Offering dialogue while his warships point guns at Greek vessels, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan brought the countries to the brink of conflict over competing claims to the seas and dared Greece to test him.
“Turkey will take what is its right in the Mediterranean, in the Aegean and in the Black Sea,” he said, warning Greece that if it “wants to pay the price, let it come and face us.”
“Just as we have no eyes (on) anyone’s territory, sovereignty and interests, we will never compromise on what belongs to us. We are determined to do whatever is necessary in political, economic and military terms,” he added.
Turkey has the energy research vessel Oruc Reis and a host of warships near the Greek island of Kastellorizo – a mile from Turkey's coast – where Erdogan wants to search for oil and gas and said he would do the same off Crete.
That would be under a maritime deal signed with Libya, dividing the seas between them, unrecognized by any other country and Greece countering with a similar agreement with Egypt, causing a furious Erdogan to break off planned talks in Ankara between officials of the two countries.
After he said diplomacy could solve the duel, he ratcheted up the tension to the near boiling point in the waters, complicated by Turkey continuing to drill off Cyprus, the European Union having issued only soft sanctions and reluctant to provoke him, fearing he'll send more refugees and migrants to the bloc.
Turkey is holding some 4 million people who fled war and strife and economic misery in their homelands in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and other regions and has let human traffickers send them to Greek islands during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the EU.
But it was Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis' vow to extend the country's territorial waters from six to 12 miles in the Ionian Sea off western Greece – and indicating he'd do the same in the Aegean and East Mediterranean, that made Erdogan really flip.
Mitsotakis said that would be done under the United Nations Law of the Sea that Turkey doesn't recognize unless invoking to its advantage, the Greek leader saying it would apply a median line where the distance between the two shores is smaller than 24 miles.
Turkey has warned that a similar move by Greece to the east would be a “casus belli” – a cause for war, with Erdogan also not recognizing the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that set boundaries between the countries and coveting return of islands ceded to Greece, some so close to Turkey he said he could shout to them.
The prospect of war led US President Donald Trump, who said Erdogan is a friend and a “hell of a leader,” to urge the Greek and Turkish leaders to roll back the rhetoric, speaking with Mitsotakis on the phone after talking to Erdogan.
Germany, whose Chancellor Angela Merkel got Erdogan to remove his ships earlier – he sent them back after the Greece-Egypt deal – was also trying to broker peace but getting nowhere while the EU fiddled and refused sanctions on Turkey as Mitsotakis urged.
Mitsotakis reportedly thanked Trump for his interest, said Kathimerini and said Turkey was acting dangerously in acts “which endanger peace and stability in the wider region and test the cohesion of NATO.”
Both countries belong to the defense alliance whose Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has admitted he doesn't want any part of the brewing dilemma and wouldn't intervene over Turkish provocations, including sending fighter jets repeatedly into Greek airspace.
Mitsotakis also stressed that “Greece is ready to contribute substantially to the de-escalation provided that Turkey immediately stops its provocative actions,” which Erdogan said won't happening, keeping them at loggerheads.
Adding weight to Mitsotakis' effort to rein in Turkey was the refusal of the major opposition Radical Left SYRIZA whom he unseated in 2019 elections to give its support for the deal with Egypt or ratification.