ATHENS – France has ordered forces to the eastern Mediterranean to assist Greece, escalating a standoff between Greece and Turkey over oil drilling rights.
French President Emannuel Macron said Turkey was provoking tensions with what he called its unilateral decision to send a research vessel to survey the seabed in a patch of the eastern Mediterranean that Greece — and the European Union — maintain that Greeks alone have the right to exploit.
Turkey’s reading of maritime law is different.
Turkey disputes that Greek islands in the area are entitled to what is called an exclusive economic zone, and in pursuit of that, recently signed a maritime deal with Libya, hacking away much of Greece’s zone.
Greece retaliated last week, signing a similar deal with Egypt, crossing over Turkey’s zone with Libya and enraging Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Since then, Greek and Turkish forces have gone on full alert. France’s military deployment includes a frigate, an amphibious helicopter and two warplanes, while U.S. Ambassador to Athens Geoffrey Pyatt announced that the U.S. Navy’s USS Hershel “Woody” Williams was also steaming to the region.
The build-up follows Turkey’s deployment of a fleet of ships guarding the research vessel Oruc Reis as it sails in international waters between the Greek island of Crete and Cyprus, surveying the disputed seabed. Erdogan has also warned that Turkey will respond to any attack on its vessel.
While no drilling for oil or natural gas has taken place, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is accusing Turkey of waging a dangerous game of gunboat diplomacy, behaving provocatively and warning a misstep could lead to more than negotiations.
The threat of an accident looms, he told Greeks in a nationally televised address late Thursday. A large number of military forces are now concentrating in a small region, he said. And while Greece will not be the first to up the ante in this standoff, it will not sit back and tolerate provocative actions.
The Greek leader did not accuse Turkey of acting illegally. And while Athens is on a diplomatic scramble to win support from allies to force the Turkish vessel out of disputed waters, its efforts to slap financial sanctions on Turkey are proving futile.
EU foreign ministers are due to discuss that prospect later Friday in urgent talks that have been called to assess the brewing crisis. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias will also be meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Mike Pompeo, in separate talks in Vienna.
Analysts anticipate terse warnings to be issued against Turkey. But they also expect the standoff will escalate before it defuses, eventually allowing Ankara and Athens to negotiate on problems they have failed to solve for ages