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In recent months, there’s been a very stable tendency of escalation of tensions between Greece and Turkey. And this isn’t an isolated incident that is only within the confines of the first 8 months of 2020.
Both countries are NATO member states, and as a definition allied to each other. However, in reality, they have always been in a constant state of conflict of various degrees. This constant, relatively low tension, is a result of unresolved territorial disputes, that continue to this day, alongside a long history of conflicts between the two countries, in addition to very obviously conflicting policies and interests that they pursue in the region.
Historically, there are several disputes that continue to cause tension and impede any long-term normalization of Greek-Turkish relations. These include:
1. Cyprus. A serious matter of conflict in Turkish-Greek relations since the 1950s has been Cyprus; at the time, it was a British colony with a Greek-Cypriot population share of 82% of the island’s total. Some of the Greek Cypriots wanted unity with Greece and, as early as 1931, there were nationalist riots in Nicosia.
In the 1950s, the Cyprus issue flared up again when the Greek Cypriots, under Archbishop Makarios, claimed union with Greece, and the EOKA group launched a paramilitary movement on the island – mainly against the British, but also inflicting collateral damage to other parties and civilians. Eventually, Greek Prime Minister Alexander Papagos took the Cyprus issue to the United Nations.
Turkish nationalist sentiment, angered by the discrimination against the Turkish Cypriots, became inflamed at the idea that Cyprus would be ceded to Greece. This led to the Greek community of Istanbul becoming the target in the Istanbul Pogrom of 1955. In response, Greece withdrew from all co-operation with Turkey, which caused the Balkan Pact to collapse.
In 1960, a compromise solution to the Cyprus issue was agreed on: Britain granted independence to Cyprus, and a constitution was hammered out. Greek and Turkish troops were stationed on the island to protect their respective communities. Greek Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis was the main architect of this plan, which led to an immediate improvement in relations with Turkey, particularly once Adnan Menderes was removed from power in Turkey.
This back and forth went until 1974, when Turkish troops occupied 37% of Cyprus and expelled the Greek population. The war was avoided due to various political moves, however, the damage to Turkish-Greek relations was done, and the occupation of Northern Cyprus by Turkish troops would be a sticking point in Greco-Turkish relations for decades to come.
2. The Aegean Sea. Since the 1970s, further issues have erupted between the two countries over sovereignty rights in the Aegean Sea.
The Balkan Wars of 1913 had given Greece all the Aegean islands except Imbros and Tenedos, some of them only a few kilometres off the Turkish coast.
Since the end of World War II, Turkish officials insisted that this led to questions regarding the delimitation of territorial waters, air space and other related zones of control.
The conflict was motivated both by considerations of military tactical advantages and by questions of economic exploitation of the Aegean. The latter issue became particularly significant as after 1970 there were expectations of finding oil in the Aegean. This was highlighted during the crisis in 1987, when a Turkish ship was about to enter disputed waters to conduct an oil survey. The Greek Prime Minister of the time, Andreas Papandreou, ordered the ship to be sunk if found within disputed waters claimed by Greece.
Consultations about this issue were held in Davos between the Greek and Turkish Prime Ministers. Despite them, there are several issues that remain unresolved and cause frequent flare ups when Turkish fighter jets allegedly enter Greek airspace above the islands and so on.
These unresolved issues include:
- The width of the territorial waters. Both sides currently possess 6 nautical miles off their shores in the Aegean Sea. Greece claims a right to unilateral expansion to 12 nautical miles, based on the International Law of the Sea. Turkey, which already has expanded its own territorial waters to 12 miles on its other coasts, denies the applicability of the 12-miles rule in the Aegean and has threatened Greece with war in the case it should try to apply it unilaterally.
- The width of the national airspace. Greece currently claims 10 miles, while Turkey only acknowledges 6 miles.
- The future delimitation of the continental shelf zone in the international parts of the Aegean, which would give the states exclusive rights to economic exploitation.
- The right of Greece to exercise flight control over Turkish military flight activities within the international parts of the Aegean, based on conflicting interpretations of the rules about Flight Information Regions (FIR) set by the ICAO.
