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Mediterranean Disputes Reaching Flashpoint, Military Standoffs Intensify Amid Belated Diplomatic Efforts

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Mediterranean Disputes Reaching Flashpoint, Military Standoffs Intensify Amid Belated Diplomatic Efforts

The Turkish survey vessel at the centre of the stand off

Developments are accelerating in the maritime boundary dispute between Turkey and Greece. Belligerent statements and threats by senior government officials from both countries, accompanied by multiple military deployments and standoffs, are still far outpacing diplomatic efforts to head off an impending clash between the two NATO members.

NATO member state Turkey is blocking a decision by the military alliance to provide support to the EU’s Sea-Guardian mission monitoring the UN arms embargo of Libya. The EU mission is supposed to inspect vessels in the area suspected of carrying arms or other contraband to Libya. However, Turkey is the largest military supporter of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli and has sent over ten thousand military personnel and armed fighters (mostly mercenaries and ‘jihadists’) as well as advanced weapons by air and sea.

The Sea-Guardian mission has been unable to fulfil its objectives, because the cargo ships transporting the weapons and fighters are being escorted by the Turkish navy which are preventing inspections from taking place. In one instance, a French frigate was locked onto by the fire control radar of a Turkish warship when it attempted to inspect a ship presumably loaded with weapons and/ or mercenaries.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had said on Wednesday at a meeting of EU defence ministers in Berlin that there were no new developments on the subject. However, he said that they were still considering how they could cooperate with the EU operation. LINK

In other developments, Greece’s national parliament has ratified an accord on maritime boundaries with Egypt, hours after Turkey extended the operation of a seismic survey vessel in the Eastern Mediterranean and announced that it will hold live-fire military exercises in the region next week.

The Athens-Cairo agreement is widely perceived as a response to the accord signed in 2019 by the Government of National Accord in Libya allowing Turkey access to areas in the region where large hydrocarbon deposits have been discovered.

Under their treaty, Egypt and Greece are now legally authorised (by their respective national laws) to initiate exploration and exploitation of the resources available in their respective exclusive economic zones, including oil and gas reserves.

A similar accord between Italy and Greece was approved on Wednesday.

Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas on Thursday said “their ratification is urgent” given “Turkey’s illegal activities”.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told parliament another bill will extend Greece’s coastal zone in the Ionian Sea from six to 12 nautical miles under international maritime conventions.

Earlier on Thursday, the Turkish navy issued the latest advisory, known as a Navtex, saying it will hold ‘gunnery exercises’ in the Eastern Mediterranean off the coast of Iskenderun, northeast of Cyprus on September 1 and 2.

It also extended the seismic work of the Oruc Reis vessel southwest of Cyprus, until September 1.

Greece says the Turkish advisories are illegal.

As other international actors are being drawn into the dispute, France announced on Wednesday that it was joining military exercises with Italy, Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said the deployment of French military aircraft in Cyprus violated treaties regarding the control and administration of the island after its independence from Britain in 1960, and that France’s actions are encouraging Greece and Cyprus to escalate tensions in the region to dangerous levels.

Cyprus was divided in two in 1974 following a Turkish invasion, which they claimed was in response to an attempted coup supported by Greece. Turkey recognises the Turkish-populated north of Cyprus as a separate state under its protection, a claim which is not recognised by other countries.

A dispute over maritime borders and resource rights near the island of Cyprus has reignited the long-running territorial disputes between Greece and Turkey, with the two countries staging parallel naval drills and manoeuvres in the disputed area.

The European Union has threatened Turkey with economic sanctions unless it halts the gas exploration activities it is undertaking in disputed maritime areas.

EU foreign secretary Josep Borrell announced on Friday that the bloc wanted to give “a serious chance to dialogue” but was steadfast in its support for member states Greece and Cyprus in the crisis.

EU sanctions could include individuals, ships or the use of European ports.

“We can go to measures related to sectoral activities … where the Turkish economy is related to the European economy,” Borrell told a news conference, referring to possible sanctions.

The EU would focus on everything related to “activities we consider illegal”, he said.

Borrell was speaking after EU foreign ministers met in Berlin to discuss support for Greece after it ratified a maritime accord with Egypt to counter Turkey’s claims to energy resources in the region.

Responding to the announcement, Turkey’s foreign ministry said the EU has no legal basis for its stance and rejected Greek maritime claims.

“It is beyond the limits of the EU to criticise the hydrocarbon activities of our country within our own continental shelf and demand that we stop them,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.

“Greece is not an archipelago state. It is illegal under international law for Greek islands to have a continental shelf”.

Borrell and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas added that the EU wants to give dialogue a chance to lower tensions between Greece and Turkey, before resorting to economic sanctions or other punitive measures.

Turkey is also a formal candidate to join the EU, although its candidacy is at risk and could be withdrawn as an additional measure. Two senior EU diplomats told Reuters news agency that foreign ministers agreed to leave any decision to EU government leaders, who are set to meet for a two-day summit from September 24.

“Nothing will be decided before the September European Council,” a senior diplomat said, adding that Turkey could also be rewarded with greater access to the EU’s market of 450 million consumers if it suspends all maritime exploration activities in disputed areas. LINK

However, neither side is currently prepared to make any concessions, and events are fast approaching a possible military clash.

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