Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media after Friday prayers, in Istanbul, June 7, 2019.
FILE - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media after Friday prayers, in Istanbul, June 7, 2019.

ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ratcheted up tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, declaring he will do whatever is necessary to protect Turkey's interests over energy exploration rights in Cypriot waters.

"We will not tolerate any action which overlooks the rights and interests of Turkey and Turkish Cypriots in the eastern Mediterranean," Erdogan said late Wednesday.

The Mediterranean island has been divided into Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Turkey, and Cyprus since 1974, following a Turkish military intervention sparked by an Athens-inspired coup.

An internationally recognized government led by Greek Cypriots runs Cyprus and has declared an exclusive economic zone around the island to search for hydrocarbons.

Ankara contests the Greek Cypriots' sole rights to search for energy and has sent exploration ships to Cyprus.

FILE - A view of the Homer Ferrington gas drilling rig, operated by Noble Energy and drilling in an offshore block on concession from the Cypriot government, in the east Mediterranean.

"Greek Cypriots have unilaterally declared an exclusive economic zone, and we've unilaterally declared continental shelf rights [to explore for energy], and the two claims are overlapping," said retired Turkish Ambassador Mithat Rende, an energy expert on Cyprus.

With a large natural gas field already discovered, and further massive hydrocarbon reserves believed to exist in Cypriot waters, Rende says Ankara is not ready to back down.

"Turkey is ready, and on every occasion they made it clear they are determined to protect the Turkish Cypriots and its own interests," said Rende. "Do you think Turkey is bluffing, or do you think the Greeks and Greek Cypriots will prevent Turkey from protecting its rights?"

The situation is complicated by Ankara's refusal to recognize the Greek Cypriot administration as the sole representative of the island, preventing any direct dialogue. However, the escalating dispute is isolating Turkey.

"There is a common understanding in the international community that the country threatening fragile peace in the security in the eastern Mediterranean is Turkey," said political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Athens University. "This is very clear from statements from the European Union and U.S. State Department. There is not one single country applauding Turkey's stance."

FILE - The Turkish national flag hangs in the foreground as drilling vessel Fatih is seen off the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya, Turkey

Possibly emboldened by international support, Nicosia issued international arrest warrants for the crew of a Turkish exploration ship operating in Cypriot waters, a move criticized by Erdogan Wednesday.

"Nobody can tell us 'why did you do this like this' or 'why did you do this?' To whomever asks 'what business do you have here?' We respond, 'really? We are a guarantor power, and as such, we will protect our rights until the end,'" said Erdogan.

Turkey, Greece and Britain were given guarantor status for Cyprus under a 1960 international treaty.

Rende says Ankara's isolation is unlikely to lead to a change in policy.

"You cannot just say everyone is siding with the Greek Cypriots, so the Turks have to cave in," said Rende. "But if you believe this, you have not understood the Turkish mentality. Turkey will not give up its rights," said Rende.

Greece wary

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who is campaigning ahead of general elections in July, said Thursday Greece is vigilant for a "hot incident" with Turkey, be it accidental or deliberate.

"Greece is getting more and more nervous about these irrational moves by Ankara," said Aktar. "They have been trying to calm things down through these so-called confidence-building messages among the military commanders on the Aegean Sea."

Some analysts point to the importance of Washington in defusing regional tensions.

"Whenever there was an unexpected crisis, the Americans have been the ones which tried to diminish the tensions to stop, like [President] Bill Clinton in '95, '96, the Imia/Kardak crisis," said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University.

Imia/Kardak refers to uninhabited islets in the Aegean Sea. Greece and Turkey nearly went to war over their ownership. Robust diplomatic intervention by the United States is widely seen as being responsible for averting a conflict. However, given that Turkish-U.S. relations remain deeply strained over myriad differences, Washington has limited influence over Ankara. Greece refers to the islets as Imia, while the Turks call them Kardak.

Analysts point out that despite the unresolved disputes and tensions among Ankara, Athens and Nicosia, there has not been a major conflict since 1974.

"Is Cyprus going to provoke a conflict with Turkey? I doubt it," said international relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University.

"But if you swim in the eastern Mediterranean, you will likely bump into one warship from one country or another," he added. "It's a very tense place, and those tensions are exacerbated by the energy politics in the eastern Mediterranean. In this part of the world, you can get carried away with your own rhetoric, which is very dangerous."

"No one wants a war, but skirmishes are possible," said Rende. "A war can erupt out of an accident. So, we all should act with prudence."