ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis met Wednesday in an effort to defuse rising tensions over disputed territorial waters in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The meeting on the sideline of the London NATO summit comes amid Turkish-Greek tensions over territorial disputes about the Mediterranean.
Bilateral tensions have escalated with Turkey's agreement with Libya, increasing Turkish control of eastern Mediterranean waters. The region is experiencing a scramble for potential energy reserves in the area.
Athens has been pressing for the full details of the Turkey-Libya deal, which Erdogan signed in Istanbul with Libya's Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA ). Under the agreement, Turkey extended its control of the eastern Mediterranean, opening up the area to Turkey to search for hydrocarbons.
Athens condemned the agreement, claiming it denied the territorial waters of three prominent Greek Islands.
"Turkey's attempt to abolish the maritime borders of islands like Crete, Rhodes, Karpathos, and Kastelorizo with tricks, such as voiding bilateral memorandums of understanding, will not produce internationally legal results," said Mitsotakis.
Egypt and the Greek Cypriots, too, voiced concern about the agreement. The three countries, along with Israel, are cooperating in developing sizeable natural gas fields across the eastern Mediterranean Sea. It is predicted that cooperation between the countries will extend to security, a move analysts say could be aimed at curtailing Turkey's growing assertiveness.
"Whatever Greece, Egypt, and Greek Cyprus do will not affect the step we have taken with Libya. We have already sealed our agreement with Libya," Erdogan said, dismissing regional concerns.
Ankara is already at loggerheads with Athens and Nicosia over disputed territorial waters around the divided island of Cyprus. The island is partitioned between Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities following Turkey's 1974 invasion in response to an Athens-inspired coup.
The Greek Cypriots have the only internationally recognized government and insist it controls recently discovered gas fields in waters surrounding the island and will administer future drilling. Ankara insists Nicosia has to work with the Turkish Cypriots administration, which is only recognized by Turkey.
"Turkey made it very clear, they are determined to protect their rights and the rights of Turkish Cypriots and its interests," said former Turkish ambassador Mithat Rende, who now is a regional energy expert.
"Do you think Turkey is bluffing or do you think the Greeks and Greek Cypriots, with its forces, will prevent Turkey from protecting its rights?" he asked.
Ankara has deployed energy exploration ships escorted by Turkish warship to Cypriot waters on four occasions, in the face of protests by Athens and Nicosia.
Until now, the explorations have been carried out in Turkish Cypriot waters. In a potential flashpoint, Ankara is set to deploy the fifth exploration to waters contested by Turkish and Cypriot administrations.
Analysts claim the Libya-Turkey deal, coupled with Ankara's robust stance over Cyprus, is part of a significant shift in Turkish policy.
"It's a show of force by Turkey and assertion of its sovereignty according to the new maritime doctrine, called the 'Blue Homeland,"' said international relations professor Cengiz Aktar of Athens University.
"It's part and parcel of a new doctrine. It claims a huge sea mass, in the Black Sea, Aegean Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea bordering Turkey. It amounts to a 460,000 square kilometers. The doctrine says the surface of this 'Blue Homeland,' its water body, its sea bed and the landmass under the sea bed, belong to Turkey."
Ankara's new doctrine is matched by a shift in its military priorities. "A lot of funds are now being allocated to the Turkish navy," said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen.
"The new Ada class corvette [ship] is top of the game, so to speak," he said. "This open seas approach is prominent — the new deal with the Libyan government. Looking for oil and natural gas around Cyprus is there. This is like Turkey is back after a century. We understand the necessity of a navy, a blue-seas navy."
Ankara's robust diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is calculated to force Nicosia to ultimately make a deal. "Without a settlement, they [Nicosia] are not going to reap the benefits of their resources," said Rende.
"I don't believe any energy company is going to sink $10 billion or $15 billion into the deep waters of the eastern Mediterranean, as long as their remains a threat of confrontation," he added.
Athens and Nicosia are looking for support from their fellow European Union members. Brussels is warning Ankara of sanctions if it doesn't step back from violating Cypriot waters.
"The EU is now filling in the contents of the sanction list against Turkish interests," said Aktar. "Of course they may pull back, backing down, taking into consideration the threats of migrants by Turkey."
Erdogan routinely threatens the EU with opening Turkish borders and allowing millions of refugees hosted by Turkey to enter Europe. Such a threat has seen Brussels being reluctant to confront Turkey, and Ankara again may calculate its robust east Mediterranean stance will prevail.
"International organizations like the EU, are preferring to ignore it [Turkey's Mediterranean policy]," said Aktar. "They can't deal with Turkey's intervention in Syria. They are not capable of dealing with Ankara moving closer to Moscow. So they hate to see a new problem in the Mediterranean by Turkey. But it will create problems. It will create skirmishes and chaos in the eastern Mediterranean."