With the international community focussed on the conflict between two long-term adversaries in Ukraine, little attention has been paid to the increasing tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Here, Chris Chrysanthou considers the likelihood that another two long-term rivals, Turkey and Greece, could end up going to war in the near future.
Tensions between Greece and Turkey are by no means a new phenomenon – they have been at war for generations. The friction between the neighbours regarding issues of militarisation, energy and territory have brought these NATO allies to the brink of war three times in the last 50 years alone. However, there are three factors that, when compounded with the three aforementioned areas of contention, make conflict increasingly likely. The first is the dire state of Turkey’s economy; the second is that though both Greece and Turkey have upcoming elections in 2023, President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan of Turkey is rattling his dictatorial sabre in an attempt to move the electorate’s focus from domestic issues; the third is that Turkey (in Erdoğan’s mind) is becoming increasingly isolated from the international stage.
Turkey’s Economy and the Upcoming Elections
With Turkey’s elections just around the corner in 2023, with the state of the Turkish economy declining, and with no clear lifeline in sight, President Erdoğan may feel pressurised to declare a state of emergency in addition to existing emergency powers (proclaimed in 2016), on the pretext of contrived propaganda accusing Greece of aggression, in order to retain his power.
By way of background, Erodğan rose to power 20 years ago against the backdrop of widespread exasperation with inflation and corruption within the ruling elite. Under his tenure, inflation this year surpassed 83%, with the Turkish Lira losing more than 80% of its value over the last five years. Known for his conservatism, Erdoğan has increasingly become more hard-lined, even dictatorial, increasing his emergency powers (in place since the attempted coup of 2016) to reduce civil liberties, imprisoning opponents and making it an offence to criticise the president. He, his family and closest allies have also capitalised on his tenure, becoming billionaires in the process. Resultantly, his popularity has diminished in the eyes of the Turkish people, rendering him vulnerable in the upcoming elections.
The main cause of concern over the next nine months for Greece, the EU and NATO is the extent to which Erdoğan may feel he will lose the election by such a margin as to make election fraud difficult. In the event that Erdoğan believes he will lose the presidency, it is conceivable that he could declare a state of emergency on the pretext of electoral fraud by opposition parties (especially the Kurdish Peoples Party), or by stoking tensions with Greece to the extent that emergency powers extend his current tenure until a more favourable climate emerges. It is easier to create the illusion of a foreign enemy and unify the nation against Greece in an attempt to distract attention from the very real and serious problems at home.
The alleged militarisation in recent years by Greece of certain Aegean Islands has provided Erdoğan the opportunity to further challenge Athens and its apparent breach of the Lausanne and Paris treaties as a pretext to war.
Erdoğan has increasingly cited his allegations that Greece has embarked on the militarisation of certain islands in the Aegean Sea, close to the Turkish mainland. Ankara argues that Greece has broken its obligations under the 1923 Lausanne and 1947 Paris treaties, that prohibit militarisation of the islands. In a public speech on 03 September 2022, Erdoğan stated, ‘When the time comes, we’ll do what’s necessary. As we say, we may come down suddenly one night.” He added: “Look at history, if you go further, the price will be heavy…We have one sentence to Greece: Don’t forget Izmir.” (A reference to a crushing defeat of occupying Greek forces in the western city of Izmir by the Turkish forces in 1922).
Last week, Turkey lodged a protest with Greece and the US, over what it claims to be the unlawful deployment of US-made armoured vehicles on the Aegean islands of Lesbos and Samos, which have non-military status.
These provocative threats have precedents. Previous threats by Erdoğan over taking military action in Syria and Iraq were made good, with Iraqi officials stating that Turkey has established 68 outposts in Iraq, ranging in size from small platoon-level posts to a full-size military base, facilitating regular incursions by Turkey against what it regards as Kurdish terrorist strongholds.
The key difference between Greece and Turkey is in the underlying rhetoric, with Athens highlighting its policy of deterrence, compared to the bullish statements from Ankara to enforce its will. Since the EU, US and UK have stood by Greece’s territorial integrity, Turkey may begin to feel isolated and seek economic and political support for its regional ambitions from Russia.
Turkey’s feelings of isolation, and fears that Greece is increasing its international alliances and cooperation with the US and EU states, run the risk of escalating hostilities. Erdoğan may feel compelled to declare war before Greece can cement its position and take receipt of support and hardware from foreign allies that will ensure Greece’s military superiority.
