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Politics

Hell or High Waters: Turkey-Greece Seas Stalemate Seen Long-Lasting

As Greek and Turkish warships keep a wary distance off the island of Kastellorizo in the Aegean, Turkey's plans to drill for oil and gas there could see the standoff become a long-running drama.

With diplomacy not working and guns pointed but not fired, there is worry there  will not be a quick resolution, the newspaper Kathimerini said in a report on the ongoing tension and backdoor channels trying to end it. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not sent signals to suggest the Turkish Oruc Reis research vessel will withdraw from the sea area in the Greek continental shelf although he also offered to reopen talks.

Aides to Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the Turkish vessel hasn't started seismic exploratory activities in the Greek continental shelf as it is accompanied by 10 Turkish warships, the paper said.

Turkey is seen as putting the ships there as a show of strength by Erdogan to distract attention from his country's faltering economy and play to his hard-core base of nationalists, indicating drilling may not be his end game for now.

But the tension is getting a reluctant European Union to think of ways to stop Erdogan but delicately, the bloc's leaders fearful that antagonism will lead him to send more refugees and migrants to Greek islands.

Complicating the conundrum is which way the United States would tilt in a conflict, the State Department backing Greece in tweets and statements but President Donald Trump supporting Erdogan, whom he calls a friend.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias met in Vienna, boosting Greece's hopes but then Pompeo met Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in the Dominican Republic.

Mitsotakis is trying to build an international alliance against Turkey but Germany, in a meeting of the EU's foreign chiefs, blocked sanctions although Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier got Erdogan to withdraw his ships before he sent them back in after Greece signed a maritime deal with Libya. 

A Greek and a Turkish warship collided in the seas but no shots were fired although the incident demonstrated the risk of an accidental conflict of the kind that Mitsotakis warned could happen. 

Ahead of the Foreign Affairs Council teleconference, Dendias met Austria's foreign chief Alexander Schallenberg in Vienna for talks that focused on developments in the East Mediterranean, the paper said.

Before that, Schallenberg said that the EU should rethink the way it deals with Turkey over the provocations but got nowhere with that idea.

“I have to say that Austria is very concerned about the dangerous and alarming situation which we believe could escalate,” Schallenberg said at a joint press conference with Pompeo. 

“Actions taken by certain states in the Eastern Mediterranean… should lead the European Union to re-evaluate its relations with Turkey,” he said.

The US ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt, met Greek Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos and, as he wrote on his Twitter account, “reaffirmed US support for Greece as a pillar of stability in the East Med and discussed initiatives to deepen our defense cooperation and build on [the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement] while reducing regional tensions.”

That was the typical diplomatic boilerplate the Embassy regularly rolls out without changing the script although the State Department backed Turkey's assertions that the waters over which the countries are squabbling are “disputed” territory.

Turkey's deal with Libya had led Erdogan to claim waters off Greek islands and part of Greece's Continental Shelf and Greece's response agreement with Egypt setting Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ's) got the waters boiling, with signs it could keep on simmering for a long time unless Greece and Turkey, as Mitsotakis suggested, should let the International Court of Justice in The Hague settle it. 

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