ATHENS – After Greece put its military on high alert and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also intervened, Turkey has pulled back plans to send an energy research vessel into Greek waters off the island of Kastellorizo to do seismic surveys looking for oil and gas.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had said he would not be daunted in drilling in Greek waters and the Continental Shelf, based on a maritime deal he made with Libya dividing the seas between them that's unrecognized by any other country.
Turkey's Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said the energy exploration will likely pause, telling CNN Turk that Erdogan requested the break as a constructive approach to negotiations, not backing down over Greece's stance.
Other reports had said that the countries were on the brink of a conflict before Merkel called Erdogan and told him, “The Greeks are serious,” and that he didn't want to worsen relations with Germany or the European Union after he had snubbed the bloc.
With NATO – the defense alliance to which both countries belong – staying above the fray and refusing to sanction Turkey for repeated violations of Greek airspace and waters with fighter jets and warships – tension was rising fast.
But Greece's New Democracy government said Turkish warships left the area around Kastellorizo, with the Greek administration's spokesman Stelios Petsas welcoming Turkey's pullback from belligerent talk.
Greece said on Monday that Turkish navy ships have left the area off the southeast
Speaking on SKAI TV, he said said Kalin's comments “indicate that an illegal – as we have described it – NAVTEX is being withdrawn,” referring to a navigational advisory reserving waters off the Greek island for Turkish ships.
He said Greece had made clear it expected Turkey to make actual steps to de-escalate tensions in the region after communications between the countries – apart from a phone call between Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Erdogan – broke off.
Turkey also provoked Greece when, on Erdogan's orders, the ancient cathedral of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople was changed from a museum to a mosque, after having been converted into a mosque when the city fell to Turkish invaders in 1453.
“Should actions of this sort continue, there will be no basis for dialogue,” said Petsas in reference to Turkey's constant ratcheting up of bellicosity.
Just before Turkey said it was willing to pause energy exploration in favor of talks, Turkish Foreign Mevlut Cavusoglu talked tough during his press conference with his Spanish counterpart Arancha Gonzalez Laya.
Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias insisted that Greece “will not accept any fait accomplis” at the expense of its sovereign rights and that the military remained on alert in case Turkey was making a feint.
He also spoke on the telephone with European Union High Representative Josep Borrell after intense weekend consultations involving Berlin, Ankara and Athens brought down the escalation.
France had joined Greece in calling for sanctions against Turkey for what they view as an encroachment on Greek and Cypriot waters, while Berlin has warned Ankara to cease “provocations”. Turkey has rejected the criticism and said it is abiding by international law it doesn't recognize, said Reuters.
“We have reached some inflexion point mainly on the drilling in the eastern Mediterranean and this was a useful dialogue with Mevlut to deescalate tensions that exist,” Gonzalez Laya said, the news agency reported.
“I think his will to pause exploration for at least a month to give space to dialogue between parties is a signal of confidence,” she said but Cavusoglu at that time didn't mention a pause, leaving it to Kalin.
The EU has been reluctant to confront Erdogan, fearful he will flood the bloc with more refugees and migrants who went to his country fleeing war and strife in the Mideast and elsewhere, using Greek islands and land borders to do it.
Kalin earlier said that, threatening sanctions “will never fly here and will have no impact on Turkey’s sovereignty or determination in pursuing the national interest,” and the EU didn't move to make any.