Disputes and rising tensions between Greece and Turkey over the delimitation of their maritime borders and control of access to the energy resources of the Eastern Mediterranean have once again drawn international attention to the region.
The mainstream understanding of the crisis — not only in the West but also in other prominent Eastern Mediterranean states such as Egypt and Israel — is that Turkish strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is simply creating yet another political maelstrom by violating Greek and Greek Cypriot sovereignty.
Some Western countries such as France, which greedily looks to maximize its influence in the region, are now calling for sanctions against Turkey.
While the recent naval posturing of both countries is indeed worrying, very few expect a full scale conflict unless there were to be an accidental collision between Turkish and Greek vessels.
But are the mainstream understandings of the situation accurate? Is Turkey really in the wrong?
The answer is a resounding “no”.
Greek and Turkish claims to maritime zones in the Eastern Mediterranean are actually birds of a feather: both are maximalist, exceedingly disputable, and highly influenced by third party interests.
Turkish Isolation And Greek Opportunism
Greece has observed and is now exploiting Turkey’s unprecedented international isolation. After all, these maritime disputes are far from new.
Turkey’s relations with its traditional European and NATO allies have been deteriorating for a multitude of reasons: from the country’s recent rapprochement with Russia and its purchase and deployment of Russian S-400 missile systems, to Ankara’s military adventurism in Syria, weaponization of Syrian refugees, worsening democratic record, and much more.
Erdogan also turned his back on Israel, another traditional ally in the region, opting to use the Palestinian issue at home and abroad to draw support to his cause as the self-styled protector of Muslims worldwide.
Ironically, today’s Eastern Mediterranean dispute has resulted in a budding partnership between Palestine, Israel, and other rivals of Turkey in the region.
The Turkish government has also refused to revive its relations with Egypt since its Islamist Muslim Brotherhood ally was toppled by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military coup.
Naturally, Egypt has sided against Turkey, and disagreements over the fate of Libya only cause another blow to their bilateral relations.
Greece aims to use this opportunity to severely limit any rights Ankara would have to the highly strategic, energy rich waters of the Eastern Mediterranean despite Turkey’s expansive coastline.
Greece is currently doing this by maximizing its claims — and blocking Turkish access — to the waters beyond one of its most remote and smallest islands, Kastellorizo, which sits over 75 miles from the closest Greek territory but only one mile off of Turkey’s southern coast.
This is a unique and questionable claim seeing that these kind of micro islands are ignored in maritime agreements such as those between the United Kingdom and France, and Spain and Morocco, for example.
Emboldened by the seemingly unshakable support of France and indifference of other Western countries, Greece has taken its maritime claims even one step further, declaring that it seeks to expand its territorial waters from 6 to 12 nautical miles, albeit along its Ionian coasts.
It is pursuing these claims based on its reading of the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas, to which Turkey has never been a signatory due to the highly complex and intertwined geography of Turkish-Greek waters. Moreover, Turkey has long ago declared that expending territorial waters from 6 to 12 miles is a casus belli, a reason for war.
Should Greece aim to implement the same claims in the Aegean Sea, Turkey would have severely limited, if any, access to international waters and most of its navy would be trapped within a few small bays.
Moreover, in violation of the Treaty of Lausanne, Greece has militarized some islands in the Aegean Sea close to the Turkish coast.
In response to Greece’s behavior, Turkey formulated the “Blue Homeland” plan, which foresaw a shared maritime border with Libya, bypassing Greek and Cypriot claims. Indeed, Turkey and Libya’s UN recognized Government of National Accord signed an agreement to this end, but it is not acknowledged by any other country.
Turning a Blind Eye
So far, neither the EU nor NATO have succeeded in bringing both sides to the table.
The EU is divided on the topic, and Germany’s efforts to mediate the dispute have been met with a tepid response. Similarly, NATO’s call for solidarity among allies has fallen upon deaf ears.
Making things worse, many countries in and beyond the region have turned a blind eye to Greece’s maximalist claims because of Erdogan’s foreign and security policy blunders, thereby making Turkey more aggressive and Greece more assertive.
If Turkey wants to solve the Eastern Mediterranean crisis and address regional double standards, the Turkish government must first revive its relations with its Western allies and regional partners such as Egypt and Israel. Otherwise, Turkey will fall further and further into deep isolation.
If Greece wants to solve the crisis it should come to see the absurdity of its claims. Otherwise, it will earn a real enemy, not only in Erdogan, but in any successive Turkish government, as the issue of Turkish-Greek maritime borders not only represents a key area of national security but also deeply resonates with the Turkish public.
In these circumstances the EU and the West need to be fair if they want to mediate an acceptable solution. Otherwise, the West may well see the rise of a hot conflict between two allies, which would represent a nail in the coffin of NATO and the global credibility of Western alliances.
To make it out of this predicament, dialogue and negotiation are the only ways forward, and a peaceful solution will require compromise on all sides.