Greece and Turkey are asserting their competing claims over rich energy deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean.
– The deployment of a Turkish exploratory vessel to disputed waters has triggered Greek naval deployment and joint military exercises in the region
– The diplomatic blowback has revealed the underlying rifts in NATO as major powers have sided with Greece against Turkey
– Despite the tensions and military buildup, both Greece and Turkey are implementing measures to deescalate future crises, but these may not be enough to avoid conflict
NATO FAULT LINES
Since July, Greece and Turkey have deployed military forces in a months-long standoff over their competing economic claims to underwater hydrocarbon resources. The disputed waters lie near the Turkish mainland in the Aegean and in the Eastern Mediterranean around the islands of Crete and Cyprus. The escalation to military posturing comes after a Turkish ship, the Oruc Reis, was sent to explore hydrocarbon reserves under naval escort, forcing Athens to respond with the deployment of its own naval vessels in order to monitor their progress.
As the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean has deteriorated, other NATO members have been drawn into the situation. France and Italy joined Greece and Cyprus in naval exercises in the region, contesting the Turkish presence. This was followed by French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement that Ankara is “no longer a partner,” taking aim at the behaviour of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government. The statement drew a warning from Erdoğan, who told his French counterpart to “not mess with Turkey.’ The decline in relations between NATO partners has also elicited a response from Washington, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stating that the US remains “deeply concerned by Turkey’s ongoing operations” in the Eastern Mediterranean. Adding weight to their words, the US decided to partially lift its arms embargo on Cyprus while vowing to increase its security cooperation with Nicosia.
Following the Oruc Reis’ departure from the contested waters — for what Turkish government officials claimed was “routine maintenance” — Athens announced that it would be acquiring new military capabilities. The Greek military is set to see the addition of 18 French fighter jets, 4 new navy frigates and up to 15,000 soldiers to its army.
While the populations of Greece and Turkey have clashed for dominion of the region for centuries, a modern flashpoint has been competition for influence and control over Cyprus. The 1963-64 crisis saw widespread intercommunal violence between the majority Greek Cypriot and minority Turkish Cypriot populations, spurred by the rejection of constitutional amendments aimed at the political unification of Cyprus with Greece. Ten years later a coup d’état, undertaken by the Greek military junta with the same objective, prompted Turkish forces invaded the island, splitting off Turkish-backed Northern Cyprus and from UN-recognised Cyprus. Whilst Northern Cyprus has not gained wider recognition, it has endured under Ankara’s protection.
This leads to the present issue of international law and Ankara’s rejection of both Athens’ and Nicosia’s maritime claims under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Turkey is not a party to UNCLOS — from Ankara’s perspective, the relatively small Greek islands of the Aegean lay claim to disproportionately large exclusive economic zones (EEZ). Furthermore, due to these Greek islands’ proximity to the Turkish coastline, they significantly limit Ankara’s own claims under UNCLOS, effectively cutting off Turkey’s economic access to much of the Aegean. Under UNCLOS, Greek claims encompass almost the entire Aegean, which Ankara views as an unacceptable state of affairs.
What has emerged during this latest row is a divide within the NATO alliance system, leading some European diplomats to label Turkey as NATO’s “elephant in the room.” With European powers like France and Italy showing their support for Greece, and the US signalling its dissatisfaction with Turkey, the pressure is now on Erdoğan and his government to make concessions in line with UNCLOS.
A MATTER OF TIME?
Some of Erdoğan’s political allies have declared that conflict between Greece and Turkey is “just a matter of time.” Whether this is political posturing or a sober assessment of the relationship remains to be seen. However, considering the associated costs of unilateral action, namely the cementation of Turkey’s European pariah status, EU sanctions and the inevitable loss of lives, treasure and materiel it seems highly improbable that Ankara will pursue a policy of direct military aggression to achieve its goals. As far as its military goes, Turkish forces are already involved in a number of conflicts in the region and opening up another front against Greece could jeopardise strategic interests elsewhere. Additionally, Ankara would be unable to rely on local proxy forces to bear the brunt of the casualties as it has done in other conflicts, opening itself to criticism and domestic insecurity as casualties would inevitably mount.
Ankara possesses non-military means of inflicting a cost upon Greece — and Europe — that do not involve military force. Turkey has been a thoroughfare to Europe for migrants and refugees from the Middle East, especially Syrians fleeing civil war. In an effort to stem the migrant flow, the EU signed a deal with Ankara in 2016 that provided €6 billion to help keep millions of migrants and refugees in Turkey. Given that these people have recently been used as political bargaining chips, there is a strong possibility that Ankara would punish the Europeans by allowing waves of migrants and refugees to pass into the EU.
It seems similarly unlikely that Athens would seek to initiate a conflict with its larger and more powerful NATO ally. Such aggression would likely result in the loss of critical EU support and in a conflict scenario Greek forces are unlikely to be able to project force against Turkey. With its relatively small population, outdated military and years of economic malaise, Greece is hardly a military powerhouse. As it stands, the Greek navy lags behind its Turkish counterpart in both quality and quantity of ships necessary to project power against its neighbour. Planned additions of new capabilities and more soldiers would afford Athens greater capability to project force and defend its territory, but these are still some years off.
Compounding this is are the potential dangers of weakening NATO. Alienating Ankara would undoubtedly weaken the alliance and provide an opportunity for Russia to roll back US influence in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region. Moscow has recently demonstrated its willingness to check NATO expansion and will likely seek to capitalise on any intra-NATO tensions by attempting to draw a long-term member further away from the alliance. Additionally, the current disputes could serve as a catalyst for Turkey and Russia to strengthen their already close ties in the economic and military spheres whilst patching up their differences over regional conflicts in the Middle East, the Caucasus and North Africa. Turkey’s recent testing of Russian S-400s missile defence system was a strong signal to Washington that Ankara is moving ever further away from NATO and Europe. This drift will only continue if Ankara fully activates these systems and Washington decides to implement the sanctions it threatened against their use.
However, despite the hazards associated with conflict, a war over ‘the Blue Homeland’ cannot be entirely ruled out. Neither Athens nor Ankara seem prepared to cede their claims to the disputed maritime territory they see as vital to their national interest and future prosperity. The close shave that saw a collision between Greek and Turkish vessels is one example of the kind of incident that could trigger a wider conflict. Whilst the intervention of EU foreign ministers may have helped avoid escalation in that instance, an emboldened Athens and an Ankara looking to avoid further embarrassment might lead to a different result. Additionally, an escalation of force over Cyprus could serve as a trigger for a wider conflict that extends into maritime territory. The political and ethnic divisions on the island have continuously hampered UN efforts to reunite the country and inflammatory media reporting on incidents of nationalist violence could draw Greece and Turkey to blows once more in Cyprus. What makes this a more probable scenario is that both governments would be under enormous domestic pressure to protect their respective ethnic communities on the island and could avoid the international scrutiny attached to seemingly antagonistic actions like sailing into disputed waters.
Whilst the crisis has cooled for now and measures are being put in place to mitigate the chances of future conflict, if Turkey continues to drift away from both NATO and Europe, those diplomatic and economic measures may not prove to be wholly effective. Either way, the region will be carefully watching on the next time such a vessel sails into the disputed waters.
Josh is the Deputy Chief Editor and Analyst with the Analysis division. His key interests include war-fighting technologies and strategic policy.