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.
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.”
The U.S. position, however, has been notoriously fickle on that issue because Turkey has been a strategic partner for decades — though that thinking is under scrutiny following the increasingly pugnacious and undemocratic moves of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Initially, in response to the tension, the U.S. State Department unwittingly — or in purpose to placate the Turkish side — misidentified the maritime area in question as “disputed.” The follow-on statement of Phillip Reeker, the Acting Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, was a bit less wavering. “The U.S.,” he said, “is deeply concerned about Turkey’s stated plans to survey for natural resources in areas over which Greece and Cyprus assert jurisdiction in the Eastern Mediterranean. We are concerned about actions that are provocative and raise tensions in the region.”
In short, the U.S. acknowledges the Greek claim but also understands that it is not its fight.
Is war probable?
The Turkish government has shrewdly picked a spot that would stretch the Hellenic Air Force and Navy. In response, the Hellenic military across the country has been put on high alert. Moreover, the Greek Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Constantine Floros — who, incidentally, was the foreign student honor graduate in his 1992 U.S. Special Forces Qualification Course class — has said that a Greek response to a Turkish provocation would be general and not limited to the area of a potential incident.
International maritime law is on the Greek side. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea states that “the coastal State may take the necessary steps in its territorial sea to prevent passage which is not innocent.” The European Union, furthermore, is also backing its two member states against Turkey, at least through words.
The Greek stance is that if the Oruç Reis reaches the Greek continental shelf and begins research activities, then Turkey would be responsible for the consequences. The incumbent Greek government is politically strong and there is little doubt that it would defend Greek sovereignty. So, the ball is on the Turkish court. After all, this might be just another attempt by Turkey to destabilize the region, testing Greek political resolve and military readiness in the meantime.
Aside from the military and diplomatic maneuvers, Turkey is using information operations (IO) to paint Greece as the aggressor. The EHA News Agency released a propaganda video that portrays Greece in a perfidious light and claims that successive Greek governments have repeatedly broken international maritime law. Such IOs, however, are solely for the autocratic regime’s domestic consumption. Currently, Turkey is on the brink of a dictatorship and with a track record of international law violations, has little credibility with the international community and international institutions.
Additionally, Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s head of media and communications, made some interesting remarks that offer a glimpse into Erdogan’s megalomaniac aspirations. “The Republic of Turkey,” he said, “is determined to transform its spiritual geography into a realm of stability by promoting security not just at home but also in a broad region between the Balkans and Central Asia to the Gulf and the Strait of Gibraltar.” In a classic aggressor’s move, he added that the Erdogan regime is committed to Turkey’s “security policies to ensure its survival.”
To be sure, those aspirations are grounded in history. The geographical boundaries that Altun mentions were either part of or under the influence of the Ottoman Empire at some point. His statements, therefore, and those made by either Erdogan (for example, before and during the invasion of northern Syria) or by other Turkish officials in the past point to an ambitious strategy. Such a strategy would have the countries within the aforementioned boundaries within the Turkish geopolitical sphere. The once “sick man” of the region is making a resurgence — a resurgence, however, that directly contradicts with Western norms of law, order, and democracy.
This latest incident of Turkish aggression comes in the wake of the reconversion of Hagia Sophia (Saint Sophia) to a mosque. Built in the 6th Century, during the reign of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Justinian, the cathedral had been the largest place of worship in Christendom for over a millennium. With his decision to reconvert the church to a mosque (it was first converted after the fall of Constantinople in 1453), Erdogan weaponized religion for his own domestic purposes. Erdogan is used to asymmetric warfare as he has been weaponizing refugees and immigrants and blackmailing the European Union for years now.
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