This year’s tension in the East Mediterranean is commonly understood as a spat about gas and oil sparked by an older Greek-Turkish dispute over the Aegean continental shelf.
This perception is punctuated by reminders of the traditional rivalry between both NATO allies which, in its current phase, dates to the outbreak of the Cyprus question in the 1950s. While both dimensions are real, they are but the tip of the iceberg of the current wrangle.
Today’s confrontation is not a bilateral dispute spiralling into regional crisis, as some commentators suggest, but essentially the reverse. Since 2013, Greece and Turkey have been caught up in a wider international crisis which threatens to turn their old differences into a proxy war.
Source of instability
The root cause of this international crisis is the decade-old rift between the West and Erdogan, Turkey’s Islamist President, whose Middle East agenda has been a major irritant for the US, France, Israel, and many Arab states. After 2010, US-Turkish relations experienced their first rupture since World War II. This was provoked by Erdogan’s opposition to sanctions against Iran, the breakdown of his relationship with Israel over Gaza, and his support for Islamist movements augmented by the Arab Spring. This tension bred the policy of “isolating Erdogan”, which culminated in the imposition of US sanctions against Turkey in 2018.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s regional reach has stretched to limits unmatched since Ottoman times. In 2017, Erdogan stationed troops in Qatar to deter the diplomatic blockade of its pro-US Arab neighbours, built a military base in Somalia, and gained a foothold in Sudan. He intervened militarily in the Syrian and Libyan civil wars. After the failed Turkish coup of 2016, which he accuses the US of aiding, he built a strategic alliance with Russia, whilst maintaining, in neo-neutralist fashion, a volatile relationship with Donald Trump.
The current Greek-Turkish wrangle is closely connected to this new regional context. Its main connection is the 1,200-mile underwater pipeline, the “East Med”, designed to export Israeli natural gas to Europe to rival Russian supply.
In 2013, Washington and Tel Aviv abandoned Turkey as their preferred route and opted for an alternative course via Cyprus and Greece.
In 2013, Washington and Tel Aviv abandoned Turkey as their preferred route and opted for an alternative course via Cyprus and Greece. Ever since, bilateral relations between Athens and Ankara soured, ending a fourteen-year rapprochement that started in 1999 at the EU Helsinki Summit. In opposition, Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza condemned the deal for both ignoring the Palestinians and exposing Greek security to unpredictable Turkish reactions. Once in power, alongside his U-turn in the 2015 Greek Referendum that brought more neoliberal austerity from the EU Troika, Tsipras forged close relations with Netanyahu, Trump and Saudi Arabia and portrayed the East-Med as a “source of stability” in the region.
Disregard for international law
However, as everyone can now see, the pipeline has been a major source of regional instability. One reason is the misguided choice of charting its course via the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Cyprus and Greece, before delimiting their boundaries through treaties against Turkey’s illegal, but well-known claims.
Another destabilizing factor has been the EU’s self-contradictory policy, especially the 2016 EU-Turkey Refugees Agreement, which provides for the forcible return of Syrian refugees from Greece to Turkey. To appease racist opinion in Europe, this legally dubious deal gave Erdogan control over 3.5 million Syrian refugees, whom he can push to Greece at a moment’s notice, sparking a European refugee crisis. Last February, he gave a foretaste of what he could do when he forced thousands of refugees along the northern Greek border until his demands in Idlib were met by Germany, Britain, and France.
To appease racist opinion in Europe, this legally dubious deal gave Erdogan control over 3.5 million Syrian refugees.
NATO’s dilemma today is not how to read Ankara’s actions. Turkish foreign policy, both before and under Erdogan, has shown little respect for International Law, including the 1982 UN Convention for the Law of the Sea and UN resolutions condemning the Turkish occupation of Cyprus. A further proof of this has been the recent reopening of the abandoned Varosha district by the Turkish occupation forces in Cyprus, forty-six years after the island’s military invasion, in explicit violation of UN Resolutions 550/1984 and 789/1992. Erdogan’s disregard for international legality essentially continues an approach initiated decades ago by his secular predecessors, while several of his positions today, especially on the delimitation of maritime zones, are fully accepted by his opposition rivals. Where they differ mostly is in the way they apply this high-handed approach.
Speaking with one voice
The West’s strategic dilemma, therefore, is whether to uphold the policy of isolating Turkey, now that its limitations have become obvious, or start re-engaging Erdogan. French President Macron, who recently sold 18 Rafale fighters to the economically bankrupt Greek Government, maintains a brazenly orientalist anti-Islamist rhetoric, and called for EU sanctions against Turkey ahead of the European Council meeting of 1-2 October. Other voices, however, have steadily urged Turkey and Greece to enter bilateral talks, albeit without much success.
While the resumption of bilateral diplomacy would be a prudent step, short of a substantially revised western policy, such talks will easily falter. Because the Greek-Turkish dispute is no longer bilateral, Athens and Ankara alone cannot make such discussions work. Greece’s allies, on either side of the Atlantic, must also set the right conditions for a successful dialogue.
Because the Greek-Turkish dispute is no longer bilateral, Athens and Ankara alone cannot make such discussions work.
This means that they must impose an immediate moratorium on all gas and oil exploration in the East Mediterranean; speak with one voice instead of selling arms to opposite sides; and issue a roadmap for a joint Greek-Turkish appeal to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to delimit their continental shelves and EEZs. Anything short of that will lead us back to the verge of war.
 UN Resolution 550 of 11 May 1984 states that “The Security Council… 5. Considers attempts to settle any part of Varosha by people other than its inhabitants as inadmissible and calls for the transfer of that area to the administration of the United Nations.”