Just as “détente” seemed to be in the cards for Turkey and Greece, things soured once more. And they soured big time. 

As might be recalled, in the last week of July, tension between the two countries was escalating rapidly after the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and Turkey’s navy declaring they will be conducting seismic research for hydrocarbon reserves within a large chunk of territory in the Aegean Sea. Meanwhile, Germany was trying to initiate a series of dialogue meetings to diminish, if not resolve, the clashes of will between Greece and Turkey. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal efforts to calm the recent tensions until autumn, at least, seemed to be successful.

Turkey’s Presidency Spokesman İbrahim Kalın signaled that hydrocarbon research activities would be paused for until September — at the personal “request” of none other than President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

But then, this became a pause that never was. 

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias secretly jetted off Cairo.

Because…

Greece and Egypt signed a maritime border deal on August 6 that went in direct opposition to Turkey’s earlier deal with the internationally recognized government of Libya. Now, Turkey says the deal cuts through its continental shelf, but that was the point of the Greece-Egypt deal in the first place.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry declared that the agreement would enable Cairo and Athens to “move forward in developing promising natural resources” — meaning oil and gas reserves in “their” Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). Egypt is already the only true and concrete beneficiary of the Eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbon reserves. However, Greece’s expected outcome from the agreement with Egypt is more political than economic: Athens hopes that the agreement will effectively “nullify” the earlier agreement between Turkey and Libya in international circles. 

Greece contended that the Turkey-Libya deal infringed on its continental shelf: specifically, off the shores of the island of Crete. Now, it is Turkey arguing that Greece and Egypt are stepping over to Turkey’s continental shelf as well as violating Libya’s maritime rights. 

In short, this is a race between Greece and Turkey to have their own deal recognized as the internationally valid one. In other words, it is a “my Hancock trumps yours” type of race between the two countries. Greek Foreign Minister Dendias was straightforward in saying that the earlier deal between Turkey and Libya “went into the trash” and Ankara has declared that the deal between Cairo and Athens to be “null and void.”

But who is to decide?

The Greek side presents the maritime deal as the culmination of 15 years of negotiations with Egypt, and the fruition of a shuttle diplomacy of more than a dozen rounds of negotiations. This is a way of saying that in the poker game between Turkey and Greece, Athens was preparing to strike with a full-house hand, and Ankara did not see it coming. 

Here is the view from Athens: the Kyriakos Mitsotakis government is still open to talks with Ankara, and they want to set the negotiation table fast, without any pause until September, as Germany and the European Union Commission planned and Turkey agreed. Athens also wants to have a strong hand while negotiating. And in their view, the new deal with Egypt is a safety fuse to claim legal differences and head to the International Court at the Hague to settle the continental shelf disputes with Turkey.

Greece expects that the international community (meaning the U.S. and the European Union) will take its side as the “bullied victim.” And evidently, Turkey foresees that Greece would be “dispensable” for the international community (meaning the U.S. and the European Union), and that Turkey will be perceived as “too big to lose.”

So far, the “international community” has not exactly fulfilled the expectations of either party.

Is this an elaborate display of poker strategy (or chess, depending on your taste) going on between Greece and Turkey, or is it the classical tale of two stubborn goats locking horns at the edge of a cliff — with both eventually falling off?