ATHENS -- Greece again put its military and Navy on high alert as Turkey moved an energy research vessel and warships toward the island of Kastellorizo, putting the countries on the brink of a conflict that could see Greece left on its own.
Turkey, under a maritime deal with Libya no other country recognizes, claimed part of Greece's Continental Shelf and waters near islands, including Kos, Rhodes and Crete but earlier pulled back its ships after German Chancellor Angela Merkel persuaded Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to withdraw.
But Erdogan, furious that Greece and Egypt signed an agreement setting seas boundaries in waters Turkey claims, ordered his ships back in again, leading Greece to respond and bringing worries the firing could start.
Turkey said its research vessel Oruc Reis and two warships would be operating in the Mediterranean Sea between Cyprus and Greece until Aug. 23, leading Greece to send naval ships to counter.
Greece said Turkey's act was unlawful and infringed on sovereign waters, a concept Erdogan has shown he doesn't care about with Turkish ships already drilling in Cypriot waters while the European Union issued only soft sanctions.
Greece got verbal support from the United States – none from the United Nations nor from NATO, the defense alliance to which both belong, with Secretary-Geneal Jens Stoltenberg refusing to intervene, deferring to Erdogan.
After getting a call from Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who called out NATO for not trying to stop Turkish provocations, Stoltenberg tweeted another non-response that, “the situation must be resolved in a spirit of Allied solidarity and in accordance with international law,” which hasn't worked yet.
A Greek government official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the contents of the conversation, said Mitsotakis stressed during the call that the “policy of equal distances is counterproductive and not acceptable.”
Greece and Turkey have long been at odds, tension soaring again now over Turkish provocations, including repeatedly sending fighter jets into Greek airspace, Greek pilots responding and frequent dogfights occurring.
At the heart of the issue is how a country’s continental shelf is calculated and whether islands should be included in the calculation. Turkey argues they should not, a position that Greece says violates international law.
Mitsotakis, the New Democracy leader, spoke with Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou to inform her of the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, his office said.
He also had a round of phone calls to political party leaders in order to brief them on the developments in the eastern Mediterranean and the Greek government's initiatives was concluded on Tuesday afternoon. Government sources said that "Mitsotakis' stable aim is all political forces' agreement and the constructive dialogue on national issues".
Erdogan, speaking after a four-hour Cabinet meeting, warned that Turkey would not confine its offshore exploration efforts to its immediate coastline, but otherwise appeared conciliatory, unusual for him.
“Let’s come together as Mediterranean countries. Let’s find a formula that’s acceptable for everyone, that protects everyone’s rights,” he said in a televised speech, his tone unlike his usual bellicosity.
He added: “We are always there and ready for the solution of disputes through dialogue and on a fair basis. We will continue to implement our own plans in the (eastern Mediterranean) and in the field of diplomacy until common sense prevails in this regard,” which he earlier said meant Greece had to concede.
NO HANDS ACROSS THE WATER
According to a navigational telex (NAVTEX) Turkey reserved an area south of Kastellorizo to conduct research, leading to units of the Hellenic Navy and Air Force deployed in the wider sea area where the Turkish research was expected, said Kathimerini.
When the Oruc Reis accompanied by ships of the Turkish Navy entered the Greek continental shelf, Greek warships sent messages at a frequency of about 15 minutes requesting the vessel’s removal from the area, the paper added.
The messages went unanswered by the vessel which, however, moving at a low speed – similar to that appropriate for a search process – had prepared cables to lower to the seabed in order to proceed with research activities in the area.
But sources not named told the paper that exploratory activities were rendered impossible due to the noise caused by the many naval units sailing in the area making so much noise that picking up data from the seabed couldn't be done.
In Athens, an emergency meeting of the country’s top decision-making body on foreign affairs and defense matters, KYSEA, was convened. Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias called on Turkey to “immediately end its illegal actions that undermine peace and security in the region,” but was ignored.
He added that the Turkish NAVTEX “is a new serious escalation and exposes in the most obvious way the destabilizing and threatening role of Turkey.” “Greece will not accept any blackmail. It will defend its sovereignty and sovereign rights,” he said.
Turkey disputed Greece's claims and said the operation would continue but there was no report on how close the warships were to each other as Erdogan, unlike his softer tone, said no country would succumb to “ridiculous and baseless claims” that Greece made.
