Diplomatic poker in the Mediterranean

A classic poker game is being played out at the moment in the Eastern Mediterranean over petroleum exploration. Ankara is trying to frighten the major foreign companies who might be interested in prospecting for petroleum and is throwing up legal obstacles. The Turkish government is walking a tightrope between threats and assurances that nothing is wrong. The Turkish military has three warships in the region around Cyprus, two corvettes in the Mediterranean Shield exercise and a frigate taking part in an international mission of Lebanon. No one believes that these ships have been sent there to provoke an incident by violating Cypriot territorial waters. «It is important to observe the semiology of the ships’ movements, not what they are actually doing,» said an experienced Greek diplomat. Meanwhile, Ankara is raising the temperature in a series of deliberate reports on television. In a recent chance meeting with the Greek ambassador in Ankara, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul assured him that there was no specific mission of warships in the region. The Turkish military, however, is leaking scenarios as to what would happen if Cypriot ships challenged Turkish ships. Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos initially believed that the interest of major American firms would guarantee protection by Washington. That is what did happen at first, but after Turkey lodged protests with the State Department the US distanced itself from both sides and suggested a demarcation of the continental shelf around Cyprus before every exploration effort. According to Greek diplomatic sources in Washington, this is the way the US government will go from now on; it is what the US did with regard to the Aegean, when the current third in command at the State Department, Nicholas Burns, had said «the resolution of outstanding Greek-Turkish issues could lead the exploitation of petroleum reserves and considerable economic benefits.» A Greek diplomat familiar with what is going on behind the scenes believes that any US firm that is briefed by the State Department is clearly being informed that it would be better to wait for the Cyprus issue to be resolved before starting any drilling. Diplomats believe that Turkey will maintain this policy pending the next round of exploration. The issue has become a matter of political conflict because of the major role Onur Oymen has within the opposition. An experienced diplomat, Oymen has extremely hardline views, particularly regarding relations with Greece. Oymen has influence over opposition leader Deniz Baykal, and is encouraging him to up the ante. Diplomatic sources in Ankara believe that as the presidential elections approach, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be drawn into raising the tension with Greece.