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Long-simmering tensions between NATO allies Turkey and Greece have flared again, after the government in Ankara said it was sending a ship to carry out a drilling survey in waters contested by both countries.
For now, neither appears willing to be the first to trigger a face-off in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas that would have dramatic consequences for the entire region and beyond. Yet by putting their navies on standby, the potential for further escalation is clear.
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Here’s a look at how the two neighbors got to this point.
1. What’s the cause of the latest spat?
Turkey said it would send a ship on July 21 to begin seismic work in waters close to a Greek island off the southern Turkish city of Antalya. Greece considers some of the area to belong to its so-called continental shelf of Kastellorizo. Turkey disputes that, saying the island is too small and too far away from the Greek mainland to make such a claim.
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2. But haven’t we been here before?
We have. Turkey and Greece may be neighbors and members of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, but that didn’t prevent them from reaching the brink of war in 1996 over two islets further north, inhabited only by goats. With the Turkish navy accompanying its ship, called Oruc Reis, and their Greek counterparts anchored just a few miles away, the setting is highly unpredictable. A clash would further complicate the geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean and possibly drag in others, including the European Union and the U.S.
3. What’s the origin of the tensions?
History, oil and gas.
Ankara and Athens have been at odds for centuries spanning the fall of the Byzantines, the Ottoman Empire’s rule over Greece, the Greek War of Independence from that empire that started in 1821 and, later, battles between the two during Turkey’s War of Independence that led to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. They last fought each other in 1974 in Cyprus, which Turkey occupied following a military coup on the island inspired by the junta in Athens, which was seeking to unite Cyprus with Greece.
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More recently, Turkey and Greece have sparred over migrants and the conversion of the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.
After natural gas discoveries off Cyprus, and the prospect of more sizable hydrocarbon reserves, there’s further room for quarrels over sovereignty. That was already apparent in November, when a maritime agreement that Turkey signed with Libya’s UN-backed government prompted Ankara to claim rights to parts of the seabed that Athens says is Greek under international law.
4. What else is at stake?
The entire body of water that divides Turkey and Greece. The two sides rely on fundamentally different legal arguments to make their claims.
Ankara argues that a country’s continental shelf should be measured from its mainland, and that the area south of the Greek island — just a few kilometers off Turkey’s southern coast — therefore falls within its exclusive zone. Greece says that islands must also be taken into account in delineating a country’s continental shelf, in line with the UN Law of the Sea, giving it the sole right to the area regardless of the island’s proximity to Turkey. Turkey has not signed up to that law.
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5. Will anyone intervene?
Back in 1996, the U.S. intervened to stop both sides from going to a war over the islets known as Imia in Greece and Kardak in Turkey. The EU, which Greece is a member of and Turkey wants to join, also has some leverage. But the relationship with Ankara has weakened in recent years, hurting Brussels’ ability to influence decision makers there.
Russia, which is trying to be more active in the Eastern Mediterranean, usually stays away from trouble when Turkey and Greece start bickering.
— With assistance by Sotiris Nikas
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