Greece and Turkey can only trust each other
“You got the beaches, we got the sea,” is Greece’s underlying stance in terms of its rights in the Aegean. That would be the stance of any government if it were to rely on international maritime law. No doubt, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) stipulates that islands have the same maritime jurisdiction zones as the mainland.
But the same convention also states that maritime borders should be delineated by agreements between states based on the principle of equity and the specificity of geographical situations. Greece opts for the former stipulation rather than the latter.
If Turkey were to accept the former stipulation, it would bump into a maritime wall of Greek islands throughout the Aegean. No government would accept that. “If you extend your maritime waters to 12 miles, that would be a casus belli for me,” says Turkey.
So, for decades, we have had a stalemate. How come we haven’t had a war? That’s because Greece did not think the Turks were bluffing. A Greek government tested the “waters” in 1996 during the Kardak/İmia crisis; the two countries came to the brink of war, but calm was restored thanks to Washington’s mediation.
How come there has been no major crisis since then? First, because the two sides avoided unilateral action in the Aegean, but more importantly, following the earthquake diplomacy of 1999, the Greek government made a fundamental change in its policy toward Turkey. Until then, successive governments had turned down Turkey’s offer to freeze problems in the Aegean and develop bilateral relations, but after that, Greek governments not only gave a green light to bilateral cooperation, they also refrained from being the major obstruction within the European Union, investing in the possibility that a Turkey closer to Europe would be less dangerous. And that was the case. Without officially admitting it, Greece refrained from testing Turkey’s stance in the Aegean and not only did economic relations blossom, but the two nations got to know each other, becoming less prejudiced against each other. It was a win-win for at least two decades.
Now we have a similar problem in the eastern Mediterranean. Why? Because of the discoveries of natural resources in the region. Turkey made the mistake of keeping its relations frozen with Israel and Egypt, while Greek Cyprus capitalized on the situation by getting these two and Greece on its side, ignoring the rights of the Turkish Cypriots. The EastMed Pipeline project of the quadrilateral alliance is based on the assumption that the Greek island Kastellorizo, just 2 kilometers from Turkey off of western Antalya, has maritime zones just like the mainland. As a response, Turkey signed a maritime deal with the U.N.-supported government in Libya that does not recognize that Crete has maritime jurisdiction zones. And that’s how Greece has replaced Greek Cyprus at the center of the crisis facing Turkey.
If Greece and Turkey could live in relative calm in the Aegean for so long, how come they find themselves in the midst of a military confrontation in the eastern Mediterranean? Part of the answer lies with Turkey’s inability to resort to smart diplomacy, while another lies in the introduction of too many actors in favor of Greece, including France.
What can be done? Can Athens and Ankara rely on U.S. mediation? The answer is negative. For one, U.S. President Donald Trump has proven inconsistent in diplomacy. Greeks cannot trust him, because he comes from a culture that does not recognize international law if he believes it is against the interests of a country; he also comes from a culture that dictates that a government with a strong military posture and which is willing to pay the cost to stay in power will have the upper hand. Turks cannot trust him because an election is coming up, and he needs the votes of the Greek diaspora.
Can Greece trust the European Union? Not so much, since it is divided. Can it trust France? That’s a risky bet.
That leaves Germany – not the foreign minister but Chancellor Angela Merkel. The best Turkey can do is be in close contact with Merkel, since she can try to stop the French from provoking the Greeks against Turkey. Trump might also play a similar role talking to French President Emmanuel Macron.
What happens if Merkel fails? That would leave a Greek-French duo facing Turkey. Could they trust Turkey to start dialogue? Yes, they could. Could they trust that Turkey would back down because of its deteriorating economic situation and the fact that its military is overstretched in Iraq, Syria and Libya? No.
France and Greece are two democratic countries whose governments are accountable to their publics for their foreign policy actions. They are facing Turkey, a country they think is undemocratic, has no free press and has a leadership that wants to stay in power by hook or by crook. Would the French public support Macron’s policy in the eastern Mediterranean while the nation is in the midst of a deadly pandemic? What would happen if France started to hesitate?
That would leave Turkey and Greece facing each other. If the two have managed to live in calm in the case of thousands of islands in the Aegean, they can easily do so for a handful of islands in the eastern Mediterranean by first off declaring a moratorium on all military and drilling activities.