Tensions between Turkey and Greece over maritime borders and offshore energy reserves in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean seas are reaching a critical point. Moreover, the crisis has further polarized NATO, of which the two nations are members, and the EU. Aside from Ankara and Athens engaging in threats, France’s Emanuel Macron has sided with Greece, saying that he has set red lines for Turkey because “Ankara respects actions not words.”
For Macron, the issue is another reason to spar with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with whom he also differs over Ankara’s roles in Libya and Syria, its approach to the refugee crisis, and NATO, the last of which the French president has previously described as “brain dead.” A defiant Erdogan has pounced on the leaders of France and Greece, calling them “greedy and incompetent” for challenging Turkish energy exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean. Marking the anniversary of a 1922 victory against Greek troops during Turkey’s war of independence, Erdogan on Sunday challenged Greece and France, saying that, “when it comes to the fight, we will not hesitate to make sacrifices.”
The most recent spat started when Ankara this month dispatched a gas exploration ship to areas close to Cyprus, into what Athens regards as Greek waters. Next, the two countries held naval exercises, with France, the US, Italy and the UAE joining the Greek side. The US and Italy have also held drills with Turkish ships and Ankara announced that it would extend its naval exercises into mid-September. Last week, Turkish and Greek F-16s engaged in a mock dogfight over the Mediterranean in the second direct clash in the space of a month.
Some experts sympathize with Turkey’s case, but Ankara forcing a new reality in the Eastern Mediterranean is not the solution
There are two main issues at hand. One is Turkey’s decades-old complaint that the post-First World War treaties have denied it fair access to territorial waters in the Aegean Sea. Ankara says that it has the right to redraw the maritime borders off the Turkish continental shelf. On-and-off talks between the two hostile neighbors have failed to resolve the issue. The main sticking point is the fact that a number of Greek islands are only a few kilometers off Turkey’s coast. The second issue is Turkey’s claim that it has the right to explore for hydrocarbon resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. A huge offshore gas field has already been discovered in the area that is currently shared between Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Lebanon and Egypt.
In an effort to settle the maritime dispute, energy-starved Turkey has revived its request to review the terms of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne regarding the sovereignty of the islands close to the Turkish coast. Turkey claims these islands are Turkish. Tensions between Athens and Ankara reached a new level when Greece announced that it is considering extending its territorial sea limits from six nautical miles to 12, which it says it can do under international law. This is a red line for Turkey and the two countries almost went to war over disputed islands in the Aegean in 1996.
Some experts sympathize with Turkey’s case, but Ankara forcing a new reality in the Eastern Mediterranean is not the solution. In addition, Erdogan has few or no friends left to back his claims. Turkey’s ties with all its neighbors are in trouble, starting with Syria, where it has imposed a buffer zone inside Syrian territory and is backing extremists groups. The same is now happening with Iraq, where Turkey has set up a military base and has, in recent weeks, been bombing sites inside Iraqi territory. Erdogan has also dispatched mercenaries, Turkish military advisers and hardware to support Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA). And he signed a controversial agreement with the Tripoli government delineating maritime borders between Turkey and Libya that encroach on Greek waters, in a bid to explore for gas and oil in these areas.
The dispute has become personal between Erdogan and Macron, complicating the issue even further. The two men are using dangerous brinkmanship that could easily lead to military confrontation, which neither party really wants. France is pushing the EU to impose sanctions on Turkey at its next summit on Sept. 24-25. The measures could affect individuals, ships and the use of European ports, according to EU Foreign Minister Josep Borrell. But the EU is also divided over the issue, with Germany wanting to give dialogue a chance.
One sign of hope that the crisis could be averted came from Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who has expressed a willingness to put the continental shelf dispute before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, adding that “we will respect the decision of the court.” But the problem is that Erdogan is using the decades-old dispute with Greece for domestic reasons, mainly to mobilize supporters. His popularity has dipped as the economy has tanked, with the Turkish lira giving up 20 percent of its value since the beginning of the year.
The US could play a positive role in resolving the dispute — at least to preserve the unity of NATO — but for now it appears to be sitting on the fence while watching this latest crisis between two of its allies unfold.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010