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Greece and Turkey have increased their military manoeuvres in the Mediterranean Sea in recent days. At the heart of the dispute between the historic rivals lies the search for hydrocarbons.

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Tensions have been mounting in the Mediterranean Sea in recent days with announcements of military exercises in the area emerging from a slew of countries. It has not reached the stage of open conflict fortunately, but the escalations between Greece and Turkey have been alarming.

On the one hand, Turkey on Thursday announced that it would conduct military exercises, including firing exercises, on September 1 and 2 off the Turkish town of Iskenderun, north east of Cyprus.

On the other hand, the Greek defence ministry on Wednesday revealed that Greece, Cyprus, France and Italy have agreed to deploy a joint presence in the Eastern Mediterranean within the framework of the Quadripartite Cooperation Initiative (QUAD). This exercise included the use of three French Rafale fighter jets, a frigate and an attack helicopter.

Turkish and European naval forces in the Mediterranean © France 24

Between the Turkish fleet and the European ships currently at sea, the Mediterranean is bristling with a military presence, the likes of which the region has not seen for many years. US ships are also present in the area under NATO missions, but Washington so far seems unwilling to be dragged in by either side. The destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill carried out an exercise with the Greek navy on Monday, before carrying out another with the Turkish navy on Wednesday.

"There is an intensity of military movements in the Mediterranean that is quite rare," Hugo Decis of the London-based International Institute for Strategy Studies (IISS) told FRANCE 24. "We are facing military powers that are used to this type of deployment, but the context is tense and we are never safe from an incident that could degenerate.”

Greece and Turkey came close to war in 1996 over two uninhabited islets in the Aegean Sea and have been fighting for decades over the extent of their respective territorial waters.

Nearly 5,765 billion cubic metres of gas in the Eastern Mediterranean

At stake is access to gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Determined not to miss out, Turkey has been conducting research for several months in a disputed area of the Levantine Basin. On August 10, the deployment of the Oruç Reis, a Turkish seismic research vessel, and its military escort to the south of the far-flung Greek island of Kastellorizo was viewed as a provocation by Athens, triggering alarm bells in the Greek capital.

Hydrocarbons in the Mediterranean
Hydrocarbons in the Mediterranean © France 24

The Levantine Basin, which stretches from Crete and the island of Rhodes in the west to the Asian coast in the east, contains 5,765 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas, according to a 2010 estimate by the US Geological Survey. However, the exclusive economic zones (EEZs), as defined by international law, "imprison Turkey inside its shores", said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, depriving it of access to any possible deposits between Crete and Cyprus.

In November 2019, Turkey signed a maritime delimitation agreement with the UN-recognised Libyan government in Tripoli aiming at changing the boundaries of the exclusive economic zones. This agreement between Turkey and Libya is an attempt by Ankara to extend the surface area of its territorial waters, and also to thwart the EastMed gas pipeline project, the fruit of an agreement between Cyprus, Greece and Israel.

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