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Amid tensions with Greece, a win-win solution possible through dialogue, Turkey says

Earlier this month the Turkish government announced that it would continue its drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean until August 23..

“Our MTA Oruc Reis seismic research vessel reached the operation area after departing from Antalya, for its new mission in the Mediterranean. Around 83 million Turkish people support you, Oruc Reis,” Energy and Natural Resources Minister Fatih Donmez wrote on Twitter on Aug. 10.

Greece issued a counter Navigational Telex (also known as Navtex) against Turkey’s announcement but there has been no massive mobilization of the Greek navy so far while Oruc Reis is escorted by Turkish navy units.

Turkey’s new seismic research activity was first announced on Aug. 6 – the same day Greece and Egypt declared that they signed a maritime delimitation agreement in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkish Foreign Ministry said that the so-called agreement is null and void as there is not a maritime boundary between Greece and Egypt. “The supposedly-delimited area lies within the Turkish continental shelf as declared to the U.N.,” the ministry added.

In addition to that, Turkey has announced a new NAVTEX from August 18 to September 15 for the site where another drilling ship, Yavuz, will be carrying out its work in exploring for energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean near the southwest of Cyprus.

The latest developments show that the tension in the Eastern Mediterranean will not ease and escalation will continue. In late July, Ankara announced that Oruc Reis was to start drilling, however, the decision was put on hold at the request of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The goal was to give a chance to diplomacy and resume the talks between the two NATO allies and neighbors and to find a solution for the revenue sharing of the hydrocarbon reserves in the East Mediterranean.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Aug. 7, “Merkel asked me to stop drilling. We said, ‘If you trust Greece, we will stop working for a few weeks, but we do not trust them.’”

“They did not keep their promises,” Erdogan added.

Turkish Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said over the weekend that the controversial Greco-Egyptian deal was signed a day before Ankara and Athens were supposed to jointly announce the resumption of talks for a solution regarding the problems between the two countries.

Before that, Ankara repeatedly said they were ready to discuss all issues; the Aegean, continental shelf, islands, airspace, research and screening efforts, and the Eastern Mediterranean along with other bilateral matters with Greece without any precondition. Berlin on Monday called once again for direct talks between Greece and Turkey to de-escalate tension sparked by Greece’s controversial deal with Egypt. However, Athens’ latest move reveals that Greece will continue its “maximalist claims”, Ankara argues.

On the other hand, Ankara says that the so-called maritime delimitation agreement between Greece and Egypt is, in fact, endorsing Turkey’s thesis that the islands do not have sovereign continental shelves. According to Turkey, Greece conceded Egypt. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, “It looks like that concession was made over the sovereign rights of the islands, including Crete. It has been raised as a subject of criticism by the former Greek foreign ministers as well. Essentially, this is in support of our thesis.”

Greece-Egypt deal does not include Kastellorizo (Megisti-Meis) island and part of the coast of Rhodes. According to reports, Egypt did resist to Greek demands as it tries to avoid a confrontation with Turkey.

As is known, Turkey argues that the notion of “continental shelf,” by definition, means that distances should be measured from the continental mainland, claiming that the Aegean seabed is geographically a natural prolongation of the Anatolian landmass. When the two states’ maritime claims overlap, the division is made by the median line. This means that Turkey is entitled to economic zones up to the median line of the Aegean, except for the territorial waters around the Greek islands in its eastern half, which would remain as Greek exclaves. Turkey puts Greece’s Kastellorizo island, which is just 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) off the Turkish coast but around 600 kilometers to the Greek mainland, as an example of this. According to Turkey’s equity-based viewpoint, Kastellorizo should not have an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) since it is a very small island right across from the Turkish mainland. It argues that Kastellorizo, as a tiny island, cannot claim maritime jurisdiction that is 4,000 times larger than its landmass since an EEZ has to be based on the relative lengths of adjacent coastlines.

Greece, on the other hand, claims that all islands must be taken into account on an equal basis as a mainland. It looks like Greece gave up its claims and had to make concessions.

Minister Cavusoglu did also recall a maritime delimitation agreement Greece signed with Italy very recently which did not start the former’s continental shelf from its islands in the Ionian Sea. “These are two agreements that endorse our thesis,” Cavusoglu stressed. So why can Greece abandon its long-standing claims when it comes to Egypt and Italy but ignores Turkey’s arguments.

The Eastern Mediterranean Basin, often referred to as the cradle of civilization, has witnessed severe confrontations between numerous political powers throughout the course of its history. And today, this continues with vital disputes continuing to disconcert regional players as well as global powers pursuing their own interests in the region. That period started with the exploration of new natural gas resources; however, it has brought new political crises instead of multilateral opportunities.

Currently, some of the most complicated and heated disputes are the overlapping claims on the maritime territories in the Eastern Mediterranean by several coastal states. In particular, the contrasting claims of Turkey, Greece, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and the Greek Cypriot administration of Southern Cyprus have built toward a major escalation in the last couple of years.

Turkey says that the countries of the region should cooperate in the delimitation of maritime zones and for the extraction and marketing of oil and natural gas resources. However, the one-sided activities of several states, especially Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration, in line with their own interests as well as their bilateral agreements with some regional states have increased since the beginning of the 2000s. After Greece, the Greek Cypriot administration, Israel and Egypt launched EastMed Gas Forum, an attempt turned into a goal in order to exclude and isolate Turkey, which has one of the longest shores in the Eastern Mediterranean, the experts says.

In the light of the abovementioned situation, Turkey reached a mutually beneficial deal with Libya’s GNA and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the Delimitation of Maritime Jurisdiction Areas on Nov. 27, 2019, to secure both the countries’ rights in the region, demarcate maritime zones in the Eastern Mediterranean on an area between Turkey and Libya and prevent any fait accompli by other regional states. This was Turkey’s second deal in the Eastern Mediterranean following a continental shelf delimitation agreement with the TRNC on Sept. 21, 2011.

This move of Turkey and the GNA came before Greece’s attempt to sign a deal with Egypt. After this, Greece will probably try to make a similar agreement with the Greek Cypriot administration which would further escalate tension.

Ankara continues to say it is ready to dissolve differences in the Eastern Mediterranean and invites the coastal states to the table to give room for diplomacy. However, it will not stop protecting its rights and interests if its calls are ignored, Turkish officials state.

Merve Şebnem Oruç is an award-winning Turkish journalist and columnist for Daily Sabah and HABER. She is on Twitter here.