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Turkey Issues Provocative Warning as Tension Rises in the Eastern Mediterranean

On July 21, 2020 Antalya NAVTEX (Navigational Text Message) Station issued a Navigational Warning, effective between July 21 and August 2 for seismic survey being done by R/V ORUÇ REİS, ATAMAN and CENGİZ. The survey encompasses a wide area offshore the island of Kastelorizo, and covers several parts of the Greek Continental Shelf. As tension in the Eastern Mediterranean is rising, the international community is standing by and expecting further moves from each side.

A Pre-Announced Provocation from Turkey

The Turkish NAVTEX warning and the scheduled deployment of seismic research vessels in the Greek Continental Shelf is nothing new at all and should not be surprising to Athens. Turkish President Recep Erdogan himself already pre-announced the move almost eight months ago. Specifically, Erdogan announced at the time that Turkey was planning to start drilling activities near Greek islands.

This claim was reinforced by the controversial Turkish-Libyan Memorandum of Understanding, and Ankara has declared that the drilling plans would proceed by August-September 2020. The lukewarm Greek — and international — reaction to the Turkish-Libyan MoU encouraged Ankara to go ahead with these plans. According to the Turkish approach the Greek islands have limited — if any — Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) rights. Furthermore, the Aegean is an open sea where Turkey has expanded influence due to its vast continental territory, as opposed to the small Greek islands. This claim cannot be backed under any circumstances by international law and the Conventions on the Law of the Sea, however Ankara keeps pushing these claims, while Greece is hardly responding and the international community stands by. There is nothing truly unexpected in the current Turkish moves, and Athens should be well-aware by now that the Turkish President never makes a statement or warning without the intention to act accordingly.

Greece Heightens Combat Readiness

Shortly after the Turkish NAVTEX warning was issued, the Hellenic Armed Forces were mobilized and the combat readiness level was raised in several units across the country. The Greek reaction aims to make clear to Turkey that unless Ankara abandons the plans for research and drilling within the Greek Continental Shelf, then the Hellenic Armed Forces are ready to engage with any Turkish vessels in the area.

The scope of the Greek deployment of the forces indicate that the Greek side is potentially getting ready for more than a short-term incident somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean or among one of the Aegean Islands. The Greek mobilization is also taking place on the north land border of the country in the river Evros area, and other sensitive locations countrywide, while the most effective operational units are already standing by to be deployed.

Greece and Cyprus Issue Anti-NAVTEX Message

At the same time Greece and Cyprus have issued an anti-NAVTEX in the same area where Turkey had already covered in its warning. As per the Turkish response, the Greek-Cypriot action has been totally ignored by the Turkish Authorities, which stated that the anti-NAVTEX was issued by an unauthorized station and the July 21, 2020 navigational warning by the Antalya Station is still valid and effective.

Even though the Greek administration is carefully monitoring all the Turkish moves and the Hellenic Armed Forces are ready to react to any Turkish provocation, there is a strategic miscalculation happening on the Greek side. Athens is standing by and waiting to respond depending on the Turkish  moves; essentially Ankara is currently dominating the situation and shaping the possible developments, with Greece simply getting ready to act in the most appropriate way and react according to the Turkish course of action. In military terms, Ankara currently holds the initiative and could dictate the direction of the events, at least in the initial stages of a potential engagement.

Decisive Military Response and Proposed Economic Sanctions

Under the current circumstances, Athens should be considering implementing a balanced force projection strategy alongside the necessary diplomatic means. The Hellenic Navy should make clear that a decisive strike against the Turkish Forces will certainly take place in the likely scenario that the research vessels are accompanied by Turkish frigates. Being completely covered by international law, Greece has every right to protect its sovereignty by any means.

Ankara has repeatedly shown that when in a dispute, its moves are always adjusted depending on the tolerance of the other parties involved; and it should be noted that Turkey adopts this approach consistently regardless of the nature of the dispute, from a religious-political disagreement — see the recent example of the decision to turn the Hagia Sophia into a mosque — to a wide-scale military operation, like the major offensive in Idlib, Syria and the subsequent ceasefire deal.

The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis stated shortly after the Turkish incitement that the European Union would have no other choice but to impose economic sanctions on Ankara if the Turkish drilling plans go ahead. This was a rather ill-advised statement, considering that the sanctions on Turkey over a dispute between the two sides — or three when including Cyprus — have been negligible and barely affected the Turkish decision-making process. In the meantime, a representative of the US Department of State asserted yesterday — responding to journalists’ questions around the issue — that Turkey should cease any activities in “disputed waters.” Even though this statement has been received by major Greek media as an affirmation that Washington is backing Greece, the term “disputed waters” indicates that the US is indirectly accepting the Turkish claims, considering that the area which prompted the tension in the region is clearly and undoubtedly part of the Greek continental shelf.

At the moment that this article is being written, Turkish research vessels are moored offshore at Antalya. We can expect to see rapid developments in the days that follow. During this time, Greece needs to move fast and decisively, comprehending that at the current stage that the sole utilization of soft power tactics and diplomatic channels could lead the country to major and unprecedented territorial and strategic losses.