The New York Times Editorial Board has joined a chorus of concerned voices that Greece and Turkey could be on the brink of a conflict over who has rights to hunt for energy in waters between them, the paper arguing Germany – not the United States – is the only broker who can effectively intervene.
Turkey has the research vessel Oruc Reis and 10 warships near the Greek island of Kastellorizo, sending them back after German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier persuaded Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to withdraw.
But after Greece signed a maritime deal with Egypt to counter a Turkey-Libya deal dividing the seas and led Erdogan to say his country would drill off Greek islands, including Crete where the US Navy has a base, he went off.
Ships from the two countries are shadowing each other while the European Union has fiddled and diddled about what to do, reluctant to engage Erdogan in fear he will send through Greek islands more refugees and migrants to the bloc.
With United States President Donald Trump calling Erdogan a friend and in re-election mode, Washington has effectively for now ceded its role as an interlocutor in Europe, although he did call Erdogan and twice spoke to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on the phone.
The Times, however, noted that it was German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas who tried shuttle diplomacy between Athens and Ankara and while it failed, it further showcased Germany's power and role in a region where the US has lost prestige.
Greece, Turkey and the US all belong to NATO but the defense alliance has been a no-show in the troubles, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg admitting he wants no part of it and won't intervene to stop Turkish provocations that have included repeated violations of Greek airspace and waters with fighter jets and warships.
The Times, noting Trump's interest and simultaneous disdain for NATO, said Greece and Turkey “have lit up a new and dangerous crisis, dragging in countries near and far. In this game of thrones, only Germany seems to have the sway to mediate a return to sanity,” a sideways swipe at Trump's diminished authority.
Energy is the catalyst again, a mix of countries eager to dip their toes into what could be rich waters in the East Mediterranean and the Aegean and Turkey said it's willing to fight for them.
That heightened after Mitsotakis said Greece would double its territorial waters in the Ionian Sea off the west coast to 12 miles and might do it in the Aegean and East Mediterranean which Turkey said would be a cause for war.
War is in nobody’s interest, and a conflict between NATO members ought to be unthinkable. But when tensions reach the level they have in the eastern Mediterranean, as Mr. Maas has said, “Even the smallest spark can lead to a catastrophe,” the editorial said.
“It also seems bizarre for Mediterranean and European countries to be plunged into extraneous tensions when there are so many serious crises to keep them busy,” it added.
The side effect has been to show the US losing standing in the world with uncertainty which way Trump would tilt in a conflict and widely despised by EU leaders for his volatile manner or lack of manners.
The EU has little sway either with Turkey – which has been trying since 2005 to join the bloc – effectively ruled out with Erdogan purging the military, judiciary, educational system, civil society and jailing journalists by the dozens in the wake of a failed 2016 coup attempt against him.
So it's been left to Germany, which currently holds the rotating, mostly symbolic EU Presidency to step into the breach although the paper said while international law largely backs Greece that, “There is room for negotiation,” undercutting Greece's claims and arguments.
“Turkey’s explorations in disputed waters have not yet crossed a legal red line,” the paper added, saying while the EU foreign chiefs have twice met and backed away from taking any role it's now up to Germany, which said miltary exercises and provocations should stop, which Erdogan has shown no signs of heeding.
The paper said the next step should be a moratorium on exploration in disputed waters. “Then let diplomacy take over,” it said, without indicating whether there's any chance that would work either.