Could tensions between Greece and Turkey degenerate into open conflict? | Military News
Greek officials say relations with Turkey are so strained ahead of elections in the two countries next June that a military incident is possible in the Aegean or eastern Mediterranean, which could trigger a wider conflict.
The Greek suspicion is that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to create a national security crisis that would bolster his popularity, which has waned after 20 years in power.
In August, Erdogan suggested he could order a landing on the Greek islands: “We can come suddenly one night…if you Greeks go too far, then the price will be heavy.”
“Until 2019, 2020, 2021, I maintained that there was no chance of war. I can’t say that anymore,” retired Greek Admiral Alexandros Diakopoulos told Al Jazeera.
“Turkey’s rhetoric is preparing for an attack,” said Diakopoulos, a former national security adviser to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
The head of Turkish diplomacy in Athens acknowledges that there are tensions, but says that they are managed.
“As an embassy, we have a reasonable dialogue with our Greek colleagues – don’t believe what you read in the newspapers!” Turkish Ambassador Burak Ozugergin told Al Jazeera.
“We all try to avoid accidents. Things are not as bad as they were in the summer of 2020, but we have to be very vigilant because things can go very wrong very quickly.
Angelos Syrigos, professor of international law at Panteion University and deputy minister of education and religious affairs, agrees.
“We’re at Defcon One right now,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to the toughest defense readiness.
“I think Turkey will try many parallel crises,” says Syrigos, envisioning a refugee crisis, followed by the presence of an oil and gas exploration vessel and a drilling ship on what Greece considers its maritime jurisdiction.
Relations have remained strained since the two NATO allies nearly came to blows two years ago. The Greek and Turkish navies tracked each other in the Aegean Sea and eastern Mediterranean for an entire summer after Turkey sent a prospecting vessel to search for oil and gas undersea in waters Greece claims as its jurisdiction under international law.
Turkey has said it will not be deterred from undertaking exploration activities in this area and is seeking to follow up its seismic imaging surveys with exploratory drilling.
“Looking at Turkey’s strategy in 2019-21, they were trying to get us to use force first. Now Turkey realizes that this is not going to happen…so they are considering a first Turkish resort to force which could be justified by portraying Greece as occupying the eastern Aegean islands,” Diakopoulos said.
Turkey began contesting uninhabited Greek islets in 1996, but last year began openly contesting Greek sovereignty over its inhabited islands in the eastern Aegean.
In June, Erdogan called on Greece to stop arming Aegean islands that have non-military status and to respect international agreements. In August he suggested he might order a landing.
“The islands you occupy do not bind us, we will do what is necessary when the time comes,” Erdogan told a crowd in the Turkish city of Kutahya last August.
Nationalist Movement Party leader Devlet Bahceli, Erdogan’s junior coalition partner, posed next to a map showing all of Greece’s eastern Aegean islands, including the Dodecanese and Crete, as territory Turkish.
“The islands, on which [Greece] seat illegally and unjustly, are our right,” Bahceli said last month. “[The Greeks] shouldn’t test our patience. If they want to be taken to the sea again, let them tell us and we will throw them all away, God willing.
The 1919-22 war
Bahceli was referring to the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22, in which Turkish armies defeated a Greek attempt to claim western Anatolia.
The Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 awarded the eastern Aegean islands to Greece and imposed limits on military infrastructure there.
Turkey claims that Greece has exceeded these limits and must therefore cede the islands.
The United States and the European Union claim that Greece’s sovereignty over the islands is indisputable.
The bilateral relationship took a nosedive after Mitsotakis told a joint session of the US Congress last May that Turkey would use the upgraded F-16 fighter jets it requested to breach Greek airspace. Greece has registered more than 7,000 violations this year.
“The last thing NATO needs at a time when our goal is to help Ukraine defeat Russian aggression is another source of instability on NATO’s southeastern flank. And I ask you to take this into account when making defense procurement decisions regarding the Eastern Mediterranean,” Mitsotakis said, prompting Erdogan to say he would never meet Mitsotakis again.
The Greek and Turkish defense ministers met for 40 minutes on the sidelines of a NATO summit on October 13 and are said to have good working relations.
But these channels are designed to defuse tensions, not to resolve the deep differences that divide Greece and Turkey.
There are two main problems. The first is territorial water.
Under the UN Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), “each State has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles [22km]measured from baselines determined in accordance with this Convention”.
This means that Greece could claim direct sovereignty over 72% of the Aegean Sea.
Turkey does not dispute the islands’ rights to territorial waters, but opposes the 12 nautical mile (22 km) distance and has threatened Greece with military action if it exercises its rights under UNCLOS.
Greece and Turkey currently claim 6 nautical miles (11 km) of territorial waters in the Aegean Sea, but 12 nautical miles (22 km) off their other coasts.
A second issue concerns sovereign rights to exploit undersea hydrocarbons beyond territorial waters – an area known as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
UNCLOS rules grant Greece 500,000 km2 (193,000 sq mi) of EEZ in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey is not a signatory to UNCLOS and disagrees with its provision of a continental shelf and EEZ for the islands. In 2019, Turkey signed a maritime agreement with Libya that cuts a corridor through it.
The EU denounced the deal as “illegal”, but earlier this month Turkey signed an “exploration and drilling” agreement with the national unity government in Tripoli on the corridor, signaling that it will send prospecting ships there.
Greece has suggested arbitration of the EEZ dispute at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, but refuses to discuss its territorial water rights under threat of war.
“In the Aegean, if the limits of territorial waters are extended by Greece, then we really don’t have much of the high seas left to discuss – which makes recourse to the courts practically useless. Turkey is ready to go to court, but with all relevant issues,” Ozugergin told Al Jazeera.
“I don’t think we can convince ourselves of our position bilaterally,” he said. “We should go to court.
Danger for Greece
Konstantinos Filis, a professor of international relations at the American College of Greece, believed there was a danger that Greece would be pressured into negotiating its sovereign waters, and should act to prevent this.
“Greece needs a strategy for the extension of its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles,” Filis said. “It must be a phased strategy, allowing Greece to implement the law of the sea instead of just invoking it.”
He suggested extending territorial waters first off Crete and then off the mainland. “As the last sphere in your diplomatic toolbox, you guard the Eastern Aegean,” he says.
Greece claimed 12 nautical miles of territorial waters off its Ionian coast on August 26, 2020, at the height of its latest crisis with Turkey.
At the time, Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said territorial waters off Crete would be the next to be extended.
Another crisis could be what Greece is waiting for to take this step.
“The closer a crisis is, the closer the start of a dialogue is also, because that’s how Turkey does business,” Filis said.