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Talk of “war” increasingly creeping into Turkey’s statements in East Med row with Greece, Cyprus and EU

Talk of “war” is increasingly creeping into Turkey’s statements in its row with Greece, Cyprus and the EU over gas and oil exploration entitlements in the eastern Mediterranean.

“In the Aegean, Greece cannot extend its borders to 12 miles. This is a cause of war (casus belli). We are not going to allow Greece to extend its territorial waters from six to 12 miles. I am being pretty clear,” Turkish foreign affairs minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on August 29.

The latest outbreak of tensions between Turkey and Greece centres on a Greek island, known as Kastellorizo in Greece and Meis in Turkey, which is just 1.2 miles from the Turkish coast. Images published last week show Greek soldiers arriving on the island, much to Ankara's frustration. The Turkish foreign ministry on August 30 said that the soldiers were infringing a demilitarised status established with the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty.

Cavusoglu's comments came with Greece due to double its western territorial waters with Italy to 12 nautical miles, a right provided under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Ankara has not signed up to. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis left open the option of making a similar move on the eastern side facing Turkey.

Turkey watchers worry that if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan becomes entirely backed into a corner by the dire state of the Turkish economy, his administration might be tempted to give the Turks the distraction of nationalist military adventurism abroad.

Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay at the weekend also warned Greece that any attempt by Athens to expand its territorial waters in the Aegean Sea would justify a declaration of war, according to comments carried by Turkish state-run news service Anadolu Agency.

Greece’s Foreign Ministry angrily responded: “Turkey’s unprecedented perception that it can threaten its neighbouring countries with the use of force when they exercise their legal rights runs counter to modern political culture but also to fundamental provisions of international law. The exercise of Greek sovereign rights is not subject to any form of Turkish veto.”

The European Union on August 28 told Turkey it wished to give dialogue another chance in resolving Ankara’s energy exploration demands in the eastern Mediterranean, but at the same time added that it would draw up a package of sanctions that could be introduced if the situation was not resolved satisfactorily.

“We must walk a fine line between preserving a true space for dialogue and, at the same time, showing collective strength in the defence of our [member states’] common interest,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after a meeting of foreign ministers from across the bloc in Berlin, adding: “We want to give a serious chance to dialogue.”

“Turkey has to abstain from unilateral actions,” Borrell also told reporters. “There is a growing frustration in the face of Turkey’s behaviour.”

“The EU’s resort to a language of sanctions, while Turkey always underlines dialogue and diplomacy [will see the current problems deteriorate],” the Turkish Foreign Ministry responded following the Berlin meeting. “Such language will only strengthen Turkey’s determination.”