He doesn't recognize the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that set boundaries between the countries and covets return of islands ceded to Greece, some so close to Turkey he said he could shout to them.
Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Fatih Donmez said the Oruc Reis had arrived in its area of operation from its anchorage off Turkey’s southern coast. He tweeted that “83 million back the Oruc Reis,” referring to Turkey’s population standing behind Erdogan.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry said naval vessels were escorting the Oruc Reis to “protect our rights,” and tweeted images of the vessel flanked by five warships after Turkey said it would conduct live fire naval exercises in the area.
“Greece will not accept any blackmail. It will defend its sovereignty and sovereign rights,” Greece's Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We call on Turkey to immediately end its illegal actions that undermine peace and security in the region.”
LINES IN THE SEA
The ministry said Turkey's NAVTEX “combined with the observed broad mobilization of units of the Turkish Navy, constitutes a new serious escalation." Turkey is acting in a way that is destabilizing and threatening peace, it added.
Greek Minister of State Giorgos Gerapetritis said the Oruc Reis was being monitored by the Greek Navy. “We are at full political and operational readiness,” Gerapetritis said on state television ERT.
“The majority of the fleet is ready at this moment to go out wherever is needed,” he said when asked to elaborate. “Our ships that are sailing in crucial areas were already in place days ago. If necessary, there will be a greater development of the fleet.”
Gerapetritis said that “it is clear that we are not seeking any tension in the region. On the other hand, our determination is a given,” the paper added.
Greece on Aug. 10 issued its own maritime safety message saying the Turkish Navtex had been issued by an “unauthorized station” and referring to “unauthorized and illegal activity in an area that overlaps the Greek continental shelf.”
Turkey responded with another maritime message saying the seismic survey was being conducted on Turkey's continental shelf the war limited to words now despite fears it could become real.
Greece has thousands of islands and islets in the Aegean and Ionian seas, around 200 of them inhabited.
German Foreign Ministry spokesman Christofer Burger said Berlin had “taken note with concern” of Turkey's decision to conduct seismic exploration. He said Foreign Minister Heiko Maas “has repeatedly said that international law must be respected and that we need steps toward deescalation in the Eastern Mediterranean. And in view of this, further seismic exploration is certainly the wrong signal at this time.”
Turkey's move “further burdens its relationship with the EU,” Burger added. He called on both sides “to resolve all open questions through negotiations and to begin a bilateral dialogue between Athens and Ankara as planned."
On Aug. 9, Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin said Turkey and Greece had been holding talks in Berlin for 2½ months and were on the verge of issuing a joint statement when the Greek-Egyptian agreement emerged, Erdogan then calling off negotiations set to take place in Ankara.
“The moment the agreement with Egypt was announced, we received a clear instruction from our president: ‘You are halting the talks. Inform the Germans and the Greeks, we are not pressing ahead with the negotiations,’” Kalin told CNN-Turk television. “This is another move to keep Turkey out of the Eastern Mediterranean and to restrict it to the Gulf of Antalya.”
Kalin said Turkey is in favor of resolving the dispute through dialogue, “but it is the Greek side that disrupted the agreement and broke the trust.”
“Greece claims 40,000 square kilometers (15,444 square miles) of maritime jurisdiction area due to this tiny island and attempts to stop the Oruc Reis and block Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Cagatay Erciyes, a senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official, was quoted as saying by state-run Anadolu Agency.
“This maximalist claim is not compatible with international law. It is against the principle of equity. Yet Greece asks the EU and US to support this claim and put pressure on Turkey to cease its legitimate offshore activities. This is not acceptable and reasonable,” he added.
Erciyes shared a map earlier showing the offshore survey activity of Oruc Reis which he claimed is inside Turkey’s continental shelf. “It is Greece, not Turkey who creates tensions in the area due to such maximalist claims,” he said.
The Voice of America(VOA) said it was told by sources it didn't name that Greece's entire military apparatus was on red alert, monitoring Turkey's movements, Greece warning it will use force if the Turkish ships enter Greek waters.
Constantinos Filis, Director of Research at the Institute of International Relations of Panteion University in Athens told VOA that, "I expect the tension to grow in the coming days. But ultimately, the fate of the feeble Turkish economy will weigh in on any final decision Erdogan will take," Filis said.
The EU said nothing.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)