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US NATO allies Greece and Turkey are on a collision course

Tensions between its allies are not new for Washington. However, the latest escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean between two major NATO members such as Greece and Turkey if uncontrolled, could soon present a major foreign policy dilemma for both this U.S. administration and the next one.

For a long time, Greece and Turkey held incompatible Exclusive Economic Zones claims over sea areas rich with natural resources (mainly natural gas). What makes the ongoing war of words, provocations, and shows of force between Ankara and Athens more dangerous is the unprecedented militarization of the Eastern Mediterranean and the increasing involvement of other powers. This adds to a history of land and sea border disputes between Greece and Turkey, fomented by nationalists on both sides.   

Greece and Turkey’s incompatible claims

Greece appeals to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which stipulates that “every State has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles” including around its islands. Turkey, a non-signatory country of the UNCLOS, bases its national waters claims on its continental shelf extension. As a result, both countries claim national waters and EEZ rights on the waters surrounding Kastellorizo and other Greek islands near the Turkish coast. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. diplomatic efforts have prevented such incompatible claims to undermine NATO’s unity in its South-East front. Washington’s mediation was also key to avoid a direct military confrontation between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus. 

Understanding the latest escalation

The most recent exploration missions of Ankara’s research vessels in Cyprus’s EEZ first, and later around the waters surrounding Kastellorizo and Rhodes, triggered a reaction from Athens, which increased its military alert and presence in those areas. This led to a major incident in August involving a collision between a Greek frigate and Turkish warship, which was escorting the Oruç Reis survey ship, in waters in which both countries claim jurisdiction.

Growing concerns regarding Turkey’s naval activities in the Eastern Mediterranean have prompted the Greek government, led by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, to announce major defence investments, including the acquisition of 18 Rafale fighter jets, four multipurpose frigates, and four navy helicopters from France.

Greece is unsettled by Turkey’s military deployments in the Eastern Mediterranean and by its drilling and exploration missions in contested areas. Athens believes that it shows Ankara’s confrontational stance when it comes to the Eastern Mediterranean standoff, which is fueled by the aggressive rhetoric of Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on the issue.

More actors and the Libya factor

The growing support for Greece from other U.S. allies such as France and the United Arab Emirates — Turkey’s main rival in the Middle East — has arguably reduced Washington’s desire to get involved. Moreover, the wider picture is complicated by other regional and international developments and finding a comprehensive solution to Eastern Mediterranean tensions appears as increasingly problematic.

In November 2019, Turkey signed a controversial maritime agreement with Libya’s U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord, which Ankara backs militarily against Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by the UAE, Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.

The Ankara-Tripoli maritime deal, which aims to create an exclusive economic zone from Turkey’s southern Mediterranean shore to Libya’s northeast coast, cuts through Athens’s internationally recognized EEZ, which has infuriated Greece, Egypt, and Cyprus. Turkey’s move provided its regional rivals, chiefly the UAE, but also Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with the opportunity to join the front opposed to the deal. Since then, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Cairo have increased their diplomatic engagements with both Athens and Nicosia. Also in November, Abu Dhabi hosted the first-ever UAE-Greece-Cyprus trilateral meeting.

The EastMed dossier

Currently, Turkey’s aggressive stance in the Eastern Mediterranean is at least partially related to Ankara’s preoccupation with regard to the EastMed project. In January 2020, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel — another country with a strained relationship with Turkey — finalized an agreement to proceed with such project. The EastMed project would consist of a 1,200-mile-long pipeline to connect the onshore and offshore gas reserves of the eastern Mediterranean to Europe.

The EastMed pipeline could potentially substitute for the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline, which currently delivers Azerbaijan’s natural gas to Europe via Turkey. As such, its completion would effectively cut off Ankara from the region’s energy map. The UAE and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia, have given their political backing to the EastMed pipeline, hoping the project crushes Turkey’s ambition to become a transit hub for the export of natural gas.

The Ankara-Paris collision course  

French President Emmanuel Macron has been the loudest voice within the EU criticizing Turkey’s foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. The French president has been backing Greece and Cyprus, as both countries denounce Ankara’s efforts to search for oil and gas in their waters. Macron’s political support has been backed by a recently signed defence agreement between Athens and Paris and by France’s September 2020 deployment of the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier — Paris’s most powerful naval asset — to the Eastern Mediterranean to deter Turkey.

The French president’s decision to stand by Athens and Nicosia against Ankara is certainly motivated by the focus on EU solidarity for which Macron has been campaigning since assuming office. However, another important reason, is the growing hostility between Ankara and Paris with regard to Libya’s civil war, in which Erdoğan and Macron support opposing factions.

Difficult talks ahead

As pointed out by Muzaffer Senel, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Şehir University, Greece has been working much more effectively than Turkey in its efforts to enlist international support for its cause. In this context, on September 25, Greece’s Mitsotakis seemingly felt in a position of strength to invite Ankara’s leadership for direct talks during the prime minister’s U.N. speech. Erdoğan responded by declaring his openness to dialogue.

Despite these latest positive developments, a compromise remains difficult as both Erdoğan and Mitsotakis have focused their respective publics on external threats, seemingly in an attempt to distract from present and future economic issues. As a result, governments in both Greece and Turkey are now struggling to control how domestic nationalist rhetoric can influence and legitimize political decisions. For instance, Turkey’s presidential communications department has recently shared a video championing the “Blue Homeland” doctrine, that openly challenges Greek and Cypriot maritime claims that confine Turkey to narrow strips of Aegean and Mediterranean coastal waters.

Worryingly for Erdoğan, there is currently a growing consensus among EU member states that Turkey’s behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean should be punished with economic sanctions. The European Council has agreed to review Turkey’s behavior from December and impose sanctions in case of further provocative actions. As of today, Brussels is still keen to prioritize new communication channels between Ankara and Athens over sanctions targeting Turkey. However, Ankara’s October 2020 decision to re-deploy the Oruç Reis survey ship south of Kastellorizo could constitute an additional challenge to talks.

Next month’s presidential election will certainly impact Washington’s future approach on ongoing Greece-Turkey tensions. While, so far, the Trump administration has had, at times, a problematic working relationship with both Turkey and the EU, a Biden presidency could potentially move the White House away from Middle East authoritarians and closer to EU partners.

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