In August 2022, Turkey accused Greece of harassing one of its F-16 fighter jets over international waters during a NATO reconnaissance mission, putting a radar lock on aircraft with a Russian-made S-300 missile system, an action incompatible with the spirit of NATO that amounted to hostile acts under NATO’s rules of engagement. The Greek Defence Ministry denied the allegation, stating that Turkey was the antagonist, after five Turkish jets appeared without prior notification to accompany a flight of US B-52 bombers – which hadn’t been due to have a fighter escort – through an area that was subject to Greek flight control.
The entire episode was a distasteful reminder of the US government’s decision to suspend the proposed sale of F-35 joint striker fighters to Turkey after Ankara acquired the Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft missilery system, contrary to US policy. To aggravate tensions further, Greece moved to join the F-35 programme, with preliminary approvals to acquire 24 F-35 jets, in addition to recent deals with France to acquire 24 Rafaele jets and 84 F-16s to be upgraded to HAF- F16 viper class, which, in the manufacturer’s words, will represent the most advanced F-16s in Europe. The fighters would enable the Hellenic Air Force fighters to secure a qualitative and quantitative advantage over the Turkish air force by 2027.
The US cites Turkey’s insistence that it has a right to buy whatever armaments its desires as incompatible with a friendly nation seemingly playing both US and NATO against Russia. Recent comments in 2022 by the Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis to Congress whilst in the US asking them to reconsider any loosening of arms controls and exports to Turkey, infuriated Erdoğan who cancelled scheduled talks with Greece stating that no country has a right to interfere with Turkey’s right to arm itself – Erdoğan went as far as to state he did not recognise Mitsodakis as a leader, refusing to even acknowledge his existence.
Arguably, Turkey’s feelings of isolation have been compounded further by the agreement reached in 2019 by Greece, Cyprus, and Israel to build a 1,900-km pipeline, (dubbed East-Med), from Cyprus’s gas fields to Europe, completely bypassing Turkey – a project supported by the EU.
This powerful and very public geopolitical alliance not only bruised Erdoğan’s ego and reputation at home, but frustrated Turkey’s ambitions of becoming the energy hub for the Eastern Mediterranean through the exploration and operation (albeit illegal under international law), of Cypriot and certain contested Greek islands gas fields, to supplement gas supplies from Azerbaijan through the proposed Trans-Anatolian pipeline to Europe. Erdoğan may surmise that due to the lack of international support surrounding his claim to the Greek gas fields, war may be his only option to secure access to those valuable resources.
The creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), comprising Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt, as well as key energy companies from Italy and France, has grown to include Jordan and Palestine. Perceptions of the EMGF as an anti-Turkey organisation were bolstered when it extended its remit to include regional security cooperation and joint military drills around Cyprus. In 2020, MEDUSA, the first joint aeronautical exercise with the active participation of Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece and the UAE, was held in Alexandria.
Greece and Cyprus have sought to leverage the undersea gas reserves and the creation of the EMGF grouping to improve their own political standing – at Turkey’s expense. The forum offers both countries a means to strengthen a broader alliance to counter Turkish influence. Israel and Egypt maintain acrimonious relations with Erdoğan, while the forum’s anti-Turkey slant has also attracted the UAE, which is engaged in an acute regional rivalry with Turkey.
Additionally, in March 2021, the Republic of Cyprus signed an agreement with Israel and Greece to build the Euro-Asia interconnector. The underwater power cable – the world’s longest – will go through the Mediterranean and should be completed by 2024. The project will remedy the problem of energy isolation in Cyprus, but it also sparked Ankara’s ire since the pipes will have to pass through Turkish waters.
The energy issue represents an avenue for Erdoğan to violate Greece’s international borders, both air and maritime.
In 2019 Turkey signed a controversial maritime accord with the Libyan government that ignored Greece’s claim to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the islands of Crete and Kastellorizo. This is in violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), of which Greece is a signatory. Turkey still threatens war should Greece extend its eastern islands’ territorial waters from 6nm to 12nm, as it is entitled to under UNCLOS, despite Turkey not being a signatory.
Moreover, in 2020 Greece and Egypt reached a deal, creating an EEZ between the two countries’ coasts, which contradicted the Turkish-Libyan agreement. This resulted in Turkey’s decision to send the Oruc Reis research ship near the small Greek island of Kostellorizo. The Greek navy responded by ramming the Turkish frigate Kemalreis, which was escorting the Oruc Reis research vessel. Since the collision, tensions have been high with Turkey threatening Greece with war if it does not withdraw its naval vessels from the area. France notably deployed its Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to stalk Turkish frigates near the contested gas fields close to Cyprus; Italy has also sent warships and conducted military exercises with Greece.
