JEDDAH: As tensions between Athens and Ankara continue to run high in their dispute over oil and gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean, it emerged on Friday that a Greek and a Turkish warship were involved in a minor collision on Wednesday.
Analysts said it is unlikely the dispute will escalate as neither side would be willing to risk the political and economic costs. Nevertheless, the war of words continues.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned on Thursday that if any Turkish ships in the disputed eastern Med are attacked, there would be serious consequences.
“We said that if you attack our Oruc Reis (a Turkish research vessel that began looking for oil and gas on Monday) you will pay a high price, and they got their first answer today,” said Erdogan, apparently in reference to the collision between the warships.
His comments came hours after Greek and French military forces conducted exercises in the vicinity of Crete, close to the location where the Oruc Reis is operating, accompanied by a military escort.
In an attempt to gain international support for its claims in the maritime dispute with Turkey, Greek foreign minister Nikos Dendias met 27 EU foreign ministers and US secretary of state Mike Pompeo in Vienna on Friday for urgent talks about the rising military tensions.
So far, only France has provided tangible support for the Greek cause, by sending two warships to the region and staging the joint military exercises.
Ankara, meanwhile, is lobbying German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Council President Charles Michel.
So far, the only action the EU has taken over the Turkish drilling activity is to impose sanctions on two energy-company executives in the country.
“Although it appears to be a major crisis between Greece and Turkey, as they are seemingly at the brink of war, the situation will not escalate beyond what it already is,” said Paul Antonopoulos, an expert on Turkish-Greek relations.
He added that the dispute with Greece has been manufactured by Ankara, along with Turkey’s activities in Syria and Libya, to distract the Turkish population from their country’s dire economic situation. The lira is trading at more than 7.30 to the dollar, the unemployment rate has reached 24.6 percent and the prices of fuel and other commodities are rising.
“Greece is not interested in a war and will continue on a path of diplomatically isolating Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, which it has thus far successfully done,” said Antonopoulos. “While Greece has gotten firm support to oppose Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean from France, Cyprus, the EU, Israel, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Turkey remains completely isolated and will likely soon face sanctions that could escalate the economic situation.”
A maritime border deal signed last week by Greece and Egypt added another layer of tension as it includes an area claimed by Ankara as part of a controversial deal with Libya’s Government of National Accord. Turkey dismissed the agreement between Greece and Egypt as “null and void”.
Despite the strong rhetoric and posturing from both Athens and Ankara, Antonopoulos reiterated that the dispute is unlikely to escalate into open hostilities. A conventional war with Greece would be a completely different scenario from Turkey's interventions in Syria and Libya, he added, and the final nail in the coffin of the Turkish economy.
However, the next crisis in the saga is looming, if Ankara goes ahead with its previously announced plans to issues gas-exploration licenses for the area. Antonopoulos said that any additional EU sanctions could further weaken the Turkish economy and give Erdogan an excuse to create another crisis that will distract the Turkish people from their nation’s economic problems.
Meanwhile two US senators and two members of Congress urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to encourage Turkey to end its drilling plans, on the grounds that they risk an escalation that would jeopardize American strategic interests and create challenges to regional cooperation and US-Turkey ties.