On Tuesday, Turkey announced that it had reserved an area in the Eastern Mediterranean where it would deploy Oruç Reis, a research/survey vessel to conduct underwater seismic surveys for natural gas or oil.

At the same time, 18 Turkish warships left their anchorage and sailed near the area, where they still remain. Turkey reserved that area via an illegal — it was not issued by the station responsible for that area — Navigational Telex (NAVTEX) for 13 days (7/21-8/2).

The area in question, however, is predominately within Greek maritime jurisdiction and about 1/3 of the area is within the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). As a result, the Greek military has been placed on high alert, as Greece and Turkey are once more locked in an intense diplomatic and geopolitical back and forth that might very well lead to a localized incident or even general war.

Why did Turkey choose that particular area?  

There is a high likelihood that the area reserved by the Turkish NAVTEX contains significant natural resources of natural gas and oil. Large reserves have already been found within the neighboring Cypriot EEZ.

By physically questioning the Greek sovereignty of the area, the Turks desire to turn it into a disputed zone, thereby having a slice of the pie, or indeed the whole pie, in case natural resources are found.

To be clear, there is nothing disputed about the area. Per international maritime law, the area in question and its continental shelf belong to Greece. The continental shelf is the submerged extension of a country’s land territory. In its basic form (there can be an extended continental shelf), a continental shelf extends 200 nautical miles from the country’s territory. Enter the small, inhabited island of Kastelorizo.

The Greek continental shelf and EEZ in red. Kasterlorizo within the green circle.  The yellow circle is the area where Turkey has reserved with the NAVTEX. It violates both the Greek and Cypriot EEZs. (Map courtesy of Strategy International.)

Kastelorizo, which is approximately one mile from Turkey, has the same continental shelf and EEZ rights as any other part of Greece, mainland or island. Turkey, however, disputes that. And yet, international maritime law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — which Turkey has not signed because that would translate to an acceptance of Greek sovereignty in that and other maritime zones — back the Greek argument. As do the United States.

Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. Ambassador in Greece, said in a statement on Thursday that “I have also made a point on many occasions and I will make it again today, that the United States adheres to the principle of international maritime law that islands, including Kastelorizo, have exactly the same continental shelf and exclusive economic zone rights as does any mainland territory.”