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Turkey-Greece Energy Dispute Heats Up

FILE - A worker walks on Turkey's new drillship 'Conquerer' off the coast of Antalya, southern Turkey, Oct. 30, 2018.

Tensions between Turkey and Greece are escalating as both sides vow to defend their territorial rights.

The increasingly acrimonious dispute centers on a scramble for energy in the contested waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. Athens and Ankara are both backing their words with displays of naval force, and fears of a confrontation are growing.

On Monday, the Greek Kathimerini newspaper published what it described as Greek defense "deterrent scenarios" against Turkey. The scenarios include using force if Ankara goes ahead with planned drilling near the Greek Island of Crete.

Ankara says the drilling is part of a deal struck last year with Libya's internationally recognized Government of National Accord. Under the Libyan agreement, Turkey can search for energy in a large swathe of the Eastern Mediterranean. But Athens insists the deal violates the territorial waters of some of its Greek Islands.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias speaks after a meeting in Athens, Greece, June 9, 2020.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias speaks after a meeting in Athens, Greece, June 9, 2020.

In remarks published Sunday, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias accused Turkey of "blackmail" and promised that "Greece was ready to defend its sovereign rights."

But Ankara is dismissing Athens's warnings as empty rhetoric. Last week, Turkish government spokesman Omer Celik described as a "bad joke" the Greek Defense Minister Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos’ declaration that "Greece is ready for a military confrontation with Turkey."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he delivers a speech following a cabinet meeting, in Ankara, on June 9, 2020.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he delivers a speech following a cabinet meeting, in Ankara, on June 9, 2020.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went further, issuing his own warning.

"You [Greece] had better collect yourself and know your place. If you don't know your limits, then what Turkey would do is obvious," said Erdogan.

But Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar downplayed the risk of confrontation.

"I want to underline in a mathematical certainty that Greeks would not want to stage a war with Turkey," Akar told a private broadcaster last Thursday.

Angry words are nothing new between historical rivals Greece and Turkey. Despite sporadic bilateral tensions, military conflict has been avoided, but analysts warn the threat remains.

"Both sides have their naval assets in the East Mediterranean, but I don't expect an all-out war," said former Turkish ambassador Mithat Rende.

"But they might be skirmishes," he added. "Some conflicts can start of accidents or skirmishes it can grow. I hope common sense will prevail.”

The discovery of vast gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean sparked the latest Greek Turkish tensions.

The two countries have lengthy outstanding disputes over the dividing waters of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, including the island of Cyprus, which is divided between Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities. Only Ankara recognizes the Turkish Cypriot Administration.

Athens is protesting Turkish drilling plans in 24 locations in the Mediterranean Sea that it considers Greek territory.

Greece has formed a regional energy alliance to coordinate efforts to search and develop hydrocarbons in the East Mediterranean. Among the members include Israel, Egypt, and Cyprus, all countries Turkey has strained relations with.

Mehmet Ogutcu with the London Energy Club policy group says Ankara is feeling cornered.

"With this changing dynamic in the Eastern Mediterranean, with natural gas resources and with this anti-Turkish alliance emerging, I think Turkey feels the need to protect its interests. By pursuing this drilling in the region," said Ogutcu.

Turkey's hunger for energy is also a powerful impetus in explaining its assertive stance.

"Turkey is heavily dependent on imported gas and oil," said Rende. "What we need is our own resources and benefit from the offshore energy reserves we believe are there. The East Med is of vital interest to Turkey."

However, Ankara is facing mounting diplomatic pressure. Last week Washington called for Ankara to immediately stop drilling in contested waters around Cyprus. The European Union, of which Greece is a member, is also sharply criticizing Turkish drilling plans.

Some analysts suggest such strong diplomatic support Athens will likely embolden Athens.

But Turkey’s navy is the largest in the region and the stakes are so high, it is unlikely that Turkey will back down, Ogutcu warns.

"Both [Athens Ankara] sides are engaged in brinksmanship. There is a very strong nationalist fervor; both sides fear that their rights might be usurped if they don't take action,” Ogutcu said. “The best thing is to freeze the problem, until a time when both sides can sit down and talk. But that needs an honest interlocutor. Accidents and miscalculated steps cause wars."