A Turkish ship with a flag sails in the eastern Mediterranean Sea

Greece and Turkey sail toward a crisis of sea borders 

Greece's and Turkey's land borders are fairly clear these days — but claims over the sea are not. When you add recent, underwater gas discoveries to the mix, the decision about who has the right to drill — and where — becomes tangled and complex. 

The World

A Turkish vessel searching for natural gas deposits in disputed waters of the eastern Mediterranean Sea has returned to port, giving nearby nations hope that a simmering crisis can deescalate.  

Turkish officials insisted that the return of the Oruç Reis research ship is a planned stop for maintenance and restocking, not a concession to Greece and the European Union. 

Leaders of seven EU countries that border the Mediterranean gathered on the island of Corsica last week and floated the possibility of economic sanctions against Turkey if it does not stand down.  

Related: Tensions along the border between Greece and Turkey 

“We want to talk with Turkey, but in a climate without provocations.”

Greek President Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Thessaloniki, Greece

“The return of Oruç Reis is a positive first step,” Greek President Kyriakos Mitsotakis told the newspaper Kathimerini, in the city of Thessaloniki. “We want to talk with Turkey, but in a climate without provocations.” 

While the land borders of Greece and Turkey today are fairly clear  — decided by conflicts of the 20th century — claims over the sea are not. Add recent, underwater gas discoveries to the mix, and the decision about who has the right to drill — and where — becomes tangled and complex. 

A tricky untangling of borders at sea 

The Turkish beach town of Kaş is a tiny collection of bright white homes, framed with vines of wisteria and colorfully painted doors. Antique wooden balconies lean over the cobblestone streets and meyhanes (traditional restaurants or bars). Across the turquoise-blue waters of the bay is the Greek island of Kastellorizo, a mere 20 minutes away on the ferry. Not far beyond that, is the island nation of Cyprus — whose boisterous talk shows you can catch on the radio on the drive along the Turkish coast. 

The proximity of Kaş to the EU also makes it a frequent jumping-off point for asylum-seekers, who are crowded into inflatable rafts by smugglers in the dead of night. 

Greece, which holds most of the islands reaching out toward the Turkish coast, claims an exclusive economic zone that reaches within just a few kilometers of Turkey’s shores. 

In November, Turkey signed a deal with Libya’s Tripoli government claiming much of the eastern Mediterranean for itself. 

Cyprus, which acts almost like Greece’s little brother in the political realm, is closest to the latest gas finds. But Turkey’s military has occupied the northern part of the island since 1974. The result is an invisible crosshatching of maritime borders over a patch of sea that may or may not have natural gas deposits underneath.   

The idea that EU countries, working with Cyprus and Egypt, could effectively block Turkey from the eastern Mediterranean makes Turkish policymakers furious. 

“It’s unimaginable,” said Cem Gürdeniz, a retired admiral in the Turkish navy who coined his vision for Turkey’s preferred maritime borders as “Mavi Vatan,” or “Blue Homeland.” There’s no reason for tiny Greek islands like Kastellorizo to have the same claims to the sea as a country’s continental shelf, he argues. 

“They’re excluding Turkey from the Mediterranean Sea, they’re strangling Turkey into the land, pushing Turkey. ... Greece is living in a fantasy world.”

Cem Gürdeniz, retired admiral, Turkish navy

“They’re excluding Turkey from the Mediterranean Sea, they’re strangling Turkey into the land, pushing Turkey,” Gürdeniz said. “Greece is living in a fantasy world.”  

Greeks, however, feel the same about Turkey. 

“It’s not about gas, it’s about sovereignty,” said Panayotis Tsakonas, a professor of international relations at National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, and head of the security program at ELIAMEP, an Athens-based think tank. 

“Turkey is not interested in coming to terms with its neighbor. ... That’s the problem, and that’s a problem that relates to [Turkish president] Erdoğan himself and his vision of a revival of the Ottoman Empire.”

Panayotis Tsakona, professor of international relations, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece

“Turkey is not interested in coming to terms with its neighbor,” Tsakonas said. “That’s the problem, and that’s a problem that relates to [Turkish president] Erdoğan himself and his vision of a revival of the Ottoman Empire.” 

Related: Turkey's president formally makes Haghia Sophia a mosque

Most drilling has stopped during the pandemic, save for one boat: the Oruc Reis, sent by Turkey, into the waters near Cyprus. Flanked by military ships. 

“Something that is technically illegal in international law, in the sense that it was not invented by Cyprus,” said Harry Tzimitras, director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo’s Cyprus Center. 

Cypriots, Tzimtras said, would consider it a “pirate activity.”

Turkey, however, claims it has a right to sail in Cypriot waters. 

Historically, Cyprus had both a Turkish-speaking Muslim population, and a Greek-speaking Orthodox population. In the 1970s, the Greek military junta orchestrated a coup in Cyprus, hoping to make it part of Greece. So, the Turkish military invaded the northern part of Cyprus — and the island has been divided by a long, uninhabited boundary zone ever since. 

Related: Olive oil company unites Cyprus with a 'taste of peace' 

“It’s a daily reality, obviously, if your country is occupied by another state,” Tzimtras said. “A large percentage of the population became internally displaced persons, or refugees, as they call themselves. And obviously, both themselves and the generations afterward feel the trauma on the island each and every day.” 

Northern Cyprus is not internationally recognized as a part of Turkey, — but the government in Ankara insists it has a right to the waters nearby. Greece, meanwhile, says Turkey is violating its territory with military ships. Greek leaders are seeking help from the EU to defend their borders, but they warn that they won’t hesitate to act alone. 

The EU floats sanctions 

Last week, EU leaders of countries bordering the Mediterranean held an emergency meeting in Corsica. French President Emmanuel Macron again raised the possibility of sanctions if Turkey doesn’t stand down, saying that Turkey is “no longer a partner” in the region — a sentiment that Turkish pundits railed at as “colonialist.” 

After the Corsica meeting, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitosotakis said Europe is willing to have a dialogue with Turkey if it makes a convincing case that it respects international law — completely, not selectively. 

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry shot back with a response: In order to reduce the tension, they wrote, Greece must withdraw its navy from around the Turkish research ship, support NATO’s deescalation process, and stop arming the eastern Aegean islands. 

“Turkey’s endgame is a negotiated solution."

Howard Eissenstat, Middle East historian, St. Lawrence University, upstate New York 

“Turkey’s endgame is a negotiated solution,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Middle East historian at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York.

If there is to be a path forward, he said, the countries involved need a chance to save face. 

Eissenstat sees this crisis as evidence of a larger pattern playing out in Libya, Syria, and on the open sea. Increasingly, Turkey has been willing to use the strength of its military to push its way through to the bargaining table — and get what it wants. 

“Turkey took away from the refugee crisis a sense that in its relations with the EU, it has to play hardball, it has to be extremely assertive about its desires,” Eissenstat said.  

Because of its strategic position, because the EU has a fundamental strategic interest in a stable Turkey… it will get its way in the end.” 

The European Council is scheduled to meet Sept. 24 and 25, and has highlighted relations with Turkey as a priority on the agenda. 

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