Aegean angst: Greece and Turkey's dangerous Eastern Mediterranean game

Aegean angst: Greece and Turkey's dangerous Eastern Mediterranean game
Tensions between Greece and Turkey have ignited a geopolitical storm in the Eastern Mediterranean.
6 min read
11 September, 2020
Greek-Turkish rivalries have expanded into regional tensions. [Getty]
From fierce post-World War One fighting in the 1920s to the Cyprus dispute that erupted in the 1970s, the Aegean Sea has always been a source of contention between Greece and Turkey.

Today, it has once again returned to the top of international headlines, with demagogic speeches in both Athens and Ankara reviving a long-standing conflict between both countries.

However, grafted on to this historical rivalry is a much more complicated set of energy and geopolitical concerns, with the battleground in the Eastern Mediterranean extending far beyond the borders of both countries.

The spark for recent tensions was the signing of a memorandum between Turkey and the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya in December 2019, which consisted of two axes. The first was the redrawing of maritime borders between Ankara and Libya, which the Greek government considered a threat. 

The second, and boldest, part of the pact was an understanding on security and military cooperation which allowed Turkey to militarily intervene in the country's war to support the GNA, bringing with it a set of hostilities from France, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt.

As a result, Athens looked for a way to prevent Turkey from expanding its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, with the Greek prime minister's visit to Paris earlier this year marking a distinct turning point in Greek foreign policy.

The battleground in the Eastern Mediterranean extends far beyond the borders of Greece and Turkey

The meeting between French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis crystallised new political and military relations between Paris and Athens, which the French president called a "framework of strategic defence".

The French side promised to support Athens' position against Ankara regarding the maritime border issue and the Cyprus dispute, and Athens, in return, agreed to coordinate its foreign and military policy in cooperation with Paris.

Read more: Greece-Egypt maritime deal aims to
shackle Turkey's Mediterranean designs

Two days after the meeting, Paris dispatched warships to Greek shores to demonstrate the French government's support of a European ally against Turkey, marking the first escalation by Athens against Ankara.

It was, however, actually a French escalation with a Greek face, and was a key reason for escalating regional tensions that have culminated in today's extreme rhetoric on both sides. 

Geopolitical standpoints

In the current conflict, each side is trying to impose its point of view beyond the realms of international law, or in some cases by building new international relations. The Greek side relies on two elements.

Firstly, it uses its EU membership to put economic pressure on Ankara. Athens is also taking advantage of its stance during the migrant border crisis with Turkey, the so-called 'Evros crisis', when Greece presented itself as a shield for Europe against immigrants and refugees, demanding that the EU imposes economic sanctions on Ankara, whose economy is already suffering.

The second element of Athens' posturing is as a front for Ankara's common enemies. The Greek government today presents itself as a bulwark against the Turkish administration and a conduit for those who want to send messages of pressure and threats against it.

Grafted on to Greece and Turkey's historical rivalry is a much more complicated set of energy and geopolitical concerns

On the other hand, Turkey understands the EU's economic need for the Turkish market. In recent years, Turkey, far from discussing its EU membership, which is essentially brain dead, has managed to build high-level bilateral relations with EU countries like Italy, Spain, Malta and others.

These relations constitute protection for Ankara in any Greek movement within the EU. Ankara knows that the Greek side is not keen on going to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is unlikely to adopt the full Greek vision for its share in the Eastern Mediterranean.

But while Politicians from both countries are calculating their stances based on the manoeuvre room available to them, the big player in Washington could well have the last word.

Read more: France and Turkey's growing rivalry in the Middle East

In the White House, ambiguity still prevails about the actual US position on tensions between Ankara and Athens, with a cordial relationship developing in recent months between President Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan as interests have aligned over Libya, Syria and international terrorism.

However, the upcoming presidential election and Trump's personal need for international support from countries such as the UAE and Israel could be a reason for the White House to lean towards Athens's stance against Ankara. Washington's decision earlier this month to lift the partial arms embargo on the Republic of Cyprus could be interpreted as a step along this path.  

Athens must put its interests and the security of its people above French promises, and Turkey must not fall into the traps of militarism and escalation

Conflict limits

The Turkish government is not interested in any kind of escalation, especially with Greece. Ankara needs to end the Libyan conflict as soon as possible and reap its military victories at the negotiating table. This is its top priority in the current moment.

Meanwhile, the new discovery of a Black Sea gas field by Turkish ships has boosted the confidence of the Turkish administration, which was translated diplomatically into Ankara's approval for all German ceasefire initiatives in Libya as well as sitting at the negotiating table with Athens, following the initiative of NATO's Secretary General, to prevent any military conflict between the two neighbours.

Read more: Greek-Italian maritime deal sends clear
message to Turkey as Mediterranean tensions rise

As for Greece, the choice of Athens publicly and secretly is escalation, which can be analysed around three elements. The first is that current economic conditions in the country due to Covid-19 are leading to a deep recession, with a second quarter economic contraction of 15.2 percent.

The government wants to shift the attention of the Greek public by warming the waters of the Aegean Sea. The second aspect is that of making partisan gains using hate speech and escalating tensions with Ankara, presenting them as victories to increase support for the ruling right-wing party and boost its chances in the next elections.

Finally, Athens believes that the support provided by Ankara's enemies could increase possible concessions by Turkey in future negotiations, and the possibility of the Democrats arriving in the White House will favour Athens' fate.

Some may see the NATO-brokered military talks on Thursday as a start to breaking the ice and reducing tensions. However, the current reality of the Eastern Mediterranean scene is no longer a Greek-Turkish conflict. Rather, it is a conflict between the interests of a rising regional country, Turkey, and countries that see this rise as dangerous for their own influence and plans in the region. 

In this respect, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean is now linked to the future of the Libyan war. Actions on both sides of the Aegean Sea are akin to dancing on the cliff-edge and any miscalculation or overconfidence could lead the region into a bloody war in which there is no winner.

Athens must put its interests and the security of its people above French promises, and Turkey must not fall into the traps of militarism and escalation.

Eva J. Koulouriotis is a political analyst specialising in the Middle East

Follow her on Twitter: @evacool_