- Since 1996, the sovereignty over some small uninhabited islets, most notably Imia/Kardak
3. The border along the Evros/Maritsa river is another point of contention. In 1986, Turkish and Greek soldiers suffered casualties at the Evros River incident, due to fire exchange. Turkish and Greek soldiers have exchanged fire in the past, as Greeks have tried to stop Iranian refugees from entering the country illegally from Turkey, but this incident was the first in which there have been casualties. During this period, Greek soldiers along the border with Turkey were on alert after receiving reports that Turkey planned to help thousands of refugees slip into Greece illegally.
In 2019 and 2020, Evros was a significant hot point with the refugee crisis which Turkey manufactured in order to demand more concessions from the EU.
4. Turkey into the EU. After 1996, Greek Foreign Minister, and later Prime Minister, George Papandreou charted a major change of direction in Greek–Turkish relations. He lifted Greece’s objections to Turkey’s EU aspirations and energetically supported Turkey’s bid for EU candidate status.
Despite that a poll in 2005 showed that only 25% of Greeks agreed that Turkey had any place in the EU.
In September 2017, Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, mentioned that halting accession talks with Turkey would be a strategic mistake by the European Union, amid a war of words raging between Germany and Turkey.
Former Greek Prime Minister, George Papandreou, has urged European Union leaders to keep the doors open to Turkey and to continue dialogue with the Turkish government, in an apparent reference to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s calls for the suspension of accession talks with Turkey.
Turkey’s potential ascension into the EU is sometimes mention as something that Greece could use to pressure Ankara into some concessions, but it hasn’t been used.
5. Alleged invasion plan of Greece. In June 2020, the Nordic Research Monitoring Network revealed secret Turkish documents. One of them, dated in June 2014, had an invasion plan against the Greece, named “TSK Çakabey Harekât Planlama Direktifi” (TSK [Turkish Armed Forces] Çakabey Operation Planning Directive). The operation named after Çaka Bey, the man who led the first-ever Turkish expedition against the Aegean islands.
More recent developments that have additionally and significantly strained relations between Greece and Turkey include the following, in brief:
1. In March 2019, Turkish President Erdoğan said that he will change the status of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque, adding that it was a “very big mistake” to turn it into a museum.
Following that, more than a year later, on July 10, 2020, the decision of the Council of Ministers to transform it into a museum was canceled by Council of State and Erdoğan signed a decree annulling the Hagia Sophia’s museum status, reverting it to a mosque.
Greece strongly opposed the decision, but regardless, it was turned into a mosque on July 23rd and received its first prayers.
2. On March 14, 2019, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during an interview, said that whenever Greek military aircraft take off in the Aegean, Turkish jets will follow suit.
The next day the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a press release saying that “Turkey’s effort to equate the flights of Turkish military aircraft that violate Greece’s national sovereignty with the identification and interception missions the Hellenic Air Force carries out in defense of national sovereignty, is completely unacceptable”, adding that “Turkish military aircraft violate Greek national air space on an almost daily basis, including through low-altitude overflights of inhabited Greek islands. This is a practice that Greece systematically condemns and reports, both bilaterally as well as to the competent international bodies.” The ministry also said that the legal status in the Aegean is “clear and fully enshrined” in International Law, “leaving no room for doubt”.
3. On November 27, 2019, Turkey and Libya signed a deal. The agreement, unveiled on December 5, maps out a sea boundary between the two countries, cutting across a part that is also claimed by Greece.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias called the Turkey-Libyan accord a “blatant violation of international law”. Greek authorities were taken by surprise by the accord, after Libyan officials assured them the deal would not be signed off.
Greece on December 6th expelled the Libyan ambassador. Mitsotakis told the Greek parliament “They are oblivious to history and geography as they do not take Greek islands into account,” adding that Ankara’s move is forcing them into “unprecedented diplomatic isolation”.
Greece sent two letters to the United Nations explaining its objections and asking for the matter to be taken up by the U.N. Security Council, while Turkey notified the United Nations of its delimitation of the maritime jurisdiction areas with Libya. The United Nations remained neutral and urged Greece and Turkey to maintain a dialogue.
