Turkey and Greece fight over gas deposits in the Mediterranean: On an escalation course

Turkey and Greece are in dispute over gas deposits in the Mediterranean, and conciliation talks have failed. Will it lead to a military conflict between the two NATO partners?

It’s little more than a rock. The Greek island of Kastelorizo is only nine square kilometres in size. Almost 500 people live here. And yet Kastelorizo is precisely one of the most contested pieces of land in the Mediterranean.

The island is located three kilometres from the Turkish coast, and the nearest major Greek island, Rhodes, is 125 kilometres away. Nevertheless, Kastelorizo belongs to Greece – a circumstance that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not prepared to accept.

In the 1990s, Greece and Turkey were on the brink of war due to a dispute over two uninhabited Aegean islands. Merkel defused the conflict only temporarilyThe Turkish government announced in July that the research vessel Oruc Reis would search for gas in the Greek waters off Kastelorizo. The mission was to be flanked by Turkish warships. Greece reacted by putting its military on alert.

An intervention by German Chancellor Angela Merkel temporarily calmed the conflict. Turkey and Greece agreed to start talks, mediated by Germany. The Oruc Reis remained in the port of Antalya. But now the conflict is escalating again.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis concluded an agreement with Egypt last week on the exploitation of raw materials in the Mediterranean, prompting Turkey to withdraw from talks with Athens before they had even begun. On Monday the Oruc Reis actually left for Greece – escorted by the Turkish navy.

The Greek government calls the initiative “destabilising and a threat to peace”. “Greece will defend its sovereignty,” it says in a statement from the Foreign Ministry. According to diplomats and members of the military, all Greek soldiers have been recalled from leave. During the entire night from Tuesday, the Turkish research ship was now moving in a sea area that Greece considers to be its own Exclusive Economic Zone. Greek warships sent a radio call every 15 minutes to the captain of the “Oruc Reis” to leave the region immediately. The calls remained unanswered, however, as was reported in the morning from circles of the Ministry of Defence in Athens.

This Tuesday, the next provocation: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu announced that by the end of the month new drilling licences would be awarded in the eastern Mediterranean.more than just a dispute about small islandsThe territorial dispute between Turkey and Greece is about much more than just sparsely populated islands. In the eastern Mediterranean, gas deposits have been discovered in the past ten years that are equivalent to about fifty times France’s annual consumption. Every square kilometre in the Aegean promises the prospect of huge revenues.

Actually, the territory of Turkey is defined by the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923. Erdogan, however, no longer wants to accept the division. He complains that an island like Kastelorizo, which is only a few kilometres from the Turkish coast, has been given to Greece – and with it the surrounding area in the Aegean Sea. “Turkey wants to continue its Ottoman past,” says the Athenian legal and political scientist Angelos Syrigos, drawing a comparison: “A Sunni Iran is emerging right on the border with Greece, and there is great concern in Ankara that it will be passed over in the distribution of raw materials. As early as 2006, a Turkish admiral, Cem Gürdeniz, drew up the Mavi Vatan (“Blue Fatherland”) concept, which lays claim to parts of the Aegean Sea as far as the island of Crete. Turkey is largely isolated with its attitude in the region. While Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and Italy, among others, have joined together to form an energy alliance, the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, Erdogan has only the Libyan unity government in Tripoli at his side. Erdogan is under domestic political pressureDespite this, the Turkish president seems determined to push the Mavi Vatan programme forward. His government concluded an agreement with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj last November, which provides for the exploitation of raw materials far beyond the current Turkish territorial waters. Now it appears that it wants to create facts in the Aegean.

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