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Greece, Turkey Now Set to Resume Talks Over Seas, Tension Talkdown

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FILE - Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in previous meeting in London. (Photo by Eurokinissi/ Dimitris Papamitsos)

ATHENS -- It could change again with so much political volatility but Greek officials reportedly will travel to Constantinople on Jan. 25 to begin talks with Turkey over competing claims to the Aegean and East Mediterranean, The Arab News said.

Turkey has been pushing for expanding the agenda to demand Greece remove troops from islands near Turkey’s coast and demarcating sea areas for search-and-rescue operations with refugees and migrants going to Greek islands from Turkey, where they went fleeing war, strife and economic hardships in their homelands.

After much confusion over whether the talks were on or off, the two sides are set to pick up exploratory talks after a four-year break, this time concentrating on Turkey’s claiming waters around Greek islands for an energy hunt. 

This would be the 61st round of negotiations in the past 14 years, coming during a touchy time of tension going up and down over Turkey’s insistence on plans to drill in and around Greek waters, including off Crete, where the US Navy has a base.

That’s being done under a maritime deal with Libya no other country recognizes, Greece countering with a similar deal with Egypt, a move that led Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier to call off talks.

Greek Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, after backing off calls for sanctions by the European Union, renewed them in December but was rebuffed by Germany, which sells arms to Turkey that could be used against Greece.

Greece is expected to focus discussions on maritime zones in the Aegean and East Med in line with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) the report said, a pact which Turkey doesn’t recognize unless invoking in its favor.

Rauf Mammadov, resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, told Arab News that any direct dialogue was a positive step toward reconciliation that has been elusive for years, the tension rising after Turkey sent an energy research vessel and warships off the Greek island of Kastellorizo, within sight of its coast.

“The gist of the dispute between the two NATO members rests on a competing interpretation of international law. The alternative to talks is regular diplomatic feuds, sometimes accompanied by threats of military escalation,” he said.

But Oxford University Middle East analyst Samuel Ramani told the site that a short-term diplomatic breakthrough in the Med standoff between Greece and Turkey was “unlikely” to happen.

“Levels of trust on both sides are extremely low and both sides see any diplomatic overture as an image-branding exercise to the international community, rather than a sincere attempt to de-escalate the crisis,” he added.

Erdogan has used a repeated tactic of sending ships in and out of Greek waters in tune with EU meetings to consider sanctions and said he would again no matter what the talks bring, and as Turkey still drills off Cyprus despite soft sanctions.

There are signs that Erdogan is already undermining the talks as he kept blaming Greece for provocations without mentioning he has repeatedly sent fighter jets and warships to violate Greek airspace and waters.

“We must stop the Mediterranean from being an area for competition and turn into waters that will serve our long-term interests,” Erdogan told EU ambassadors in Ankara, dressing them down for backing EU member Greece over Turkey.

“We urge Greece to refrain from actions that will escalate tensions. I believe the exploratory talks with Greece that will start on Jan. 25 will herald a new era,” he said.

Charles Ellinas, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Arab News that the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden must be of concern to Turkey as he is a strong backer of Greece's position.

“It is very important that aggressive language and threats should be avoided. The recent warning from Erdogan to the EU that in case it supports Greece, Turkey will return back to offshore surveys and further escalate the dispute, is not constructive,” he said.

If that doesn’t change he said Erdogan, who had bent US President Donald Trump to his will, will find a tougher challenge in Biden, a former vice-president familiar with the political landscape of the region.

“Athens’ only pre-condition is that the exploratory discussions should address only the delimitation of maritime zones, based on international law, starting from where they stopped in March 2016. Turkey appears to prefer open-ended discussions. Hopefully, they will converge to an agreed agenda,” Ellinas said.