It’s pretty easy to miss the research vessel Yavuz on ship tracking apps. Stationery in the eastern Mediterranean, scores of oil tankers, cargo ships and even a few yachts crowd in the waters close to it.
But this merest blip on the radar is raising tensions from Paris to Tel Aviv and – most crucially – from Athens to Ankara.
It’s the latest move in an angry dispute about rich reserves of hydrocarbons that some fear could lead to a war between European NATO allies Greece and Turkey.
That danger seemed to recede slightly last week when another Turkish vessel, that had also been sniffing for gas, headed back to port. But then the Yavuz hove into view in the seas off Cyprus.
In just the past few days dark talk of “threats and blackmail” have been almost as bountiful as the gas beneath the sea bed.
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Last week, Turkey said the Yavuz’s residence off Cyprus’s south west would be extended until mid-October, reported Turkish news site TRT.
Protected by naval frigates, a Turkish maritime notice has “strongly advised all vessels not to enter the area” of the Yavuz.
The announcement was met with a furious response from the Greek and Cypriot capitals. But you’d want to be careful if trifling with Turkey which has one of the biggest militaries in the Mediterranean.
Greece and Turkey have been at odds for decades about how to divide up the seas around their respective nations.
Scores of Greek islands lie just kilometres from the Turkish mainland. Under international law those islands give Greece a large chunk of the Mediterranean to exploit.
But Ankara has said the islands give Athens jurisdiction over an area out of all proportion to the size of the islands themselves, as well as hemming Turkey in.
The dispute has bubbled away for years. However, the discovery of gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean has upped the ante in recent months.
In August, a Greek frigate collided with a Turkish vessel that had been guarding the Oruc Reis, the vessel that has now returned to port.
SHIP’S WITHDRAWAL NOT PERMANENT
The Oruc Reis’ departure from disputed waters was heralded as an “important first step” by US officials to get the two nations taking again
However, Turkey is adamant the withdrawal is temporary.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the vessel was merely in port for “maintenance and supplies”.
“Once maintenance is finished, we will continue our operations with determination,” he said.
In a video call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was open to “constructive” talks but was resolute that Turkey wouldn’t back down from its claim to exploit parts of the Mediterranean.
That, ever so slight, toning down of rhetoric comes as the European Union is due to decide if it will impose sanctions against Turkey.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the country would be ready for talks if Ankara “disengaged itself” from its sea forays.
“If we have tangible proof and this (proof) is continued, we are ready to start immediately exploratory talks with Turkey regarding our only major dispute: the demarcation of maritime zones”
But having the Yavuz bobbing around Cyprus is hardly being seen as disengaging.
The Republic of Cyprus fits into the dispute because it has become one of the chief beneficiaries of the eastern Mediterranean gas boom.
Within its exclusive economic zone lies the Aphrodite gas field which could hold up to six trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Another potential field has been discovered to Cyprus’ south west that could contain even more hydrocarbons. It’s around here that the Yavuz is now located.
Its not just about gas – Cyprus is another flashpoint between Greece and Turkey.
The last time the two went to war was in 1974 over Cyprus. That conflict ended with the island split into two between the chiefly Greek speaking Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).
The latter is recognised by only Turkey. However, Turkey, alone, does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus and so does not believe it should have exclusive rights to the seas surrounding it.
Ankara has said it is entitled to some of those riches and has drawn up its maritime borders accordingly, reported Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency.
On Wednesday, Cyprus’ President Nicos Anastasiades essentially accused his Turkish counterpart of hypocrisy for talking peace when the country’s ships remained in contested waters.
“Illegal drilling by the Yavuz vessel was extended when at the same time series of initiatives are ongoing that seek an end to Ankara‘s unlawful actions and de-escalation.
“Nicosia has been always ready for a dialogue but for that … to be effective, it needs to be clearly defined based on international law, without blackmail or threats.”
TURKEY HAS MILITARY ADVANTAGE
If war were to break out, Turkey has the numbers on its side. It spends more than double that of Greece on its military, has more active personnel and twice as many as soldiers in reserve. Its navy is also larger. Cyprus has an even smaller military.
But Greece and Cyprus have big friends who have signalled they are willing to help out. Last month, France sent two Rafale jets and a naval frigate to the eastern Mediterranean in support of Greece.
Athens has now said it will buy 18 jets and eight naval vessels from France, reported the BBC.
Economically, Greece also has levers it can pull. EU sanctions could hurt Turkey and would come just as ratings agency Moody’s downgraded its debt to junk status partly due to the skirmish.
However, Turkey is also housing a lot of refugees many of who are intent on journeying further into Europe. In the past, Turkey has been happy to stop guarding its borders for a time and let them through, much to the frustration of EU leaders.
“Turkey and Greece have been at loggerheads in the Aegean (a sea that is part of the wider Mediterranean) since the mid-1970s but have abstained from unilateral actions that might result in full conflict. They have been able to defuse several escalations,” says academic Cihan Dizdaroglu from the UK’s Coventry University in the Conversation.
“Adding the eastern Mediterranean into the mix complicates matters though. The two sides appear to have opened Pandora’s box.”
War is unlikely with most observers expecting Greece and Turkey, as well as Cyprus, to back away from the precipice. But the stoush over where the nations of the eastern Mediterranean can drill for gas isn’t going away.
Turkey is likely to continue to demand greater access to the seas off its coast.
But in the short term, tensions are unlikely to lessen until the blip on the radar that is the Yavuz finally heads back to shore.