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Brinkmanship is the wrong path to resolving Turkish-Greek crisis

Sep 01,2020 - Last updated at Sep 01,2020

Tensions between Turkey and Greece over maritime borders and off-shore energy reserves in the Aegean and East Mediterranean seas are reaching a critical tipping point. Moreover, the crisis has further polarized NATO, of which the two nations are members, and the European Union. 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 recent crisis is another reason to spar with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with whom he differs over Ankara’s role in Libya, Syria, immigrants and NATO; the latter he had described as “brain dead”. A defiant Erdogan has pounced at the leaders of France and Greece, calling them “greedy and incompetent” for challenging Turkish energy exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean. Marking the 1922 victory against Greek troops during Turkey’s war of independence, Erdogan challenged Greece and France saying that “when it comes to the fight, we will not hesitate to make sacrifices”.

The recent spat started when Ankara dispatched a gas exploration ship earlier this month to areas close to northern 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 held drills with Turkish ships as well and Turkey announced that it will extend its naval exercises into mid-September. Last week, Turkish and Greek F-15s engaged in a mock dogfight over the Mediterranean in the second direct clash within a month.

There are two main issues at hand. One is Turkey’s decades old complaint that post World War I treaties have denied it fair access to territorial waters in the Aegean Sea. Ankara says that it has the right to redraw maritime borders off the Turkish continental shelf. On and off talks between the two hostile neighbours had failed to resolve the issue. 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. Since the onset of this century a huge offshore gas field was discovered in the area that is now shared between Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Lebanon and Egypt.

An energy starved Turkey has revived its request to review the terms of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne under which Italy handed over islands it had occupied to Greece. 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, 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 sympathise with Turkey’s case, but it goes without saying that forcing a new reality in the Eastern Mediterranean by Ankara is not the solution. In addition, Erdogan has few or no friends left to back his claims. Turkey’s ties with all its neighbours are in trouble starting with Syria, where Turkey has unilaterally 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. And this year, Erdogan has dispatched mercenaries and Turkish military advisers and hardware to support Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA). He had signed a controversial agreement with the Tripoli government delineating maritime borders between Turkey and Libya that encroached 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 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 against Turkey in its next summit on 24 September. The measures could affect individuals, ships and the use of European ports, EU’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell said. But the EU is also divided over the issue with Germany opting 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 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 mobilise supporters. Erdogan’s popularity has dipped as the economy tanked and the Turkish lira gave up 20 percent of its value since the beginning of this 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 main allies unfold.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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