Such developments look as if Ankara is trying to manufacture a dispute in order to usurp Greece’s territorial waters; despite international support for Greece (particularly from its EU partners, Israel and Egypt), Turkey regards this as a justified risk to meet its expansionist agenda. Turkey seems to be planting seeds of disputes in an attempt to justify any direct action which, given the current appetite to move away from reliance on Russian energy supplies, may provide an added impetus. It is however highly likely that the united stance of the EU, US, UK and NATO against Russia has given Erdogan cause for pause – any aggression against Greece would be met by harsh sanction and possible military support by other EU members. This in itself may steer Erdoğan to improve relations with Russia further, the implications of which would be far reaching and detrimental for NATO.
The Cyprus issue is an amalgamation of the main points of contention between Greece and Turkey. It not only provides further evidence as to how the international stage refuses to recognise Ankara’s authority, but it also highlights Turkey’s ambition to fuel its regional expansion by whatever means it deems necessary – a philosophy reminiscent of the Ottoman Empire.
The issue of the reunification of Cyprus has been at the forefront of relations not only between Greece and Turkey, but within the UN. The Turkish-held north is only recognised by Turkey, which has stationed 30-40,000 troops on the island and encouraged the settlement of mainland Turks.
The current Turkish Cypriot leader has the full support of Erdoğan, who indigenous Turkish Cypriots see as interfering with their rights and attempts at reunification. The official Turkish stance is now a two-state solution rather than unification – a policy initiated by Turkey to accommodate its attempts at energy exploration in Cypriot waters, which have led to heated exchanges between Greece and Cyprus against Turkey and its illegal deployment of exploration ships in Cypriot waters. Whilst the international community has supported the rights of Greece and Cyprus, it has only served to infuriate Erdoğan, causing him to voice his view that Turkey has a right to do as it wants. This entire episode again underscores Turkey’s ambition to fuel its regional expansion and lends weight to the argument that conflict is becoming an increasingly appealing option for Erdoğan.
Mitigating Factors – Ukraine
The above highlights reasons for an increased likelihood of conflict between Greece and Turkey. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine serves to reduce this likelihood.
The Ukraine conflict has allowed Erdoğan to pursue the role of international statesman and peace maker. Turkey’s stance on Russia has been to continue full political and economic relations, whilst supporting Ukraine’s right to independence, yet publicly acknowledging Putin’s recourse to action as being of the West’s making. It seems that, despite the illusion of peace broker, Turkey is courting the increased favour of Russia against the climate of international sanctions imposed on Russia by the US, EU and UK. Turkey sees the opportunity to embellish its status and importance on the world stage, threatening to veto Finland and Sweden’s applications for NATO membership until Erdoğan gets what he wants – an extradition treaty to return suspected terrorists back to Turkey and rescinding their support for an arms embargo against Turkey.
Turkey’s attempts at neutrality are somewhat misleading – there exist layers of unspoken agendas that allow for policies that avoid imposing sanctions on Russia yet supply weapons and armed drones to Ukraine, whilst also facilitating grain exports from Ukraine. This brinkmanship may keep Europe and NATO focused on their short term agendas whilst improving relations with Erdoğan, which may assist in promoting a somewhat united NATO, and encouraging cooperation and multi-lateral relations between Greece, Turkey and other relevant Mediterranean actors. Resultantly, Erdoğan might choose to capitalise on what he deems his newfound importance around his peacekeeping efforts with Ukraine, to sustain his boiling rhetoric with Greece to stir nationalist fervour at home whilst privately turning his real intentions down to a simmer.
There seem to be two Turkeys, one with Erdoğan as president fashioned very much as a new Ataturk, and one that pursues economic and social development without Erdoğan, a Turkey that perhaps may be more representative of democratic values.
Left to his own devices, Erdoğan is capable of war with Greece to achieve regional superiority and detract the nation from the dire state of domestic affairs. If he is prepared to ride roughshod over his own people, then Greece should beware. The hope for Greece and perhaps indeed NATO, is Erdoğan is replaced or realises the consequences of war with a NATO ally who may receive similar support enjoyed by Ukraine. On the balance of probabilities, particularly with the war in Ukraine ongoing, the most likely outcome is that war between Greece and Turkey is for the time being at least, to remain a war of words.
Northcott Global Solutions provides risk assessments, tracking, security escorts, personal protective equipment, remote medical assistance and emergency evacuation.
Author: Chris Chrysanthou, Risk Analyst, Northcott Global Solutions
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