4. The migrant crisis along the borders in early 2020, when Turkey attempted to open the flood gates for illegal migrants into Greece.
There were incidents in which Turkish troops attempted to pull down security fences, shot tear gas at Greek border guards and caused various clashes.
There were numerous incidents with the Turkish coast guard, with the Greek side releasing videos proving that Ankara’s forces were exquisitely brutal against migrants, attempting to force them into Greece in any way possible.
After a sort of normalization for approximately a week, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that drilling had been stopped pending dialogue with Greece, there were also no incidents between Turkish and Greek border guards at sea or on land.
Turkey was still carrying out its activities in Libya, but it seemed that an easing of tensions was due.
Instead, Turkey said that it had resumed its drilling in the first half of August 2020, due to Greece refusing to keep its commitments.
This related to an agreement signed between Greece and Egypt allowing both countries to share their exclusive economic zone rights in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and specifically in the area that Turkey and the Libyan GNA had agreed to exploit earlier, claiming that their agreement was superior, because their EEZ were internationally recognized and Turkey’s claims weren’t.
The Greece-Egyptian deal goes entirely contrary to the Turkey-Libya one. This is also another way for Cairo, which supports Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Libya to pressure Turkey in withdrawing its troops and ending its intervention on behalf of the GNA in the country.
Currently, following the renewed drilling, tensions returned at sea.
Greece opened fire at a boat carrying civilians off the island of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea, said the Turkish Coast Guard Command on August 11th. In a statement, the command said two Turkish and one Syrian nationals were injured and the boat sank due to the attack.
It said an emergency team was dispatched comprising four boats and a diving team after the attack. The injured people were taken to the Marmaris State Hospital by the Turkish rescue team, it added.
At the same time, Greek newspaper Ekathimirini reports that “Greece’s armed forces were placed in a state of absolute readiness, with units of the Hellenic Navy and Air Force deployed in the wider sea area where the Turkish research was expected.”
This move comes at a time when the Turkish Navy is escorting the seismic exploration vessel, Oruc Reis, near or within Cypriot and Greek territorial waters, which is currently being closely monitored by Egypt and Greece.
The Turkish Navy issued a navigational notification saying that the Turkish vessel would conduct seismic surveys in the eastern Mediterranean during the next two weeks.
In response, the Greek Foreign Ministry announced that Athens had urged Turkey to stop illegal actions in the eastern Mediterranean, and that these activities were provocative and undermine peace and security in the region.
“Greece will not accept blackmail. It will defend its sovereign rights,” the Greek foreign ministry statement said.
— ANADOLU AGENCY (ENG) (@anadoluagency) August 10, 2020
For now, Greece has reportedly been able to successfully prevent and delay Turkish seismic exploration.
“However, according to sources, exploratory activities were rendered impossible due to the noise caused by the many naval units sailing in the area. This is because exploration of this sort entails the transmission of data from the seabed and the noise of the ships made this transmission impossible,” writes Ekathimirini.
Separately, Greece, Cyprus and Israel are planning to hold joint military drills in the Mediterranean Sea, in a very clear show of force against Turkey.
Alongside all of this, Cyprus and France signed a defense cooperation agreement. Cyprus is a key Greece ally, and it is more than obviously related to the situation, especially since France strongly opposes Turkey’s activities in Libya and there’s been more than accusations of military adventurism from both sides.
The Turkish-Greece tensions are expected to increase. While the war currently appears unlikely between two NATO member states, the division within the alliance’s ranks is apparent. This is further reinforced by the opposition of France and Turkey in Libya. Paris appears much more willing to support Athens against Ankara, than remain in the background in this situation. The standoff in the region appears to be reaching a sort of boiling point, that might not result in a direct, all-out war, but could fracture NATO in an irreparable way.
MORE ON THE TOPIC:
- Turkey Sends Military For ‘Gunnery Drills’ Off Rhodes As Contested Gas Exploration Resumes
- German Frigate To Join EU Mission Monitoring UN Arms Embargo On Libya
- Egypt And Greece Sign Maritime Agreement, Turkey Objects
- Turkey – Libya – Egypt – Greece Maritime Dispute Fallout Continues