“We only have one thing to say to Greece: Don’t forget Izmir.”
So said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 3 September, after the radar of a Greek S-300 defence system locked onto Turkish F-16 fighter jets on a mission over the Aegean. “Hey Greece, take a look at history. If you go any further you’ll pay a heavy price,” he added at a rally days after his country celebrated Victory Day, commemorating the decisive Turkish defeat of Greek forces at the battle of Dumlupinar in 1922.
Athens charged that the jets had violated Greek airspace over Greek islands near Turkey in the Aegean. The Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 and the Treaty of Paris of 1947 grant Greece sovereignty over these islands, located six to eight kilometres from the Turkish coast, but on condition that Greece should not arm them. Turkey claims that Greece has breached this condition.
Although tensions between Ankara and Athens have abated somewhat in the past year or so, they continue to periodically trade accusations of territorial violations. The Aegean islands remain a thorn in Ankara’s side as it continues to lay claim to some of them and feels wrong-done by the above mentioned treaties. In July, tempers flared when the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis demanded that President Erdogan should give an explanation for a map produced by one of his political allies showing large uninhabited Greek islands as Turkish and clarify whether that map reflected official Turkish policy.
Tensions had already spiked more dangerously against the backdrop of Turkey’s gas exploration and drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean in Greek territorial waters or areas that Greece claims as part of its exclusive economic zone. Athens has repeatedly and vehemently condemned what it describes as Turkey’s aggressive behaviour in that area and worked to forge extensive regional alliances to counter it. An example is the Friendship Forum which held its first meeting on 11 February 2021 and was attended by the foreign ministers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Cyprus, Greece and France. Their aim was to form a united front against Turkey’s hydrocarbon designs in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as against its interventionist policies and activities in the Arab region.
Divided Cyprus is another source of recurrent spats between Turkey and Greece. Turkey, which is the only country to recognise the Republic of Northern Cyprus, insists on a so called two state solution to the Cypriot question while Greece insists that Turkey should end its occupation of northern Cyprus which Turkish forces invaded and took control of in 1975.
On 10 February this year, the two sides traded accusations over this matter and Erdogan snapped at Mitsotakis, saying, “know your limits and stop defying us. If you don’t, this means that you are evading negotiations.”
Turkey’s desire to tap the underwater energy resources in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean is a central thread that connects all three of the above mentioned areas of dispute. According to some reports, Ankara plans to invest some $10 billion in drilling for oil and gas in the Aegean and Black Sea. Turkey has begun drilling activities in the Aegean and it discovered a large natural gas reserve in the Black Sea, known as the Sakarya field, in 2020. In fact, in January this year, the Turkish oil company TPAO successfully completed the natural gas flow test in the Türkali-1 well of the Sakarya field and a month before this, Turkish Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Fatih Donmez announced that the Fatih drilling vessel would start a new gas exploration operation in the Turkali-7 well.
Given Turkey’s ambitions and territorial sensitivities, it is not difficult to imagine its reaction, over a year ago, when Greece announced that it would extend its maritime boundaries in the Ionian Sea from six to twelve kilometres and hinted it would do the same in the Aegean. Turkey would consider this an act of war. Were Greece to similarly extend the maritime borders of its mainland coast and islands in the Aegean, Turkey would find itself hemmed in from that side, to the extent that it would probably have to ask Athens’ permission for Turkish military and civilian vessels to exit from the Sea of Marmara and pass through the Aegean to the Mediterranean.
In light of the foregoing considerations, Turkish-Greek tensions could easily escalate in the near future. The S-300 radar’s locking onto Turkish warplanes could be a sign of things to come, especially in light of the failure of recent exploratory talks and positive gestures to build a calmer and more mutually trusting climate. Greece has recently asserted a right to arm the disputed islands in the Aegean, citing the right to self defence enshrined in Article 51 of the UN Charter. Ankara also finds it provocative that the US established a military base in Alexandroupolis, about 40 km from Turkey’s northern border, and deployed troops on Aegean islands.
In recent years, Greece has significantly strengthened military relations with France and the US, both countries with which Erdogan has locked horns over many issues. In September last year, Athens purchased a number of French frigates, which Ankara saw as a Greek attempt to start an arms race that would jeopardise regional security and militarise the Mediterranean. In October 2021, Athens signed an additional military agreement with Washington to expand the realm of bilateral defence cooperation. The agreement gives US forces more extensive use of Greek military bases and allows US forces to train and operate in an “extended capacity” at four additional bases in Greece. Prior to this, the two sides signed a military cooperation protocol in October 2019, in accordance with which the US committed to help Greece upgrade its military bases, most notably the Souda base on Crete.
Nevertheless, though there are several areas of dispute that could set Greece and Turkey on a collision course, the US and other Western powers would quickly step in to prevent the situation from spiralling, especially at present when the Ukrainian crisis is foremost in mind. At the same time, Ankara knows that conflict with Greece at this time would hamper its efforts to mend fences with countries in the Arab region and wreak further attrition on the already strained and deteriorating Turkish economy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.