The Possibility of Military Escalation between Turkey and Greece and Likely Scenarios

Dr. Nizar Abdul Kader | 11 Oct 2020

Tensions in the eastern Mediterranean are at their highest in decades following Turkey’s decision to send a research vessel, the Oruç Reis, to prospect for gas and oil in maritime areas which Turkey believes fall within its exclusive economic zone, a claim disputed by both Greece and Cyprus.

The research vessel was accompanied by a number of Turkish warships; Greece responded by deploying part of its naval fleet to the area in late August, prompting Turkey to conduct live fire drills in response. The escalation reached its peak in the last week of August.

The roots of the crisis stretch back several years to when commercial quantities of oil and gas were first discovered in the marine areas off the coast of the two countries. Given the geographic overlap between the two, both Athens and Ankara claimed rights to those resources, which has greatly complicated the issues of sovereignty and economic rights in the exclusive economic zones claimed by both sides.

Before delving into the causes of the dispute — in which Greece and Cyprus together are facing off against Turkey — and the possible outcomes, it will be useful to take a quick look at the history of relations between the three countries, which have so often been characterized by the threat of escalation and a growing sense of hostility.

A legacy of hostility

Greece gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire after more than a decade of war (1821–1832), in which every European State and empire — with the exception of Germany — backed Greece.

Half a century later, in 1897, the two sides clashed again in the Thirty Days War over the independence of then Ottoman province of Crete, which had a majority Greek population. The Western powers intervened once again, which threatened to expand the war against the Ottomans at a time when patriotic pro-independence sentiment was sweeping the region, fueled by long-standing feelings of resentment and hostility — including between the Great Powers — that, less than two decades later, led to the outbreak of the First World War. Following the events on Crete, naval fleets from Austria, France, Italy, Russia, and Britain intervened on behalf of Greece to prevent further clashes and impose peace. Germany was the only country that warned Greece of the need to prevent such clashes, but Greece paid little heed; Crete ultimately became independent, while remaining under Ottoman suzerainty. Greece re-annexed Crete in 1913.

In 1974, clashes again erupted following a coup in Cyprus, led by the Greek military with the aim of annexing the island; Turkey responded swiftly by invading the island to protect the Turkish population and its own interests.

Greece and Turkey have once again reached a stand-off in the Mediterranean over a disagreement regarding the boundaries of each country’s exclusive economic zone. Following a geological survey and the drilling of several experimental wells, large quantities of oil and gas have been discovered within Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone, which has motivated Turkey to defend the rights of Turkish Cypriots to those resources. The current dispute between Greece and Turkey over oil and gas is further complicated by the conflicting interests of the European powers and the countries of the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, which may lead open conflict between NATO member States.

If tensions continue to escalate in the Mediterranean, misunderstandings could occur between the Turkish and Greek navies that could lead to a dangerous military confrontation, into which the countries of the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, and NATO would inevitably be dragged.

NATO States are currently working together to reach an acceptable solution and diffuse tensions in the short term. Some Western States seem keen to repeat the events of 1897, however, by sending warships to the eastern Mediterranean as a direct warning to Ankara not to attempt any sort of fait accompli that does not take into account the legitimate rights of Greece, Cyprus, and other eastern Mediterranean countries such as Egypt, which recently signed a maritime borders agreement with Greece and Cyprus.

In an attempt to prevent further escalation, the USA has deployed the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams to the eastern Mediterranean; Washington claims, however, that the arrival of the ship was planned in advance as part of a mission to support the United States Africa Command. Following the massive explosion in Beirut on August 4, France deployed a number of naval vessels to the eastern Mediterranean, including a helicopter carrier. Several Italian and British vessels are also currently located in the waters between Libya and Cyprus. These maritime powers have also taken part in live fire exercises with the Greek and Cypriot navies.

The European Union is keen to send a clear message to Turkey regarding its solidarity with Greece and Cyprus and its willingness to defend their interests. In the words of EU foreign policy chief Josef Borrell, the EU “must walk a fine line between preserving a true space for dialogue and at the same time showing collective strength” in order to prevent a military confrontation.

The latest dispute between Greece and Turkey

Despite Turkey’s long Mediterranean coastline, Greek claims regarding its exclusive economic zone — based on the wide geographic spread of Greece’s islands, in particular Crete and Rhodes off the Turkish coast, which, according to Athens, have their own continental shelf — are preventing Turkey from exploiting large areas of water over which it believes to have a claim and expanding its economic area into the upper Mediterranean.

Turkey has rejected this logic, and has instead signed an agreement with Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli to demarcate the maritime borders between two countries, in an attempt to bypass Greece’s claims over what it believes to be part of the continental shelf belonging to the Greek islands located off the Turkish coast.

