Turkey explores contested Mediterranean waters

Selcan Hacaoglu and Constantine Courcoulas October 30, 2018

ANKARA and ISTANBUL (Bloomberg) -- Turkey’s first deep-sea drilling ship, flanked by Turkish war vessels, set sail Tuesday looking for natural gas and oil in contested waters of the Mediterranean, a launch liable to exacerbate longstanding tensions with Greece.

The Fatih, named after the conqueror of Constantinople, or modern-day Istanbul, will operate some 60 nautical miles off the Turkish coast in or around the disputed area. The Eastern Mediterranean has become a gas hot spot with big finds for Cyprus, Israel and Egypt in recent years.

Turkey’s energy exploration plans have already triggered a showdown between the NATO allies’ warships this month. The start of exploration also comes as Cyprus pushes to find gas in the region, something that Turkey -- which has occupied the island’s northern third since 1974 -- vehemently opposes without an agreement on sharing the proceeds of any finds.

“I don’t think either camp is out to look for direct conflict,” said James Ker-Lindsay, a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. At the same time, he said, there is an ever-present risk of a clash. “These can be very, very tense situations and things can get out of hand completely unexpectedly very quickly,” he said.

Military action

Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said a Greek warship came dangerously close to a Turkish seismic survey ship, the Barbaros, on Oct. 18, but Turkey won’t let that happen again. Akar also threatened military action if Greece acts on plans to extend its territorial waters in the Aegean.

“We’re determined to protect the rights of the Turkish Republic as well as the Northern Turkish Cypriot Republic without any concessions,” he said. Turkey is the only country to recognize the so-called Northern Turkish Cypriot Republic.

Turkey’s navy was escorting both the Fatih and the Barbaros, named after the legendary Ottoman-era naval commander Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha, and will respond to any harassment, Energy Minister Fatih Donmez said.

“We don’t have our eyes on anyone’s resources,” Donmez said. “Our only aim is to put into the service of our people the riches in every inch under our sovereignty.”

Turkey and Greece have come to the brink of war three times since Turkey invaded Cyprus to thwart a coup designed to unite the island with Greece. Turkey doesn’t recognize Cyprus as a sovereign country and opposes the Greek Cypriot search for mineral deposits.

Earlier this year, Turkey blocked a rig from reaching an area southeast of Cyprus where Italian company Eni SpA was scheduled to drill, and this month, it deemed its seismic research activity in the contested waters to be in line with international law.

Territorial waters

Turkey’s offshore activity in the Mediterranean follows friction with Greece over its plan to extend its maritime border, starting with its western flank in the Ionian Sea.

Greece doesn’t have plans to double its territorial waters in the Aegean to 12 nautical miles from shore at the moment, a Greek government official said on condition of anonymity. But former Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias caused “serious concern for Turkey,” an aide to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, when in an Oct. 20 handoff ceremony he made reference to plans to expand Greece’s territorial waters around the islands of Crete in the south, and Evia to the north, according to state-run Athens News Agency.

The undersea boundary in the Aegean has been among the most contentious issues in Greek-Turkish relations, with each country trying to mark out where it can exploit seabed oil and mineral deposits. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned Greece last week that Turkey’s parliament authorized military action in 1995 if it extends its territorial waters in the Aegean.

“Those decisions are valid,” he said.

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