With extra players on the board, it makes for a very hard game of chess
The bad blood that there is between Greece and Turkey is nothing new. Two NATO allies and neighbours countries that share so many cultural features, but also a turbulent past.
A sea, the Aegean Sea, which has always been cause of conflicts. And now, during the past last months, these not so numbed tensions have resurfaced. So stronger and angrier that many experts from around the globe warn of a possible war that could potentially fuse a Third World War. The stakes are high. The whirlpool of the Greek-Turks’ sea feud has the power to shake many players, in Europe and beyond.
But, what has exactly happened recently? The ongoing dispute has intensified in August when the Turkish research vessel Oruc Reis started drifting across troubled waters between Greece and Cyprus, looking for offshore natural gas resources. The ship has also been accompanied by Turkish warships near the Greek Island of Kastellorizo, just about 1 mile from the Turkish coast. Athens and its strong navy replied to this by shadowing the vessel, backed up in particular by the French support.
After a one month mission, on the 13th of September Turkey decided to re-enter its research boat to the homeland for maintenance. The gesture has been seen as a first step for finding a pacific reconciliation with the Greek counterpart. However, Erdogan has no intention to take himself out of the game so easily. New seismic research operations are already among Ankara’s agenda. So that the infamous vessel has been announced to return soon in the disputed waters at the edge of Greece’s continental shelf for 10 more days.
In recent years, significant gas fields have been discovered across the Eastern Mediterranean. Hidden underneath the seabed, these natural resources hold hopes of economic salvation for a region that needs it, desperately. However, as already happened in other parts of the world, from lucrative means they have become an international liability that worsened previously delicate relationships, particularly among neighbouring countries and political rivals.
Under this light, new economic alliances have been created for facilitating trades and drilling plans across foreign waters. The fronts see Greece with the Republic of Cyprus, France, Egypt, Israel and Tobruk-based Libya versus Turkey, North Cyprus and the Libyan Tripoli-government. A project started in 2013, the Eastern Mediterranean pipeline’s final deal was signed by leaders of Greece, Cyprus and Israel at the beginning of January 2020. This will connect Cypriot and Israeli gas fields within the Eastern Mediterranean to European markets, bypassing Turkey in doing so.
In response to this, last year Turkey and the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) signed a delimitation of maritime jurisdictions, as an attempt to expand Turkish water rights, as well as a security and military cooperation agreement. Despite Greek and Cypriot allegations, the United Nation recognised it as legitimate. Also maritime deals that Greece signed with Italy in June and with Egypt in August have left not few grudges among Turks. Indeed, these ratify an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) amongst the countries which would undermine Turkey’s access to the sea.
However, even though the economic profit coming from the exploitation of energy resources has its role within the conflict, the dispute appears to be more about sovereignty and geopolitical competition. All these issues are supported by old and robust roots that should be considered.
Cyprus represents one of the major factor within the Greek-Turkish rivalry. Firstly, many gas fields appear to be circumscribed across its waters. Also, the island has been in dispute amongst the two since 1974, when Turkish force invaded it in response to a Greek-backed military coup d’état. From that moment, the third largest island in the Mediterranean has been divided between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. However, while the Republic of Cyprus is internationally recognised, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is acknowledged only by Turkey.
If on land is already difficult trace borders, on waters everything gets much more complicated. The sea feud between Athens and Ankara is anchored on past unsolved diatribes about the waters and air that constitute the Aegean Sea. The current situation is nothing more of the product of resentments mainly created by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea occurred in 1982. In fact, instead of fixing the issues, it probably intensified them.
First of all, Turkey has never recognised the agreement that, amongst different regulations, allows Greece to expand from 6 to 12 miles its continental shelf. Territorial waters and airspace claims have been left, since then, opened to interpretation.
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By Chiara Castro: Political Columnist
On one side, Turkey accuses Greece of trying to transform the Aegean Sea into a “Greek lake”, marking as a cause for war a future Greek expansion in its Eastern side.
Plus, Ankara does not agree with the fact that also islands have the right to an EEZ. This could be perhaps understandable due to the presence of hundreds Greek Islands across the Aegean Sea, constantly bumping into Turkish interests. Turkey sees these matters as political, requiring bilateral negotiations. Yet, in Greek views the Aegean dispute is merely legal and has to be regulate in international courts.
A challenging situation becomes even more complicated when there are lots of parties interested within the game. And this is precisely the case. Already being a strategic area, the fairly new discoveries of natural resources has made the Aegean Sea an important pawn in the Mediterranean Risk. Neighbouring countries are all trying to gain their profit out of it. And the others are looking for expanding their influences to get their piece, of course.
Let’s be pragmatic at first. Turkey and Greece are both NATO members. Although, president Erdogan is turning the country from a democratic and liberal state to an autocratic regime. Something that go against NATO’s fundamental principles. Also his friendship with Vladimir Putin clashes with the political line of the North Atlantic Alliance. For not talking about the number of episodes in which Turkey has violated Greek waters and airspace during the last years.
Why do NATO members keep looking the other way, then? Simple, Turkey is a strategically important ally that links the Middle East with the West. Plus, if once US had fulfilled the role of leader for the military alliance, the Trump administration has left a significant vacuum.
However, it could be argued that both NATO and the European Union have previously missed several opportunities to draw Ankara’s interests near the West. Turkey has, indeed, been in the EU’s waiting list for a long time now. Eventually, Erdogan’s will of expansion united with disappointment feelings within the Union have brought Turkey to engage with outsider players like Russia and Iran.
Yet, Ankara is well aware of its role within the game. In fact, it has already menaced to open the refugee flow towards Europe when it received critics over its actions against the Kurdish population in Syria. Perhaps it is for this reason that EU, although supporting Greece, has been reluctant to take a firm decision within the ongoing dispute. Even though EU is threatening the Turks with possible sanctions, it has decided to play the card of the dialogue for the time being.
At the head of the mediation efforts there is Germany, which is also a home to 2.774 million people of Turkish heritage. During a session of the German Lower House of Parliament Bundestag occurred at the end of September, Angela Merkel pointed out that “We should balance our relations carefully and focus on cooperation”, defining the relations existing with Ankara as “multidimensional”.
A different reaction comes from another EU member. The sharp Emmanuel Macron does not miss a chance to confront his rival as well as strengthen his influence within the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. Already after the Libyan situation, the poor relationship existing among the two countries got bitter. So, France did not think twice before offering its military support to its Greek ally. A behaviour that was labelled by Erdogan as the one of a “bully” who is looking for feeding its commercial goals.
In the meantime, the French president is also encouraging other European countries to stand firm against “an imperial regional power coming back with some fantasies of its own history”. The tangled net of tensions and resentments appears to keep growing, more and more.
Despite both of the countries keep blaming each other while some carrying on fuel the dispute, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish president Erdogan decided to “give diplomacy a chance”. As NATO reported, a bilateral military de-confliction mechanism was established on the 1st of October after a series of technical meetings between the parts.
As the Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg declared “This safety mechanism can help to create the space for diplomatic efforts to address the underlying dispute and we stand ready to develop it further.” The plan includes tracing a sea corridor to avoid tensions in the sea as well as airspace.
In the past, many countries have limited their territorial waters to avoid conflicts. Probably the best example among those is the creation of an international corridor within the Gulf that separate Estonia and Finland. This case is the demonstration that sometimes concessions can strengthen national security and relations. Is it going to be the right path for finally ending the Greek-Turks’ sea feud? Only the time could give us a reply.