Turkish exploration near Greek islands raises risk of showdown - experts

As Ankara extends its energy exploration activities to areas close to Greek islands, experts warn that the potential for a military showdown with Greece has risen.

Turkey’s ongoing search for energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean has already raised tensions with Greece, which views the Turkish drilling as an infringement on Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone.

Turkish drilling and seismic research vessels have been operating in waters around Cyprus since early this year, and just this week Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Dönmez said the drillship Yavuz would begin drilling operations at a new eastern Mediterranean site in the coming days. The naval warships supporting these Turkish drillships have conducted exercises in the area in a display of Turkey’s military might.

Greek-Turkish relations have for decades experienced regular crises over disputes about their maritime jurisdictions, and the close proximity of their warships in disputed seas raises the risk of confrontation. Last year, Turkish and Greek coastguard vessels collided twice, leaving a Greek patrol ship heavily damaged on one occasion.

Tensions in the Aegean have eased in recent months as Turkey has focused on exploration and research activities around Cyprus. Greece opposes Turkey's activities, but has made no direct intervention even though it is a guarantor state of the Republic of Cyprus. 

But by dispatching the seismic survey vessel Oruçreis in August to the area near Kastelorizo, a Greek island off Turkey’s Mediterranean province of Antalya, Ankara has raised the risk of a serious confrontation with Greece.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former Greek naval officer told Ahval it was likely Turkey would cross a “red line” for Greece if it begins attempts to conduct economic activities like drilling or seismic research in the area south of Kastelorizo. 

Greece’s response to such an infraction would be a political decision based on “how aggressive Turkey’s actions will be, but for the first time I can say that military options are definitely on the table,” he said.

The actions Turkey takes in the Mediterranean and Aegean depend on whether the Foreign Ministry or the military gains the upper hand in policymaking, said Serhat Güvenç, international relations professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is concerned with keeping Cyprus and the Aegean affairs apart. They assume that if one conflict is resolved, the other will be positively affected,” said Güvenç. “After 60 rounds of exploratory talks on the Aegean, the diplomats have nearly decided how to solve the Aegean problems.”

The stance of Turkish naval strategists is far more hawkish.

“The navy considers the Aegean and the Mediterranean as a whole. So, they have a harsher way of looking at the matter. They think we should handle this whole thing (the maritime disputes), if necessary, through a clash,” Güvenç said.

The mounting tensions in the two seas have already led to confrontations, and Greece and the European Union view the Turkish naval activities around Cyprus as illegal.

However, Institute for National Security Studies senior fellow Gallia Lindenstrauss says Turkey is likely to exercise more caution around the Greek islands, and mechanisms exist to prevent a confrontation between the countries.

“Despite provocations from time to time, Turkey will likely exercise more caution in its naval activities vis-à-vis Greece than it did in the proximity of Cyprus, since the price is higher. Greece is not only an EU member but also a NATO member,” she said.

Turkish naval vessels blocked partners of Cyprus from drilling around the island several times last year, and escalated tensions this year by holding a major naval exercise near the island.


As Turkey ramped up its military presence around the island, the United States has pushed through legislation that will allow it to sell arms to Cyprus, while also stepping up military cooperation with Greece

These moves from Washington have come at a contentious period in the eastern Mediterranean and coincided with a widening rift in its relations with Turkey, which dismayed its NATO allies by purchasing Russian missile defence systems this year. 

Relations between the two countries have also been troubled by diverging policies in Syria, where Turkey wishes to remove U.S.-backed Kurdish militias from its borders.

“In fact, the intensification in U.S.-Greece defense cooperation is partly the result of the crisis in U.S.-Turkey relations, and hence aggressive steps by Ankara may push even further cooperation between Athens and Washington,” Lindenstrauss said.

According to the academic, a military conflict between Turkey and Greece is unlikely. However, she believes Greece should not rely on other countries in the region if a conflict does break out.

“These are not a defense alliance, and I also don't expect extreme Turkish acts, so beyond rhetorical support and perhaps symbolic joint exercises, I don't see them doing much else,” she said.  

Nevertheless, Greece appears to be a step ahead of Turkey with its political backing in the region.

Greece has developed military, economic and political relations with Israel and Egypt, significant rivals of Turkey that have both have made energy agreements with Cyprus. 

Athens is also increasingly buoyed by support from Washington, which has been holding bilateral meetings with Greek officials to bolster military cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean.

Hence, Turkey’s position is complicated by its increasing sense of isolation in the region. Turkey must find new allies to solve old problems.

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