ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is dismissing threats of European Union sanctions as tensions escalate over disputed energy rights on the divided island of Cyprus. The dispute threatens to further isolate Ankara, which is already facing a major crisis with Washington.
Ankara is ruling out backing down on the increasingly bitter dispute over the search for hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean waters off Cyprus. "We continue and will continue to search (or gas) in those areas, Cypriot waters," Erdogan also said Sunday on TV.
The island is ethnically divided between Greek and Turkish Cypriots since Turkey militarily intervened in 1974 in response to an Athens inspired military coup. The Greek Cypriot's are the only internationally recognized administration and insist it has control over the search for hydrocarbons with the creation of an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Ankara claims, as a guarantor for the Turkish Cypriots under an international agreement, it's protecting ethnic Turks rights. "Turkey cannot give up the protection of the Turks on the island, it doesn't matter who is ruling Turkey," said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University, "one has to see this from the historical perspective."
However, Turkey could pay a heavy price for its stance. "We have agreed to prepare the ground in the coming week that the (European Union) summit take the relevant decisions, even sanctions against Turkey," said Greek Prime Minister Tsipras Sunday, "if it is verified that there has been a drill (by Turkey) in the Cypriot EEZ."
Ankara has an exploration ship in disputed Cypriot waters, last week Nicosia issued arrest warrants for the crew. On Friday Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu condemned Nicosia's move and upped the ante, announcing the sending of a second Turkish exploration ship to Cyprus.
Over the weekend, Athens and Nicosia won strong backing from European Union countries at a summit of EU Mediterranean countries in Malta.
"We ask the European Union to remain seized on the matter and, in case Turkey does not cease its illegal activities, to consider appropriate measures in full solidarity with Cyprus," the leaders of Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Malta said in a declaration after the mini-summit.
French President Emmanuel Macron, whose relationship with Erdogan has markedly deteriorated in recent months over several disputes, placed himself in the forefront of challenging Ankara.
"Turkey must stop its illegal activities in Cyprus' Exclusive Economic Zone," Macron said at the summit, "The European Union will not show weakness on this matter."
Erdogan was quick to push back, describing Macron as a "rookie" who would take "years to learn (being a president). When did France have the right to speak on the eastern Mediterranean?" Erdogan asked reporters Saturday. "Do they have a coast in the eastern Mediterranean?" Erdogan asked Saturday."
"There will be a lot of high tensions no doubt, I have no idea how Erdogan will react,"said Bagci.
With Turkey's economy just emerging from recession, the country is seen as vulnerable to any EU financial sanctions. Last year, the Turkish lira collapsed following U.S. President Donald Trump slapping Ankara with sanctions over the detention of U.S. Paster Andrew Brunson, who was subsequently released.
"(EU) sanctions are a risk," said international relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University, "but I take my lead from when Turkey was hit by a nuclear bomb when Trump tweeted over the Brunson affair, then the Turkish currency just plunged and (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel said, 'We cannot afford Turkey to sink,' that is Ankara's calculation that the Europeans can't afford Turkey to drown (financially)."
Turkey's financial markets have been mostly unaffected by the threat of EU sanctions over Cyprus.
Ankara does have its own leverage over the European Union. Turkey is the gatekeeper to stemming the movement of migrants into the European Union, following an agreement with Brussels in 2016. Turkish leaders have not been reluctant in using the deal to put pressure on the bloc.
"Our Greek friends are trying to manipulate the EU, as they always do," said retired Turkish ambassador Mithat Rende, a Cyprus energy specialist, "The EU is not going to make a historical mistake and make Turkey an enemy."
However, Ankara's increasingly robust stance threatens isolation, "The Cypriots have secured full support not only of the EU, but also the United States," said professor of political science Cengiz Aktar of the University of Athens. "There is a new set up in the region, gathering Greece, Greek Cyprus, but also Israel and Egypt to develop their oil and gas fields, but it is becoming rapidly and surely a security arrangement between the countries."
The U.S. State Department has sharply criticized Ankara's stance over Cyprus, calling it "aggressive." U.S.-based Nobel Oil is one of the companies searching for hydrocarbons in Cypriot waters.
Washington and Ankara are already at loggerheads over Turkey's procurement of Russia's S-400 missiles. If the missiles are delivered as scheduled next month, Turkey is facing a series of punishing military and financial sanctions.
Cavusolgu warned Friday Turkey is ready to "retaliate" against any Washington measures.