image Photo: Reuters

Turkey inflames region with seismic research in Mediterranean

Turkey remains at loggerheads with Greece and Cyprus over competing claims for offshore oil reserves in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, amid heightened activity by Ankara that signals potential impending hydrocarbon exploration.

European Union members Greece, Cyprus and France have rejected Turkey’s plan to explore between Cyprus and Crete. The EU has been striving to lower friction between member states and Turkey.

At a news conference in Athens following a visit to Ankara on 28 July, Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya expressed hope an apparent will shown by Turkey to open a dialogue on oil drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean will be followed by action.

“The stability of the Mediterranean Sea is of paramount importance for (a) Mediterranean country like Spain, and this is why I have expressed to you our full support to Greece,” Laya said to her Greek counterpart, Nikos Dendias. “What the ambition, the little ambition, the modest ambition that we have at the moment is to try and de-escalate the existing tensions, this is what, this is the message that I have conveyed in Ankara yesterday.”

The top Spanish diplomat when on to reveal, “What I took from my visit to Ankara is a desire on the Turkish side to (have a) dialogue… This has to be put into action. It’s not enough to say you want to talk,” stressing that “I do hope that this is the avenue that is chosen in order to address many of the challenging issues that in the last weeks, in the last months, have popped up, many of the unilateral acts that have seen in the eastern Mediterranean. So, I do hope that this message that I heard, which was a message of dialogue and readiness to dialogue will materialize.”

Her Greek counterpart, Nikos Dendias, said Athens was open to talks – but not under threat.  “I want to repeat that Greece is always open to a dialogue with Turkey, but a dialogue not under the regime of threats, insults or attempts to create a fait accompli,” he said.

It was not immediately clear what the basis of negotiations between the two sides would be since they hold fundamentally different views on where their continental shelves begin and end. Greece argues that Turkey has laid claim to its own continental shelf, delineated in accordance with the United Nations Law of the Sea and location of the nation’s outlying islands. This position has been dismissed by the Turkish Foreign Ministry, which issued a statement insisting that “Greece’s maximalist continental shelf claims incompatible with international law and court decisions.”

Germany has been mediating talks between Ankara and Athens in the wake of the Turkish assertion of rights in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) over a maritime border delineation deal with Libya.

Last week German Chancellor Angela Merkel held separate discussions with both Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after Ankara announced it would start seismic research and drilling operations in contested waters that are covered by an agreement between Ankara and Libya’s internationally-recognized government. Although declining to discuss details of the conversation, German Deputy Government Spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said that Berlin’s position is “well known.”

During a visit to Athens on 21 July, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas declared that, “Regarding Turkey’s drilling in the eastern Mediterranean, we have a very clear position – international law must be respected so progress in EU-Turkey relations is only possible if Ankara stops provocations in the eastern Mediterranean.” Hass demanded Ankara end its drilling off the coast of Cyprus and called on the EU to deliver a “clear” response to any such activities in the eastern Mediterranean.

“This is the condition for there to be any future-oriented dialogue between the European Union and Turkey,” Maas said while standing alongside Greek Foreign Minister Dendias, underscoring that, “There is a great deal of unity on this.”

The Greek Foreign Ministry insisted Turkey “immediately stop its illegal actions that violate Greece’s sovereignty and undermine the region’s peace and security.”

Following Spanish Foreign Minister’s visit, a top Turkish official said President Erdoğan had requested any operations be put on hold as a constructive approach to negotiations with Greece. On 28 July, Turkish Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said that Turkey could pause energy-exploration operations in the eastern Mediterranean Sea for a while, pending talks with Greece. In an interview with broadcaster CNN Turk, Kalin said President Erdoğan had requested that operations be put on hold as a constructive approach to negotiations.

But long-standing tensions between the NATO allies surged again after Turkey then issued an advisory known as a Navtex, declaring seismic vessels would be conducting research between 28 July and 18 August in the waters off the coast of Cyprus, licensed to the Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPOA).

According to the major Turkish Hürriyet newspaper, “Turkish flagged Barbaros Hayreddin Paşa and support ships Tanux-1 and Apollo Moon will conduct seismic research activity in accordance with international law;” as Turkey dismissed Greek objections that its energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean encroached on Greek territory.

Seismic surveys are part of preparatory work for potential hydrocarbon exploration.

Turkey’s new Navtex blocked off sections of the eastern Mediterranean “between the city of Famagusta and Lebanon, some of which overlaps with Greek Cyprus’ EEZ,” reported the Hürriyet, while pointing out that the advisory was issued just “hours after Ankara said it would suspend its oil and gas exploration activities in the eastern Mediterranean that could cause a dispute with Greece.” Presidential Spokesperson Kalın had declared that in order to allow time for talks with Greece, aides had been informed by Turkish President Erdoğan to “be constructive” and put “on hold” plans for the dispatch research vessel Oruç Reis and two support vessels to carry out operations through 2 August in waters south of the Greek islands of Rhodes, Karpathos and Kastelorizo – which had prompted objection from the island nation, joined by the United States, France and other European countries.

Egypt has now joined the fray, declaring that the Turkish seismic survey plans could encroach on waters where it claims exclusive rights. Cairo is a regional rival of Ankara and has close relations with Athens and Nicosia.

The Navtex issued by Turkey for the survey overlaps with Egypt’s own EEZ and constitutes “a violation and an attack on Egypt’s sovereign rights,” the country’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

It did not give details, but said the potential encroachment came under point eight of Turkey’s advisory.