Turkey can’t be bullied into submission through threats of military force and sanctions, Turkish defense minister said on Thursday as he announced new naval exercises.
The Turkish defense minister also accused France of stoking tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, where a conflict between Ankara and Athens over energy riches risked turning into a military standoff.
Both Turkey and Greece have competing claims over offshore energy exploration rights and France is leading the Western EU states’ bloc in trying to intimidate Turkey into forgoing its claims.
The two countries have been staging rival war games in a conflict that could imperil Europe’s access to vast new energy deposits and further destabilize war-torn Libya and parts of the Middle East.
The Turkish navy said it would stage “gunnery exercises” at the edge of its territorial waters in the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea next Tuesday and Wednesday.
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said the drills were “security related” and did not directly concern Turkey’s search for natural gas that has pitted it against Greece and the EU.
The Turkish defense minister did not say if the Oruc Reis research vessel and its accompanying navy frigates would leave waters claimed by Greece on Thursday as planned.
But he warned: “There’s neither a deadline nor a limit” to Turkish exercises and exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.
“They will be carried out as much as they are needed … We are determined to protect our rights.”
De-escalation Through Intimidation
The major EU countries are trying to intimidate Turkey with threats of sanctions and military response. Greece’s European support is led by EU military powerhouse France.
French frigates and fighter jets joined the Greek war games – also including Italy and Crete – on Wednesday while Turkey staged smaller ones nearby with a US navy ship. The French intervention has particularly upset Turkey.
“The time for bullying is over. You have no chance to force (us) to take some actions through bullying,” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told France in a televised interview.
“It’s an empty dream to think about preventing or changing the activities of Turkey or the Turkish armed forces,” he said of the French military presence in the region.
Akar also urged Greece to stop hiding behind France or the EU and said: “As Turkey and the Greeks, we need to solve our problems by holding talks… We say we should talk, we say dialogue and want a solution.”
French Warplanes in Cyprus
Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hami Aksoy said France had deployed warplanes on the ethnically-divided island of Cyprus on the pretext of carrying out military exercises.
The deployment was against treaties reached in 1960, he said.
France, which is not a guarantor of the island of Cyprus, is with this attitude dangerously encouraging the Greek Cypriot and Greek duo, who are responsible for the current tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, to escalate the tension further, Aksoy said in a statement.
France and Greece will deploy both warplanes and navy ships as part of the drills, while Cyprus will activate its air defense system to test its capabilities, Cyprus’ Ministry of Defense said Wednesday.
Turkey, meanwhile, issued a notice, known as Navtex, declaring that it would hold live-fire military exercises Sept1-2 off its southern Mediterranean coast, opposite Cyprus.
Threat of Sanctions
Greece’s push to sanction Turkey failed to get off the ground at an EU foreign ministers’ video conference on August 14, though the EU powers continue to use it as a threat to intimidate Turkey.
At the last meeting, the Turkey’s position found some support from southern European countries that would be most directly affected should Erdogan retaliate against the bloc.
EU foreign ministers are meeting again on Thursday in Berlin to discuss the Mediterranean crisis.
They are also expected to debate a range of sanctions and other policy options to force Turkey to stop drilling for energy reserves in disputed parts of the eastern Mediterranean.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also said he was in constant contact with Greece and Turkey.
My message is that the situation must be resolved in a spirit of allied solidarity and in line with international law, Stoltenberg said as he met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.
“Dialogue and de-escalation are in everybody’s interest.”
Trump’s Direct Involvement
US President Donald Trump spoke to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday – his first direct involvement in the escalating dispute.
The White House said Trump “expressed concern over increased tension between NATO allies Greece and Turkey”.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said later that Athens was “ready for a significant de-escalation – but on condition that Turkey immediately stops its provocative actions”.
Erdogan has already rejected agreeing to preconditions before talking to Greece.
The Turkish presidency said Erdogan “reminded (Trump) our country was not the one creating instability in the eastern Mediterranean”.
Erdogan “emphasized how Turkey has taken concrete steps which proves it sides with lowering tensions and dialogue,” the presidency said.
Escorted by Turkish warships, Turkish vessel Oruc Reis has for weeks been carrying out seismic research in an area which Greece says falls in its maritime territory.
Athens says the ship is operating over Greece’s continental shelf in an area where it has exclusive rights on potential undersea gas and oil deposits. And, it has sent warships to observe and track the Turkish flotilla.
Turkey disputes Greece’s claims, insisting that small Greek islands near the Turkish coast should not be taken into account when delineating maritime boundaries.
Ankara accuses Athens of trying to grab an unfair share of the eastern Mediterranean’s resources.
Turkey and Greece have both vowed to defend their competing claims in the eastern Mediterranean.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed Wednesday that his country will never compromise on what belongs to them. “We are determined to do whatever is necessary in political, economic and military terms.”
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Greece is planning to exercise its legal right to extend its territorial waters along its western coastline, which faces Italy, from six to 12 nautical miles.
The planned extension would not affect the territory at the center of the Greek-Turkish dispute.
But Turkey has warned in the past that an extension of Greek waters to 12 nautical miles in the Aegean Sea, facing the Turkish littoral, would be seen as a reason to declare war on Greece.
Turkey and Greece have a long history of conflicts. As recently as March this year, the relations between the two countries became tense over the issue of migrants coming from war-torn Syria.