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.
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.
Exclusive Report of The Caucasus Center – Any form of its republishing need credit of The Caucasus Center for Strategic and Int’l Studies (CCSIS).