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Turkey-Greece relations: Why are the two countries locked in a dispute over drilling rights?

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A helicopter flies over Turkey's drilling ship, 'Fatih' dispatched towards the eastern Mediterranean, near Cyprus.
A helicopter flies over Turkey's drilling ship, 'Fatih' dispatched towards the eastern Mediterranean, near Cyprus.   -   Copyright  AP/Turkish Defense Ministry
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Turkey, Greece and Cyprus are embroiled in a war of words that is quickly escalating to shows of military strength. What is the source of their acrimony? As with many global disputes, the countries are squaring up to each other over access to natural resources, namely potential gas and oil deposits under the seabed of the Mediterranean.

Tensions in Eastern Mediterranean are nothing new, with NATO allies and neighbours Greece and Turkey coming to the brink of war over a range of issues on no less than three occasions since the 1970s. Competing efforts over drilling rights in a region, which has seen a boom in oil and gas extraction in the last decade, are just the latest in a string of disputes going back four decades.

"Illegal gunboat diplomacy"

So, what's happened? Turkey first sent a drilling ship to the Mediterranean in May 2019 where it carried out seismic surveys and exploratory drilling off the north coast of Cyprus, leading the island nation to condemn what it sees as illegal.

In response, the EU sanctioned Turkey in July 2019, reducing pre-accession financial assistance to the country for 2020 by €145.8 million and halting high-level bilateral talks.

Having been dragged into the dispute, which involves two of its member states, the EU has continued to show "firm solidarity" with Greece and Cyprus, consistently warning Turkey to refrain from drilling activities over the past year.

Unperturbed, Turkey's foreign ministry released a statement at the time saying the EU's sanctions "will in no way affect Turkey's determination to continue its hydrocarbon activities in the Eastern Mediterranean."

Rather than deescalating the situation, Turkey has deployed further drilling ships to the region this year along with navy escorts, exercising what it sees as its rights to access Turkish Cypriot waters - something that currently contravenes international law.

In June, Greece's foreign minister Nikos Dendias used a meeting with the EU's Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, to condemn Turkey and decry "its illegal gunboat diplomacy."

As of late August, Greece and Turkey have both put their forces on high alert, deploying their navies to shadow one another in the Mediterranean and perform competing combat exercises in the sea between Crete and Cyprus.

In response to the ongoing crisis, Greece also announced on August 26 that it would be extending its territorial waters from six nautical miles to 12 nautical miles - a perfectly legal move in international law - along its frontier with Italy, abandoning what Prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called years of "passive" foreign policy.

German foreign minister Heiko Maas warned the two countries that they were "playing with fire, and any spark - however small - could lead to a disaster."

Cyprus as a proxy

Historically, relations between Greece and Turkey have been fraught - and largely centred on Cyprus.

During its centuries-long possession by the Ottoman Empire, Turks came and settled on the largely Greek-speaking island. When Cyprus gained independence from the UK in 1960, tensions between Greek Cypriots and the Turkish minority simmered with occasional outbursts of violence.

In July 1974, the military junta in power in Greece instigated a coup in Cyprus in order to annex it. In response, Turkey invaded and captured northern parts of the country. The military junta in Greece collapsed after three days of fighting, giving way to a democratic government.

Following the failure of peace negotiations in Geneva, Turkey started a second invasion on August 14 and expanded its gains from its first invasion to cover over a third of the island.

A UN-backed ceasefire was eventually declared with a buffer zone running through the country which remains in place today.

Turkey recognises Northern Cyprus, which takes up around 37 per cent of the island’s landmass, as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The United Nations recognises it as a territory of the Republic of Cyprus currently under Turkish occupation.

Cyprus and Turkey have had no formal diplomatic relations since 1974.

What has this got to do with gas?

The dispute has opened old wounds because the area where Turkey initially sent ships includes waters off the northern coast of the island.

Cyprus and the EU consider the north to be part of the Republic of Cyprus and the waters surrounding it to be part of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which means EU nations have the exclusive right to fish, drill and carry out other economic activities.

But as Turkey recognises Northern Cyprus as independent, with its own EEZ, Ankara says it is within its rights to drill there.

Commenting in May 2019, at the time the dispute first erupted, Turkish Energy Minister, Fatih Donmez, said: “Turkey will continue its operations in its own continental shelf and in areas where the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has licensed Turkiye Petrolleri without stopping”.

He added that unilateral agreements made between Cyprus and the regional countries that attempted to “steal” the rights of Turkey and Turkish Cypriots had “no legal validity."

By August 2020, the scope of Turkey's exploratory drilling operations expanded to include waters off the south coast of Cyprus and a larger area of sea in the Eastern Mediterranean between Cyprus and Greece. Greece claims this the area is above its own continental shelf and thereby has exclusive rights to any potential gas and oil deposits.

While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the discovery of an additional gas field in the Black Sea on August 21, it has done little to temper Turkey's aspirations in the Mediterranean.

"Ottoman spirit"

The energy race could be construed as yet another facet of Turkish president Erdoğan's drive to expand Turkey's influence beyond its borders. It has led some commentators to suggest that Erdoğan has embraced the "Ottoman spirit," branding him a neo-sultan of sorts.

During past electoral campaigns, Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) have even used slogans such as "descendant of the Ottomans" to describe supporters and the president himself.

Stripping the Hagia Sophia of its status as a museum and converting it back into a mosque in July, for instance, is just one such example where renewed Ottomanism is not only seen to be eroding away the foundations of the secular, western-facing Turkey that were put in place by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, but also puts the country in direct confrontation with regional neighbours.

A Neo-Ottomanist foreign policy under Erdoğan's tenure as prime minister and now president has seen Turkey's focus shift towards former territories of the Ottoman Empire, namely the Balkans, Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Israel and north African countries, such as Libya.

While news was met by jubilant celebrations amongst supporters of Erdoğan domestically, reverting the UNESCO world heritage site, a former Orthodox Christian cathedral, back into a mosque has only exacerbated tensions with Greece further.

As Muslims attended Friday prayers for the first time in 86 years, church bells rang in mourning across Greece and protests took place in Athens and Thessaloniki, the country's second-largest city.

Mitsotakis also condemned the move, saying it was "not a manifestation of power" but a "sign of weakness."