- Greece and Turkey are at odds over a disputed part of the Mediterranean and the rights to resources it may own.
- The dispute is not new, but tensions are mounting and an armed clash between two NATO allies is not something that the alliance or the US has had to deal with before.
- You can find more stories on the Business Insider homepage.
Over the past month, Greece and Turkey, two allies of the US and NATO, have repeatedly come close to a military clash over part of the eastern Mediterranean.
The latest tension sparked after Turkey reserved an area in the eastern Mediterranean for the study of natural underwater resources. However, the area is within the exclusive economic zones of Cyprus and Greece (although Greece has not officially declared an EEZ due to tensions with Turkey).
Turkey denies Greek sovereignty and has sent the research vessel Oruç Reis with a fleet of warships to guard the region. Greece then sent its fleet.
Despite Turkish claims and under international law, the marine area in question and the seabed below belong to Greece due to the small island of Kastellorizo.
Although the island is about 3 km from Turkey, it is inhabited and part of Greece. Thus, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Kastellorizo has the same rights as any other part of Greece.
Although the US recognizes the validity of the Greek position, it will not take sides in the dispute because of its close relationship with both countries.
The two fleets are circling each other while the tensions ease and threaten to explode with the slightest accident, as was the case a few days ago when the Turkish frigate Kemal Reis tried to overtake the Greek frigate Limnos.
However, due to poor seamanship, the Turkish ship did not calculate its route correctly and was rammed by the Greek warship. Although the damage was not life-threatening, the Turkish ship had to call into port for immediate repair.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has calculated that this is the right time to act. Indeed, the international stars seem to be aligned in favor of his country.
First, the US faces a heated presidential election that has historically diverted American attention from foreign policy.
Second, Erdogan has a close relationship with the White House and has used it to reassure his ally.
Thirdly, Ankara makes clever use of the current German presidency of the EU Council, which changes between EU members every six months.
Germany and Turkey share a lucrative trading partnership. According to the World Bank, Germany exported in 2018 Nearly $ 20.5 billion worth of goods to Turkey imported just over $ 16 billion. This makes Berlin the third among Ankara’s trading partners in terms of both imports and exports. There is also a significant ethnic Turkish population in Germany who influences the decision-making of German politicians.
Despite its relatively weak global voice, Berlin is a leader in Europe, largely due to its strong economy, and has taken on the role of arbiter in this dispute.
The Greek position is to comply with international law on their side and to face any Turkish provocation with determination and strength. Meanwhile, Greek diplomacy has managed to isolate Turkey and a multitude of nations – including Egypt, Cyprus and Israel – have condemned Turkey’s actions. The USA and France carried out military exercises with Greece in the region as a show of solidarity. (The U.S. and Turkey also recently conducted exercises.)
Crucially, the Greek chief of joint chiefs of staff, General Constantine Floros, said a Greek response to a Turkish attack would not be limited to a specific area, which would likely make Turkish officials think twice before acting.
The Turkish position is to force Greece to the negotiating table – something that, interestingly enough, Greece also wants and has been looking for since Turkey unilaterally stopped diplomatic discussions on the issue in 2016.
Ankara understands that its position in international law is weak and that its allies in the region are few. She therefore believes that the threat of war would make Greece more amenable to an agreement that would give Turkey a piece of the natural resources pie.
Turkey does not recognize the International Court of Justice or UNCLOS, both of which would be vital in resolving the dispute.
Implications for the US
The impact of a conflict between two members of the Alliance on the US and NATO is difficult to assess. There has never been an incident in which two NATO allies were hit.
US-Turkish relations have steadily deteriorated in recent years. Turkey’s purchase of the advanced Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system caused the US to refuse delivery of the F-35 fighter aircraft. The Turkish invasion of northern Syria and the targeting of the Kurds, a long-time US partner and leader in the fight against ISIS, resulted in sanctions against high-ranking Turkish officials and tariffs on Turkish steel.
In addition, the recent revelation that Ankara has provided Turkish citizenship and passports to Hamas activists will further disrupt US-Turkey relations. The United States declared Hamas a terrorist organization in 1997. The passports give Hamas terrorists great freedom of movement and support their malicious activities.
Erdogan recently hosted two senior Hamas leaders who have labeled the US as a specially designated global terrorist.
The US does not want to push Turkey into Russia or Iran, and successive US governments have recognized the value of the country to US interests in the region, both in terms of its general location and in terms of the assets located there like the nuclear missiles at Incirlik Air Base.
However, if Turkey needs to be pressured to change its behavior – as its actions suggest – the US needs to reconsider the geopolitical balance in the region.
Erdogan understands and uses the strategic importance of his country for the USA and uses it to pursue an increasingly militant foreign policy, which is often in direct conflict with that of the USA.
If strikes do occur, the US and EU will demand an immediate end to hostilities, but are unlikely to do much more. So it’s likely that Greece and Turkey will settle it among themselves, with the ongoing geopolitical ramifications not becoming apparent until the smoke is gone.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a special operations defense journalist, a National Service veteran with the 575th Marine Battalion & Army HQ and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.