Following the signing of the agreement, which contradicts Greece’s claim that Rhodes and Crete each have a legal right to an exclusive economic zone, Turkey threatened to send ships to prospect in the waters around two islands. The Turkish government has previously sent boats to prospect for oil and gas within the exclusive economic zone of Cyprus under the pretext of protecting the rights of Turkish Cypriots, who, in 1974, declared their own State on the north of the island which is recognized only by Turkey.

This recent threat to drill in Greek waters follows a long-running dispute between Ankara and Athens over the demarcation of maritime borders and the sovereignty of various Greek islands. Recently, tensions were further increased by Turkey’s decision to transform the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul — originally established as a cathedral — into a mosque following a court decision. Greece has also accused Turkey of relocating Syrian refugees from the Turkish interior to border areas between the two countries. On June 16, 2020, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis made a visit to Israel, during which he discussed the tensions with Turkey and warned the Israeli authorities about Erdoğan’s expansionist policy and his efforts to restore the glory and influence of the modern Ottoman Empire, which could pose a threat to Israel’s regional interests.

“Turkey is threatening the region’s stability through its efforts to impose political and military control over the eastern Mediterranean,” said Mitsotakis in an interview with Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, adding that, “Turkey must give up expansionist dreams and must agree, as a party on an equal footing to all others, to a framework of coordination and cooperation so that it can become a legal and legitimate partner to other countries in the region.” During the visit, Greece’s national security adviser also warned the Israeli authorities about the threat posed by Erdoğan’s two Israeli interests, saying that: “If Turkey manages to impose its will on us, Israel will face a Turkish threat that far exceeds that posed by Iran.”

Neither Ankara nor Athens has shown any signs of wavering in its claims over the oil and gas that falls within each side’s definition of its own exclusive economic zone. Backed by the EU, Greece is now claiming that its rights are supported by the law of the sea and has accused Turkey of blackmailing both it and Cyprus over the issue. As a result of these tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, both Turkey and Greece have mobilized their previously dormant naval forces in a display of their capabilities and readiness to engaged in combat.

During this display of military might, Turkey has accused Greece of deploying military forces on certain islands close to the Turkish coastline in an act of “piracy”. Greece heavily denies this, insisting that it has not violated the agreements signed between the two countries in this regard.

In order to consolidate Greece’s position, the Greek Parliament swiftly ratified the border demarcation agreement signed with Egypt, in a direct response to Turkey’s decision to carry out geological surveys in the eastern Mediterranean and to conduct five live fire exercises in waters off the coast of Cyprus. Greece had previously signed a similar agreement with Italy in an attempt to strengthen its position.

Tensions arising from the dispute between Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus over their maritime borders have fed disagreements between Turkey and the NATO countries regarding Syrian refugees, Turkish military intervention in the Syrian and Libyan crises, and Turkey’s purchase of a battery of Russian S-400 air defense missiles.

Turkey’s President Erdoğan has rejected Greece’s logic that its islands have the same right to an exclusive economic zone as a State, using the concept of a continental shelf to delineate their maritime borders. Turkish marine experts see the denial of Turkish rights over eastern Mediterranean resources as an attempt to “strangle Turkey and isolated within its land borders”, and they have dismissed Greece’s claims as fanciful.

On the other hand, Greece believes that Erdoğan is more intent on reviving the Ottoman Empire than on resolving his country’s issues with Greece or Cyprus. The Greeks assert that the real dispute is not over gas exploration, but rather the sovereignty of Greek and Cypriot islands which Turkey sees as its own.

Tensions in the eastern Mediterranean reached a climax when Turkey sent a specialist vessel to prospect for gas and oil in Cypriot waters, accompanied by several Turkish warships as protection. Both Greece and Cyprus have called on the EU and NATO to place pressure on Turkey to cease violating their economic rights, which they say are protected by international agreements and the law of the sea.

The role of the EU and NATO

In the first week of September, EU member States that border the Mediterranean held a summit on Corsica to consider possible measures to control the behavior of the Turkish navy in the eastern Mediterranean and to help Greece, a fellow EU member, to protect its maritime rights. France’s President Macron declared Turkey no longer one of France’s partners and threatened to impose sanctions against the country if it continued its current approach.

At the end of the summit, Mitsotakis stated that Europe would be willing to enter into dialogue with Turkey on the provision that it demonstrate the willingness to uphold all provisions of international law, rather than applying them selectively. In response, the Turkish Foreign Minister urged Greece to “withdraw its military ships from around the Oruc Reis research ship, support NATO’s de-escalation initiative, and stop arming the Eastern Aegean islands” in order to reduce tensions.

As both Greece and Turkey are members of NATO, the current escalation of tensions is understandably a concern to the alliance, which is using all available means to prevent a military conflict. Six meetings have been held thus far at NATO headquarters in an attempt to contain the situation, and a seventh is being planned. Discussions have focused on technical aspects and have included military representatives from both sides.

