Highest alert in the Aegean Sea for escalating tensions between Turkey and Greece

Ankara plans to send a research vessel to the Greek Exclusive Economic Zone to carry out oil prospecting; while Athens has been preparing to respond in the event of this happening
El buque perforador turco Yavuz en el mar Mediterráneo oriental frente a las costas de Chipre

REUTERS/MURAD SEZER  -   The Turkish drilling ship Yavuz in the eastern Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Cyprus

Turkish gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Greece and Cyprus; the increased military presence of the Eurasian nation off the Libyan coast and the migratory pressure that Ankara has been exerting on the Greek border are some of the factors that have been driving the relationship between Turkey and Greece in recent times. Now, a new episode of tension intrinsically related to the previous ones threatens to set off a new conflict with the Mare Nostrum basin as a backdrop which, given the instability in the area, fundamentally caused by the civil war in Libya, could have both unpredictable and destructive consequences.

In the Aegean Sea - the part of the Mediterranean between the two countries - Greek fighters have intercepted Turkish F-16 fighter planes, specifically over the island of Kastellorizo, as reported by ItaMilRadar. "A pair of Turkish F-16 fighters entered Greek airspace at 2.23pm and flew over the islets of Strongyli and Megisti near Kastellorizo at an altitude of 12,500 feet," analyst Vassilis Nedos reported in local media Kathimerini. Activity at the Turkish naval base of Aksaz has increased and the Greek armed forces have raised their alert level. On Tuesday, the monitoring website also recorded how the Turkish Air Force Bayraktar Tactical UAS - reconnaissance drones - were carrying out a patrol mission near the Greek coast. 

In addition, during the last few days, "dozens of Turkish ships have been stationed in the Greek EEZ" and also near Lesvos, according to information gathered by the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Thessaloniki. Analyst Nic Athens revealed that this Wednesday or in the next few days, the Turkish research vessel Oruc Reis is scheduled to sail to the area where Ankara has announced it will carry out new oil exploration, which is under the Greek EEZ, with an authorisation considered illegal by Athens issued as a NAVTEX (NAVigational TEXt Messages). "The Oruc Reis needs around 20-24 hours to reach the area that was defined from the Gulf of Antalya, where it is now located," the expert said.

His sources also told him that "a concentration of Turkish Special Forces (SAT) has been identified in the Turkish area of Kas off the Greek island of Kastellorizo, while 17-19 other warships waiting to accompany the Oruc Reis have already been placed, along with other naval units, in the waters of the Aegean Sea", coming from the Aksaz base, located on the southeast coast in Marmaris, Mugla. At this point, it should be recalled that this Tuesday the Ankara authorities issued a NAVTEX by the Turkish Hydrographic Service to "investigate and drill for oil in the Greek EEZ in the area between the island of Crete and the island of Kastellorizo from July 21 to August 2. On the same day, a dozen Turkish Navy ships left Aksaz for the south. 

This caused Greece to put its Armed Forces on high alert and the Chief of Defence Staff (GEETHA), Konstantinos Floros, to speed up his return from Cyprus, where he was stationed. "We are ready to deploy even more warships in the wider area as soon as we are given the appropriate instructions," a Greek officer warned in the local daily Pentapostagma, who also pointed out that "the morale of the Fleet's teams is high. "The time has come," he insisted, explaining that if Turkey persists in its activities and sends the Oruc Reis, the Athens government will plan a response by crossing the "red line" represented by Kastellorizo. The source also revealed that, for several weeks, the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Dendias, have been working on a document that they have already sent to their "friends and allies".

"With Turkey's behaviour in the eastern Mediterranean increasingly provocative, Greece has been preparing for a possible increase in tensions, amid fears that Turkish officials will comply with threats to launch hydrocarbon explorations on the islands of Crete or Kastellorizo," Kathimerini explains.

In fact, on Tuesday, during a meeting between the head of the Greek government and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in the Greek capital, the former accused Turkey of "trying to invade its continental platform" and filed a complaint with the United Nations, the Security Council, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) - of which Ankara and Athens are allies - and the European Union. "We call on Turkey to immediately cease these illegal actions that violate our sovereign rights and undermine peace and security in the area," the statement read. The head of the Greek government also said that if Ankara did not back down, the imposition of new sanctions by Brussels "could be inevitable".

El primer ministro griego Kyriakos Mitsotakis se reúne con el ministro de Asuntos Exteriores alemán Heiko Maas en Atenas, Grecia, el 21 de julio de 2020
REUTERS/Costas Baltas - Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis meets German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Athens, Greece, on 21 July 2020

Both Germany and the United States have demanded that the nation led by Erdogan in the last few hours cease its activities in prospecting for energy resources. "If Ankara stops its provocations, the EU's strained relations with it could improve," Maas stressed during his meeting with Mitsotakis. "We have a very clear position: international law must be respected," insisted the German official, who also stressed the need to "keep the channels of dialogue open with Turkey, a strategically important country in relation to NATO and immigration problems.

For his part, a spokesman for the US State Department revealed in Sputnik that his country has asked Ankara to "suspend its plans to carry out seismic surveys in Greece's territorial waters to avoid measures that would increase tensions in the eastern Mediterranean". "We urge the Turkish authorities to stop any plans for operations," the source said. 

In Greece, the main leader of the opposition, Alexis Tsipras, has held an emergency meeting with defence advisers and former officials of the ministry, such as former minister Evangelos Apostolakis and former head of the armed forces, Christos Christodoulou, to discuss the latest Turkish actions with the NAVTEX broadcast. On the table has been "the continued escalation of Turkish provocation, both before and immediately after the EU summit, where sanctions against Turkey were finally not discussed," sources in Kathimerini said. It should be recalled that on 13 July a meeting of foreign ministers was held in Brussels on the Eurasian nation at the request of France over an incident with Ankara in the waters of the Mediterranean. Paris, with the support of Athens, was seeking to impose sanctions, but did not succeed.

In Turkey, an emergency meeting of the Security Council, chaired by Erdogan and attended by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlut Cavusoglu, and senior army officials, is scheduled to take place throughout the day. According to Nic Athens, the meeting was convened to respond to the broadcast by Greece and Cyprus of "an anti-NAVTEX with exactly the same coordinates as the one issued by Turkey", which would prevent the ships of the Eurasian nation from beginning their operations. 

Why this Turkish movement now?

"The choice of Kastellorizo [by Turkey] should not be surprising. It is the point at which Turkish arguments sound more legitimate by international public opinion compared to other regions, such as Crete or Rhodes. And the period of time is full of historical symbolism. It's the anniversary of the invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to overthrow so badly," explains analyst Angelos Syrigos in the local press. The latter treaty, it should be mentioned, delimited the borders of modern Turkey and established the European boundaries of Greece and Bulgaria.