Chess on the Seas: Greece-to-Egypt Checks Turkey-to-Libya

ATHENS – Moving to counter a deal Turkey made with Libya dividing the seas between them, an agreement with Egypt claiming waters in the region raised the already high stakes in a looming energy battle with Greece, now involving the United States.

The Greece-Egypt deal designated Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) in the East Mediterranean, near where Turkey has been drilling for oil and gas off Cyprus in defiance of the government there, Greece, the European Union and the US.

“(The deal) creates a new reality in the Eastern Mediterranean as it restores legality in the region, a legality that the illegal and groundless Turkey-Libya memorandum sought to challenge,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said.

“With Egypt, as we did with Italy a few months ago, we showed that abiding with international law is the only path to security, peace, stability and good-neighborly relations,” he said.

The deal was signed in Cairo by the two countries’ foreign ministers Nikos Dendias and Sameh Shoukry in an attempt to essentially nullify the Turkey-Libya deal no other country recognizes, under which Turkey said it owned waters off Greek islands and would hunt for energy off Kastellorizo, Rhodes, Kos and Crete.

Greece first tried to show its mettle with the Italian deal in the Ionian but has been talking with Egypt and working with Israel on energy projects, all disputed by Turkey which kept up provocations in the Aegean and East Mediterranean.

Dendias hailed the “mutually beneficial deal”  based on the principles of international law and the UN's Law of the Sea – which Turkey doesn't recognize but invoked to its advantage in the Libya deal.

“Today’s agreement confirms and consolidates our islands’ right to a continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone,” Dendias said while denouncing the Turkey-Libya memorandum as void and legally groundless. “It has ended up in the garbage bin, where it always belonged,” he said, reported Kathimerini.

Turkey dismissed the agreement as groundless, calling it null and void and saying it owns parts of the Continental Shelf in question and adding the deal violates the rights of war-torn Libya.

As expected, Ankara rejected the Athens-Cairo deal, with its Foreign Ministry saying it is null and void, as it includes the area of Turkey’s continental shelf, while also violating Libya’s maritime rights.

Greek diplomatic sources not named told the paper that Mitsotakis' move continues his strategy of building an international alliance against Turkey, with the United States support even though President Donald Trump is a friend of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and is said to do him frequent favors.

Rejecting Turkey's criticism, Dendias said that “Turkey is a minority of one,” and added that he does not believe these will engender the start of planned exploratory talks with Greece without explaining why not.

“I cannot understand how a legal agreement, an agreement that contributes to regional stability and can act as a model for others, could prompt such reactions,” Dendias said, expressing the belief that Turkey’s objections were the result of surprise.


He said Turkey “would be wise to read the State Department’s announcement,” he said in reference to a statement applauding the agreement, while adding that Shoukry received a call from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during the talks with Dendias.

“I don’t imagine that Mr Pompeo’s call while I was with Mr Shoukry was incidental, that he was looking through his directory wondering ‘who should I call; I’ll call those two over there’,” said Dendias when asked whether Washington had been informed of the negotiations between Greece and Egypt.

Egypt and Greece said the maritime deal sets the sea boundary between the two countries and demarcates an EEZ for oil and gas drilling rights as it increased tension with Turkey just as Greek and Turkish officials said they would soon meet in Ankara to try to ratchet down the pressures.

The Turkey-Libya deal was widely dismissed by Egypt, Cyprus and Greece as an infringement on their economic rights in the oil-rich sea. The European Union said it's a violation of intentional law that threatens stability in the region.

Greece and Turkey have been at odds for decades over sea boundaries but recent discoveries of natural gas and drilling plans across the east Mediterranean have exacerbated the dispute.

“This agreement allows Egypt and Greece each to move ahead with maximizing their benefits from resources available in this exclusive economic zone, namely promising oil and gas reserves,” said Shukry.

He added that “Egyptian-Greek relations have been crucial to maintaining security and stability in the East Mediterranean region and for countering threats caused by irresponsible policies that support extremism and terror,” a reference to Turkey's backing a UN-recognized government in Libya, where Greece supports rebels in the divided country.

In Libya's proxy war, Egypt has been on the opposite side from Turkey and has backed the rival administration based in eastern Libya and the east-based military commander Khalifa Hifter. Cairo claims Turkey is backing extremists on behalf of the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli.

With Turkish military support, the Tripoli government has repelled Hifter's 14-month-long military campaign to capture the Libyan capital. After Turkey turned the tide in the Libyan war, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi threatened a military incursion into Libya, raising fears of Egypt-Turkey battle.

Turkey doesn't want Greek islands included in calculating maritime zones of economic interest, which Greece said violates international law as Erdogan covets return of some islands ceded to Greece in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne he won't recognize either.

Greece has around 6,000 islands and smaller islets in the Aegean and Ionian Seas, more than 200 of them inhabited but it was Turkey's move – then withdrawn – to go into waters off Kastellorizo with an energy research vessel and warship that brought fears of a conflict with Greece, which put its military on high alert, causing Turkey to back down almost immediately.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)


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