Simmering Tensions in the Aegean Sea Call for Sagacious Diplomacy


Turkiye and Greece, two of the strongest countries in the Eastern Mediterranean Region find themselves trading accusations once again as Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan warned Greece of retaliation for what it sees as ‘unlawful’ actions by the Greek military against Turkish aircraft patrolling within Turkish airspace.

A Century of Greek-Turkish Rivalry

President Erdogan also claims that Greece is militarizing the hitherto non-militarized islands that were handed over by Turkiye to Greece under the terms of treaties signed in 1923 and 1947. The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has even gone as far as to suggest that his country might reconsider Greece’s sovereignty over the islands. On 3 September, while addressing a rally in Samsun province, Erdogan upped the ante by stating ‘We will do what is necessary’.

Greek-Turkish maritime disputes are nothing new. As recently as last year, the two countries became embroiled in yet another dispute when Turkey signed an agreement with the UN-recognized government of Libya to demarcate their maritime boundaries and an Exclusive Economic Zone to allow Libyan oil exports to Turkiye, conflicting not only with Greece’s EEZ around the island of Crete, but also posing a challenge to a gas pipeline being planned by Greece, Cyprus and Israel. Moreover, Turkiye has invested heavily in supporting Libya’s GNA government to secure its oil needs, and is not likely to tolerate any challenge.

The Greek Response

The government of Greece is consciously trying to downplay these aggressive statements. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has outright dismissed these accusations as ‘absurd’ and ‘outrageous’, while at the same time reminding his audience that the country remains ever-prepared to defend its sovereignty against all kinds of adventurism. Furthermore, the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias has responded to Erdogan by arguing that due to the proximity of the Greek islands Kos and Rhodes to the Turkish coast and heavy Turkish military deployment, Greek concerns about the security of the islands are valid. Moreover, Greece accused Turkey of invading Greek airspace and maritime space thousands of times in 2022 alone.

Electoral Pandering?

While these statements are a cause for concern, there is also reason to suggest that there is little threat of actual violence between the two NATO members. The two countries have been trading similar accusations for decades but have been at peace since 1922 after the Greco-Turkish War. The Turkish people are headed to the polls in 2023 to select their next President, which suggests that these statements are meant mainly for public consumption and to serve as a rallying cry for his supporters. 2023 is also the year when the Treaty of Lausanne expires, raising Erdogan’s aspirations for regaining Turkish pride by reclaiming sovereignty over the Turkish straits connecting sea traffic between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Nobody is likely to take any such claims seriously, if they are ever made.

Regional Intervention and the Role of Allies

Many regional powers are heavily invested in peace in the Eastern Mediterranean and have frequently intervened to restore calm between the two neighbors. NATO has been the traditional arbitrator of peace between Greece and Turkiye and has intervened on several occasions. In 2020, both nations accepted a NATO-brokered deal after disagreements following Turkish hydrocarbon exploration in what Greece later claimed to be its continental shelf.

Additionally, Russia enjoys cordial relations with Greece and has recently warmed up with the government in Turkiye. Hence, it would not want to open up another conflict zone in the region given its current engagement in Ukraine. During the 2021 dispute, France openly allied with Greece which ultimately helped to bring down the temperature a few notches down. The Turkish government has already begun internationalizing the issue by sending letters to all EU members, the NATO Secretary General, and the UN Secretary-General.

The Economic Cost

Both countries cannot truly afford any kind of military escalation. The Greek economy has just nearly stabilized after years of negative growth whereas Turkiye’s economic growth is also uncertain. Neither country would want to jeopardize their growth when the entire global economy is experiencing massive inflation and shortages. Thus, while similarly bombastic statements might be made by both sides in the coming days, they are likely to peter down once the relevant powers step in to restore sanity.

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Turkish hegemony in Mediterranean likely to develop mess for Region

A powerful alliance against Turkey has been formed to oust it from the Eastern Mediterranean. This happened after a series of incidents in recent weeks that could be a severe blow to Erdogan’s rhetoric of an Ottoman dream.

Turkey has been gearing up for combat on a series of fronts that could have serious repercussions in the case of any backfire of these bold war fronts under current Turkey’s economic challenges. Turkey has been locking horns in Libya with Egypt, where Khalifa Haftar has a strong backing of its alliance. In case of any conflict in Libya, it could be a major catastrophe that will engage Turkey in proxies for many years to come.

In Eastern Mediterranean Turkey, maritime conflict with Greece created international headlines when a Turkish seismic research vessel was escorted by Greece warships into the sea between the Greece island of Crete and Cyprus. The situation intensified when French President Emmanuel Macron ordered forces to move into the Eastern Mediterranean in support of Greece. Turkish President Erdogan later softened his stance and showed interest in a win-win solution in the interests of all the stakeholders.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo met with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias in Vienna to discuss the maritime conflict between Turkey and Greece. He also met with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in the Dominican Republic to discuss the conflict between two NATO alliances. Nevertheless, Turkey has plans to issue gas exploration and drilling licenses in the area between the Greek island of Crete and Cyprus. That could cause even more tension in this developing conflict.

Recently, Turkey has developed a conflicting attitude policy towards its major alliances, and this a conflicting policy with a stern mindset, making Turkey an unreliable alliance. Despite the member of NATO, Turkey reportedly gets involved in various conflicts inside NATO. Being part of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Turkey has areas of conflict inside OIC member countries and is trying to form a new separate block against the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, in which Turkey has a leadership role in leading the Muslim countries. On the other side, Erdogan is actively creating a serious divide between Turkey and its western allies. He is dreaming of a revival of the Ottoman era. And since actions speak louder than words, Turkey has officially converted the Hagia Sophia Museum into the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque. Such a decision has drawn a wide range of criticism from Turkey’s western allies, as well as from inside the country.

Turkey has created the impression among Muslim countries that it can cause much deprivation and misery, as compared to Saudi Arabia that is in a leading role of the Muslim Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). In recent developments, after the historic peace deal between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, Turkey threatened to end its diplomatic ties with the UAE. However, Turkey was the first Muslim majority country to recognize the State of Israel in March 1949. Turkey, nonetheless, has severe reservations on whether the UAE would establish ties with Israel.

In a broader perspective, Turkey has tumultuous relations with Russia and the United States. Because of the S400 Missile situation, Turkey’s relations with the United States worsened. In the aftermath of this, the Turkey Idlib operation and dealing with the Syrian President Bashar Assad led to Ankara’s relations with Moscow also turning sour. However, Erdogan tried to mend these ties, yet Russian interests in Libya may come under attack in the case of any upcoming major confrontation between Turkey and other stakeholders in this upcoming conflict zone. Turkey is trying to increase its influence and its Ottoman footprint in various directions, whether East or West. Nonetheless, Turkey’s economic position and the increasing political challenges may not accompany Turkey towards this Ottoman revival.

A debate has also ensued within Muslim countries following the stance of the UAE towards recognition of Israel, and at this juncture of time, major criticism came from Turkey, which has already recognized Israel and has hosted the consulate and embassy of Israel in Ankara for decades. The present scenario is getting complicated for the entire region, with possible consequences and repercussions coming to light. Turkey is going to open multiple fronts to deal with these issues, and the coming weeks could be crucial for the situation in the Mediterranean, as well as for future bilateral relations of different Muslim countries.