Erdogan raises rhetoric in Greece standoff in Mediterranean

Turkish president warns Greece to enter talks over disputed Mediterranean Sea claims or face ‘painful experiences’.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stressed that Turkey is 'ready for every eventuality and result' [Isa Terli/Anadolu Agency]

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Greece to enter talks over disputed eastern Mediterranean territorial claims or face the consequences.

“They’re either going to understand the language of politics and diplomacy, or in the field with painful experiences,” he said on Saturday at a hospital’s opening ceremony in Istanbul.

The two NATO allies have been locked for weeks in a tense standoff in the eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey is prospecting the seabed for energy reserves in an area Greece claims as its own continental shelf.

Cyprus has also accused Turkey of breaching its sovereignty by drilling in their waters. All sides have deployed naval and air forces to assert their competing claims in the region.

“They are going to understand that Turkey has the political, economic and military power to tear up the immoral maps and documents imposed,” Erdogan added, referring to areas marked by Greece and Cyprus as their economic maritime zones.

He said Turkey was “ready for every eventuality and result”.

NATO said this week Greek and Turkish leaders had agreed to take part in technical talks to avoid accidents between their navies.

But Greece later said it had not agreed to the talks, leading to accusations from Turkey that the European Union country was shunning dialogue.

Tanks to the border?

On Saturday, a Turkish news report said Ankara redeployed armoured personnel carriers from the Syrian border to the one it shares with Greece. 

The Cumhuriyet newspaper said 40 tanks were being transported from the Syrian border to Edirne in northwest Turkey and carried photographs of armoured vehicles loaded on trucks.

A military official speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations said the deployment was a regular movement of forces and unconnected to tension with Greece.

Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from Istanbul, said officials have only said, “This is within the planned activity, the responsibility of the second army, [which is] responsible for the areas of Syria, Iraq and Iran.”

If the convoy is indeed heading to the border with Greece, then it is a part of the “diplomatic military arm wrestling in what is a tense situation between the two countries”, Dekker said.

“We just heard from Turkey’s president that … they won’t hesitate even going to a full-on military confrontation when it comes to defending what they say are their legitimate rights.”

Al Jazeera’s John Psaropoulos, reporting from Athens, said he does not believe the Greeks are concerned about the narrow land border they share with Turkey, as they have 1,300 tanks in their arsenal, most of which are “parked right there in the 130-kilometre-long stretch”.

“There is overwhelming armour opposite the Turkish border and that’s the only part of the Greek-Turkish theatre that the Greeks feel confident about,” Psaropoulos said.

“What they’re less confident about is the vast swath of the Aegean sea and now eastern Mediterranean sea.”

He added after eight years of recession and austerity measures imposed by its eurozone partners, Greece has cut its defence budget by about half, now amounting to roughly 3 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).

“The Greeks have traditionally spent very highly on defence. They are now unable to keep up with Turkey, which has almost triple the defence budget of Greece,” Psaropoulos said.

Practicing dogfights

Turkey on August 10 deployed the Oruc Reis research vessel and an escorting flotilla of warships to the waters between Cyprus and the Greek islands of Kastellorizo and Crete. The vessel’s stay in the contested waters has been extended three times.

Greece responded by staging naval exercises with several EU allies and the United Arab Emirates, not far from smaller manoeuvres Turkey conducted between Cyprus and Crete last week.

Ankara said it has every right to prospect the region and accuses Athens of trying to grab an unfair share of maritime resources.

Simulated dogfights between Greek and Turkish fighter pilots have multiplied over the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean.

A Turkish and a Greek frigate collided last month, reportedly causing minor damage to the Turkish frigate but no injuries.

Erdogan said Turkey has repeatedly expressed its willingness to come to a just agreement.

“Our word is sincere,” he said. “The problem is those before us disregard our rights and try to situate themselves above us.”

The crisis is the most serious in the two countries’ relations in decades. The neighbours have come to the brink of war three times since the mid-1970s, including once over maritime resources in the Aegean.

Earlier, Ankara announced joint military exercises with northern Cypriot forces from Sunday to September 10. The air, land, and sea drills are held every year.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies