range of regional disputes in the days ahead.

At the same time, “this much weaponry pointing at each other is always dangerous,” said Gunal, “and could lead to some unwanted consequences.”