Could Greece, Turkey tensions spill into open conflict?

Greek officials say relations with Turkey are so tense ahead of elections in both countries next June that a military incident is possible in the Aegean or Eastern Mediterranean that could trigger a wider conflict.

The Greek suspicion is that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would seek to create a national security crisis that would boost his popularity, on the wane after 20 years in power.

In August, Erdogan suggested he might order a landing on 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 supported that there was no chance of war. I can no longer say that,” retired Greek Admiral Alexandros Diakopoulos told Al Jazeera.

“Turkey’s rhetoric is building towards an attack,” said Diakopoulos, who is a former national security adviser to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Turkey’s top diplomat in Athens agrees there is tension, but says it is being managed.

“As the embassy, we have a reasonable dialogue with our Greek colleagues – don’t believe what you read in the papers!” Turkish Ambassador Burak Ozugergin told Al Jazeera.

“We’re all trying for accidents not to happen. Things are not as bad as the summer of 2020, but we need to be very vigilant because things can get very nasty very quickly.”

‘Parallel crises’

Angelos Syrigos, a 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 severest defence readiness condition.

“I think Turkey will attempt many parallel crises,” says Syrigos, envisioning a refugee crisis, followed by the presence of an oil and gas survey ship and a drillship on what Greece considers its maritime jurisdiction.

Relations have remained tense since the two NATO allies nearly came to blows two years ago. The Greek and Turkish navies shadowed each other in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean for a whole summer after Turkey sent a survey ship to look for undersea oil and gas in waters Greece claims as its jurisdiction under international law.

Turkey has said it will not be deterred from exploration activities in this area, and seeks to follow 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 realises that that won’t happen … so they are looking at a Turkish first use of force that could be justified by portraying Greece as occupying the east Aegean islands,” says Diakopoulos.

Turkey started disputing uninhabited Greek islets in 1996, but last year it began to openly dispute Greek sovereignty over its inhabited east Aegean islands.

In June, Erdogan demanded Greece stop arming Aegean Sea islands that have non-military status and abide by 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 Turkey’s Kutahya city last August.

Nationalist Movement Party leader Devlet Bahceli, Erdogan’s junior coalition partner, posed next to a map showing all of Greece’s east Aegean islands, including the Dodecanese and Crete, as Turkish territory.

“The islands, on which [Greece] sits unlawfully and unfairly, are our right,” Bahceli said last month. “[The Greeks] should not test our patience. If they want to be driven to the sea once again, let them tell us and we will throw them all, God willing.”

The 1919-22 war

Bahceli was referring to the Greek-Turkish war of 1919-22, in which Turkish armies defeated a Greek attempt to claim western Anatolia.

The Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 awarded Greece the islands of the east Aegean and placed limits on military infrastructure there.

Turkey says Greece has surpassed those limits, and must therefore cede the islands.

The United States and the European Union say Greece’s sovereignty over the islands is unquestionable.

The bilateral relationship took a nose-dive after Mitsotakis told a joint session of the US Congress last May that Turkey would use the upgraded F-16 fighter jets it has requested to violate Greek airspace. Greece has logged more than 7,000 violations this year.

“The last thing that NATO needs at a time when our focus is on helping Ukraine defeat Russia’s aggression, is another source of instability on NATO’s Southeastern flank. And I ask you take this into account when you make defence procurement decisions concerning the Eastern Mediterranean,” Mitsotakis said, prompting Erdogan to say he would never meet with Mitsotakis again.

Territorial water

The Greek and Turkish defence ministers met for 40 minutes on the sidelines of a NATO summit on October 13, and are said to have a good working relationship.

But these channels are designed to defuse tension, not to resolve the deep differences that divide Greece and Turkey.

There are two main issues. The first is territorial water.

Under the UN’s Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), “every 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 Greece could claim direct sovereignty over 72 percent of the Aegean.

Turkey does not argue with the rights of islands to territorial waters, but objects to the 12 nautical mile (22km) distance, and has threatened Greece with military action should it exercise its rights under the UNCLOS.

Both Greece and Turkey currently claim 6 nautical miles (11km) of territorial water in the Aegean, but 12 nautical miles (22km) off their other shores.

Undersea hydrocarbons

A second issue concerns sovereign rights to exploit undersea hydrocarbons beyond territorial waters – an area known as an exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

UNCLOS rules award Greece 500,000sq km (193,000sq miles) 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 an EEZ for islands. In 2019, signed a maritime agreement with Libya that cuts a corridor across it.

The EU denounced that agreement as “illegal”, but earlier this month Turkey signed an “exploration and drilling” agreement with the Government of National Unity in Tripoli within the corridor, signalling that it will send survey 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 the threat of war.

“In the Aegean, if the territorial water limits are extended by Greece, then we really don’t have much high seas left to talk about – which makes going to court virtually meaningless. Turkey is ready to go to court, but with all relevant issues,” Ozugergin told Al Jazeera.

“I don’t think we can convince each other of our position bilaterally,” he said. “We should go to court.”

Danger to Greece

Konstantinos Filis, international relations professor at the American College of Greece, believes there is a danger that Greece will be backed into negotiating its sovereign waters away, and should act to prevent that.

“Greece needs a strategy for the extension of its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles,” says Filis. “It needs to be a staggered strategy, enabling Greece to implement the Law of the Sea instead of merely invoking it.”

He suggests extending territorial waters off Crete first, then off the mainland. “As a final sphere in your diplomatic toolbox, you keep the east Aegean,” he says.

Greece declared 12 nautical miles of territorial water off its Ionian coast on August 26, 2020, at the height of its last 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 make that move.

“The closer a crisis is, the closer the start to a dialogue is as well, because this is how Turkey does business,” said Filis.

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