Nonetheless, Erdoğan’s current strategy and his relentless attempts to expand Turkey’s influence and achieve his “neo-Ottoman” ambitions have been a stumbling block to achieving a quick solution to the situation and are sabotaging NATO’s collective defense efforts.

NATO has a long history of helping resolve disputes between Turkey and Greece in the Aegean, from border issues to conflicting air and maritime exercises, and even the issue of illegal migration from Turkey to Greece. As Turkey holds an important position in NATO, it cannot be allowed to become isolated. Germany and the USA have therefore supported the initiatives proposed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to encourage Ankara and Athens to resolve their problems through dialogue.

During the current crisis, however, Stoltenberg appears keen to remain neutral. His unwillingness to interfere in the situation has angered Mitsotakis, who has accused him of “failing to serve the interests of the organization”.

In fact, NATO as a whole appears paralyzed on the issue; the conflicting interests of its member States, in particular Turkey and Greece, have prevented consensus from being reached on any of the solutions proposed by its leadership.

Recent developments and possible scenarios

On Thursday, October 8, on the sidelines of the 2020 Global Security Forum in Bratislava, the foreign ministers of Greece and Turkey met for the first time since the start of the dispute over oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean and agreed to hold talks to resolve the issue.

Tensions have begun to dissipate since Turkey withdrew its research ship from the disputed waters and announced that it had agreed to participate in talks. After the meeting between the two foreign ministers, which lasted 24 minutes, Turkey’s Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that he and his Greek counterpart had agreed on the need to rebuild confidence over the coming period and that Turkey would host the talks, the date for which would be set promptly. Greece’s Nikos Dendias emphasized that, even under the most difficult circumstances, dialogue was useful and that both sides had agreed to talks.

The ministers also discussed the announcement, made that same day, by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus that it was to reopen tourist beaches that had been closed since the 1974 invasion.

Çavuşoğlu stated that he also met with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas during the Global Security Forum, to whom he had expressed his country’s disappointment at the EU’s threats to impose sanctions against Turkey if it continued its provocative actions in the eastern Mediterranean. Chancellor Merkel and Maas have both made serious efforts to mediate between Athens and Ankara, with Maas shuttling back and forth between the two capitals in an effort to resolve the problem or, at the very least, to prevent the Greek and Turkish navies clashing in the eastern Mediterranean.

In view of the rising tensions between the two countries, the EU and NATO are anxious to engage them both in diplomatic dialogue. Given the historical hostilities between Turkey and Greece and the complexities of the current dispute, however, diplomatic efforts could well fail, leading to further military displays and, if either side makes a miscalculation, potentially an all-out war.

There are four possible outcomes, considering the complexities of the crisis and the number of parties involved, among them Egypt, Libya, and the European countries that border the Mediterranean:

First scenario: EU and NATO pressure and mediation succeed in bringing Athens and Ankara together at the negotiating table to discuss practical solutions acceptable to both sides, in which rights over the disputed areas are shared. This will require goodwill on the part of both Athens and Ankara and the active involvement of the USA and Germany.

Second scenario: If no solution is forthcoming and Turkey insists on completing its explorations in disputed Greek and Cypriot waters, friction between opposing naval fleets will quickly lead to clashes that may escalate into a military confrontation that will be hard to put out. While this outcome benefits neither Athens nor Ankara, Turkey in particular will be keen to avoid a conflict, as it is already dealing with security issues on a number of other fronts, including Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Azerbaijan.

Third scenario: The negotiations stall, and Turkey refuses to continue participating as it believes that the European countries have strayed from their role as “honest mediators”. This pushes Western States to intervene militarily on behalf of Greece and Cyprus, in a repeat of the Crete crisis of 1897. Ultimately, Turkey’s consolation prize will be a segment of the economic zone to which it claims to have rights.

Fourth scenario: All sides acknowledge that a practical solution cannot be found. Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus turn to the International Court of Justice in The Hague for a ruling on the dispute.

Conclusions

With tensions on the rise since early August, both Turkey and Greece have come to the conclusion that neither escalation nor naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean will be enough to resolve such a complex dispute. Wisdom dictates that the two sides return to the negotiating table to calmly seek a solution to the division of the disputed areas, based on science and the logic of maritime law. At the same time, Ankara and Athens must make a realistic and honest attempt to find a solution that will allow for the reunification of Cyprus, which has been divided since 1974.

The resolution of both these issues would benefit Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus alike, and would provide necessary stability in the eastern Mediterranean, which is a strategic interest shared by Europe and the countries that border the region. A diplomatic, political solution will not be achieved without the sponsorship of the USA and Germany and the involvement of the Mediterranean States, however.

The countries of the eastern Mediterranean must bear in mind that gas and oil are highly flammable — they cannot be handled with iron and fire. Only by working together within an inclusive economic project will they benefit from them.

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