ATHENS — With Turkey and Greece on the razor's edge of a conflict in the East Mediterranean over Turkey's plan to hunt for energy, the United States urged both to back off and talk but Turkey doubled down on its plans, eyeing the island of Kastellorizo where it plans to drill offshore.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, noting President Donald Trump had spoken with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said it was time for dialogue, not pointing warship guns at each other, both having vessels in waters off the island.
“We’re urging everyone to stand down, to reduce tensions and to begin to have diplomatic discussions about the conflicts that exist there in the Eastern Mediterranean, the security conflicts, the energy resource conflicts, the maritime conflicts,” Pompeo told a press briefing in Washington.
“They need to sit down and have conversations about this and resolve this diplomatically. It is not useful to increase military tension in the region; only negative things can flow from that,” he added.
That came as the US decided to partially lift a 33-year-old arms embargo on Cyprus, where Turkey has occupied the northern third since an unlawful 1974 invasion and keeps a 35,000-strong army armed to the teeth and able to buy American weapons.
Pompeo said the decision, which will let Cyprus but only non-lethal equipment, was “a long time coming” and after the US denied it was tied to the East Mediterranean standoff he said “it was the right thing to do.”
Turkey ignored the entreaty and demanded that Greece remove troops from Kastellorizo, the island defense analysts said would be the first that Turkey would seize if fighting broke out between the countries in the East Mediterranean.
Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay disputed the validity of the 1947 agreement in which Italy, which had occupied the Dodecanese islands, returned them – including Kastellorizo – to Greece after World War II.
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou will visit the island Sept. 13 to attend the 77th anniversary celebration marking its liberation as tension ratchets up and the German newspaper Die Welt said Turkey's military refused a request from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to sink a Greek ship or shoot down a Greek fighter jet – somehow without killing anyone – to boost his popularity at home.
Greece isn't sitting idly by, planning to buy 18 Rafale fighter jets from France, an ally in the East Med duel, and building back up its defense sector hit hard with budget cuts during a near decade-long economic and austerity crisis.
Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos and French defense chief Florence Parly spoke on the phone about Greece procuring more arms, said Kathimerini, France impressed with the performance of Greek F-16 pilots in joint exercises conducted by the two countries along with Cyprus and Italy.
WHERE'S THE EU?
Finally standing up after being pushed by Greece, European Union foreign chief Josep Borrell said possible staggered sanctions might be imposed possibly on Turkey for sending an energy research vessel and warships near near Greek waters.
That came during a second meeting of the informal Foreign Affairs Council in Berlin which gave Turkey until Sept. 24 to comply, although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shown he doesn't care a whit about sanctions.
That date is the scheduled start of the extraordinary EU Summit on relations with Turkey although the bloc calls almost every meeting a summit and has been divided whether to be hard or soft on Turkey and Erdogan.
The Turkish leader has warned that if pushed too far he would unleash on the bloc through Greek islands more refugees and migrants who went to his country fleeing war, strife and economic misery in their homelands.
Mitsotakis had demanded hard sanctions although the bloc had imposed only soft measures – exempting Erdogan – for drilling for oil and gas in Cypriot waters.
Borrell said that the EU was prepared to sanction Turkish vessels, blocking their access to EU ports and a ban on their access to European infrastructure, capital and technology, as well as its economy.
“We can go to measures related to sectoral activities… where the Turkish economy is related to the European economy,” Borrell told a news conference in Berlin. He also urged Turkey to “stop unilateral actions,” saying that de-escalation was a “key condition” for dialogue.