Turkey extends maritime activities in East Med as EU considers sanctions

Turkey said it would push ahead with hydrocarbon surveying and military drills in the eastern Mediterranean even as military tensions with Greece threatened to escalate and the European Union considered sanctions.

Ankara will extend a navigational telex (Navtex) reserving disputed areas of the eastern Mediterranean for energy exploration by its Oruç Reis research ship from September 10 to September 25, Turkish media including Yeni Şafak newspaper reported on Monday.

Surveying by the Turkish warship-escorted Oruç Reis will take place off the coasts of the Greek islands of Kastellorizo and Rhodes, the newspaper said.

The new Navtex would coincide with an emergency meeting of the European Council between Sept. 24 and Sept. 25, which will discuss the ongoing tensions and possible sanctions.

Relations between NATO allies Turkey and Greece have deteriorated sharply after Turkey sent the Oruç Reis to a disputed area between Cyprus and the Greek island of Crete on Aug. 10. Athens responded to the move by sending naval and air units to shadow the vessel and conducting military exercises with Cyprus and France in the area, creating an armed standoff at risk of escalating into a direct confrontation.

Turkey then carried out its own military exercises in the sea. At the weekend, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay announced that Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) would start joint military exercises in Northern Cyprus.

Oktay labelled the five-day exercise as “Mediterranean Storm”, saying it was a demonstration of the will to stand against those trying to confine Turkey to the Gulf of Antalya while ignoring the Turkish Cypriots.

"The security priorities of our country and the TRNC are indispensable, along with diplomatic solutions in the eastern Mediterranean," he said in a series of Twitter posts on Sunday.

Also on Sunday, the Turkish Defence Ministry posted a two-minute video on Twitter of navy ships escorting the Oruç Reis.

“Strong, determined and powerful! The frigates and corvettes belonging to our naval forces are resolutely continuing their duty of escorting/protecting the Oruç Reis research ship, which continues to work in our jurisdiction areas in the eastern Mediterranean,” the ministry said.

“No lawlessness or bullying will be allowed in the region!” it said.

The eastern Mediterranean dispute is the latest in an ongoing territorial spat between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus over offshore energy resources. Greece and Cyprus say that the islands have their own continental shelves granting them extensive exploration rights, a claim Turkey contests.

Ankara, which does not recognise Cyprus as a state, claims half of the country’s exclusive economic zone on behalf of the breakaway Turkish enclave and has repeatedly carried out warship-escorted offshore drilling in its environs. Turkey is the only country to recognise the government in the north.

Germany has taken a meditating role in the latest dispute by seeking a peaceful solution between Turkey and Greece without a military escalation or EU sanctions.

In an op-ed published on Monday, Bloomberg’s editorial board said that German Chancellor Angela Merkel should pave the way for Turkey’s inclusion in the East Mediterranean Gas Forum – a conglomerate of countries collaborating to establish a regional natural gas market and export hub to Europe. Turkey was left out because the forum includes Cyprus, which Ankara does not recognise.

Forum membership would allow Turkey a share of the resources and access to mechanisms for resolving disputes over where it can drill, Bloomberg said.

A challenge to this initiative would be for Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, as well as other European countries irked by Ankara’s foreign policy in the region, to agree on it.

Merkel could “remind them that access to the eastern Mediterranean’s natural gas reserves offers Europe its best alternative to energy dependence on Russia – while telling Turkey and Cyprus that Europe is the logical market for the gas and that the shortest route is through both countries”, the editorial board said.