NATO force in the Aegean to also spy on the Russians?

NATO force in the Aegean to also spy on the Russians?

It all happened so fast that probably the officials of both Turkey and Greece are worried about the unintended consequences of what they have found themselves in, if they are not already regretting it totally.

Let me explain.

As you read these lines, four ships belonging to NATO are patrolling the waters of the Aegean, which remains one of the most contested seaways in the world. 

The Aegean has been a source of tension between NATO members Turkey and Greece to the point that the two came to the brink of war over an uninhabited islet exactly a decade ago.

Lately the seaway is on the world agenda due to the refugee crisis, as it has claimed the lives of hundreds of refugees fleeing Syria’s war to reach Europe.

The idea of introducing a NATO maritime force in the Aegean came from Germany and what under normal circumstance could have taken days to negotiate, has lasted around 10 days to be put into force. 

Desperate to curb the flow of refugees from Turkey to Europe, which has not fallen to the desired levels despite the agreement reached between Turkey and the European Union a couple of months ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel rushed to Turkey on Feb. 8 to review the situation and discuss additional measures. She convinced Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to agree to a NATO presence in the Aegean and by next day, via telephone conversations, the two had Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on board. Following the application by the three countries, NATO decided during its defense ministers’ meeting on Feb. 11 to provide support “to assist international efforts to stem illegal trafficking and illegal migration in the Aegean,” according to the alliance’ secretary-general.

NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2 which currently consists of ships from Germany, Canada, Greece and Turkey have already started conducting surveillance operations – interestingly, however, before the details of the mission’s mandate are finalized.

The aim of the mission will be to support the Turkish and Greek authorities and coast guards, as well as Frontex, in their efforts to tackle human trafficking and criminal networks, according to NATO officials. 

The frigates are conducting routine reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance activities. My understanding is that they are not supposed to take direct action against smugglers but gather information and convey it to the two countries’ authorities in a rapid manner so that they take action to stop them. 

The only information provided by NATO diplomats is that the Greek and Turkish armed forces will not operate in each other’s territorial waters and that the NATO force will conduct its mission in international waters and that work is continuing on the “details.” 

But the devil is in the details!

First of all, the delimitation of international waters as well as territorial waters are contested by the two sides since Greece claims it has the right to extend its territorial waters beyond the current six miles to 12 miles, a claim which if put into force, would be considered a casus belli for Turkey. In addition, the sovereignty of some of the islands is also a matter of dispute between the two.

“We are working on formulas trying to circumvent these problematic issues,” a NATO diplomat based in Ankara told me. 

So, most probably, the diplomats and the military officials in both capitals must be on high alert to avoid falling into a situation whereby their respective arguments are not eroded.

The fact that the EU will also be involved could make the Turkish side much more nervous. 

While the NATO diplomat was optimistic that this whole scheme might even open the way for a permanent solution to the Aegean dispute, I was not able to observe a similar mood in Ankara.

Meanwhile, the fact that the NATO mission might also end up “spying” on Russian activities in the Aegean which is used as a supply route to Syria is a dimension worth pondering.

Would such a thing be wanted by Turkey? In the past, Turkey resisted efforts to have NATO stage a showdown against Russia in the Black Sea. But that was before Turkey drew Russia’s anger by downing its plane on the Syrian border. It is also no secret that Turkey wants more NATO involvement in the Syrian crisis. But Turkey wants NATO’s support to face Russian hostility on the Turkish-Syrian border, not in the Aegean.

All of these are certain dimensions, and I wonder to what degree they have been considered in detail in Ankara, whose foreign policy has lately become one of following events from behind.