The Turkey – Greece Rivalry: A Ticking Time Bomb in the Mediterranean
-Alan Jai Kuriako and Ritesh Kumar
There has been a renewed antagonism and belligerence in the relations between Turkey and Greece, the two Mediterranean neighbours as well as NATO allies. They never were “bosom buddies” to begin with and have engaged in hostilities in the past as well, but now this relation is beginning to find a new low. Many bilateral and outside factors are responsible for this new situation. From sea exploration rights to unwanted illegal immigration, disputed islands and sea borders, everything has contributed to the current scenario. To understand the reasons, let’s take a detailed look on the reasons behind this.
The Aegean Dispute:
The biggest bone of contention between Turkey and Greece has been over the territorial waters in the Aegean Sea and the national air space over it. Greece claims 12NM off its coast as its territorial waters as per the UN convention of the law of the sea. Since Turkey is not a signatory to this, which the Greece is, it doesn’t recognise the Greek claim of 12NM and lays claims over 6NM of the area claimed by Greeks. Further Turkey also doesn’t recognise exclusive economic zones (EEZ) around Greek islands due to the same reason (elaborated below). This disputed area had already brought the two parties on the brink of war twice in 1987 and 1996.
As Turkey’s nationalistic government, tries to cover their leadership failures by riling up patriotic sentiments, the issues with Greece seems to have reignited their interests. Multiple islets in the Aegean under Greece’s rule have constantly been contested by Turkey so that they can get a larger share of the airspace as well as territorial waters that come together with the acquisition of these territories.
Cyprus is a small island nation situated in the Mediterranean in close proximity to Turkey. Inhabited by ethnic Greeks and Turks, it used to be a colony of the British empire. After gaining independence in 1960, both Turks under whom the Cyprus was a part of the Ottoman empire and the Greeks who consider it as an extension of classical Greek culture started a competition for dominance over the island nation. This ultimately resulted in a Greek coup in 1974 giving an excuse to Turkey to invade and occupy northern half of Cyprus with Turkic majority. This North Cyprus is recognised by Turkey as a separate independent nation but not by the UN. This has been another thorn in Greco-Turkish relations.
If a war begins, one of Turkey’s main ambitions will be to overtake Cyprus in its entirety so that Turkey essentially have a land-based “aircraft carrier” which will enable Turkey to project its powers to the whole of the Mediterranean area. This would bring it back to an even tense relation with Greece as Greece, by virtue, protects the Cypriots from any armed intervention by the Turks.
Syrian Refugee Crisis And Flow Of Illegal Immigration:
Since the war in Syria, a huge refugee crisis have emerged in all of Europe. Turkey is the passage through which refugees pour in inside EU countries. Greece being the neighbour of Turkey has been bearing the brunt of this refugee flow. Turkey accuses Greece of backtracking from its responsibility of taking the allotted quota of refugees and also restricting free movement of the refugees into other parts of Europe. Greece accuses Turkey of trying to change demography of border areas to further its other nefarious agendas. This had led to a serious crisis at Greece-Turkey land borders earlier this year. Ailing economy of both Greece and Turkey in recent years is also already draining resources of both the countries, creating local unemployment.
Unemployment among the locals, cultural and religious differences between the locals and refugees have created huge problems in Greek and EU social fabric. Greece also accuses Turkey of sending criminals and terrorists inside Greece in the guise of refugees to destabilize the region, who according to Greece are sometimes not even Syrian.
Also, the interior countries of EU like Germany and Austria have stemmed the flow of refugees in their respective countries, forcing Greece, a much smaller nation to accommodate way more refugees that it can. This has fomented dissent in the Greek populace over both EU and its neighbour Turkey. Further hostilities since earlier this year near land borders regarding refugee issue and in the Aegean Sea has contributed to more mistrust and animosity between the two.
Libya – Turkey Maritime Deal
On the 27th of November 2019, Ankara signed a highly controversial deal with the interim government of Libya to create a unified exclusive economy zone (EEZ) in the Mediterranean Sea that would essentially enable both countries to control a huge portion of the undersea resources available in that region. The controversy lies in the fact how Turkey and Libya see the concept of an EEZ. According to United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), EEZs are determined as 200nm from the territorial land of a country. However, Turkey’s new interpretation of the EEZ concept as the water above the continental shelf extending from the territorial land means that Turkey can claim a larger area of the Mediterranean than before. It also means that Turkey could dispute the EEZs claimed by islands such as Cyprus as well as some of the Greek islands as well.
This deal also has implications in recent news, where underwater blocks of natural gas has been discovered off the coast of Cyprus. With this recent deal, Turkey could legitimise its right to extract resources from this particular area while arguing against the right of Cyprus and other countries laying claims to the resource. Turkey has already sent out a research vessel escorted by a flotilla of armed naval ships in order to conduct further research into extracting natural gas from this area. These are where things begin to get complicated. With the addition of the naval flotilla, Turkey is emphasising its legitimacy by force in the Mediterranean. This forces other countries in the area to also form their own alliances in order to maintain the balance of power. Already, countries such as Greece, Republic of Cyprus, Israel, France, etc are boosting their alliances with naval drills and aerial exercises in a show of force against Turkey.
This also further destabilises the NATO alliance, causing a headache for the United States. By principle, the United States cannot against another NATO ally, otherwise it will create suspicion against the protection that the United States military offers to its European allies. With the recent entry of a french naval flotilla sailing into the Mediterranean, the area is getting heavily concentrated with military assets from multiple nations and even a slight provocation could send up the entire area in flames. Turkey’s aggressive rhetoric is only worsening the situation further.