Deepening dispute between Nato allies has dragged in neighbours and is in danger of spiralling out of controlby Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor
An increasingly fractious standoff over access to gas reserves has transformed a dispute between Turkey and Greece that was once primarily over Cyprus into one that now ensnares Libya, Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and feeds into other political issues in the Mediterranean and has raised fears of a naval conflict between the two Nato allies in the Aegean Sea.
The crisis has been deepening in recent months with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, leading those inside the EU opposing Turkey’s increasingly military foreign policy and saying Turkey can no longer be seen as partner in the Mediterranean. He has offered French military support to the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, including the possible sale of 18 Rafale jets.
The issue was on the agenda of a meeting of the Med7 group of southern Mediterranean leaders on the French island of Corsica on Thursday and again at an EU council meeting on 23 September that will discuss imposing severe sanctions on the already struggling Turkish banking sector over its demand for access to large swaths of the eastern Mediterranean.
Germany, the lead mediator between Turkey and Greece, is exploring an enhanced customs union between Turkey and the EU to calm the dispute, which has been exacerbated by vast hydrocarbon discoveries over the past decade in the eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey has long sought a broader customs union with the EU, and although Greece might see any such offer as a reward for bullying, Germany believes both carrots and sticks are needed to persuade Turkey to change its strategy..
But Germany is also warning Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that his current unilateral strategy is a commercial dead end, since no private gas company is going to touch cooperation with Turkey if it is trying to exploit illegal claims on gas reserves.
The scale of the reserves, and Turkish ambitions, last year prompted Israel, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority to form an East Med Gas forum to draw up a joint plan to extract and export gas from the region. France would also like to join, and the United Arab Emirates, also battling Turkish intervention in Libya, is a supporter, creating an imposing anti-Turkish web.
Turkey argues that Greece is claiming the Aegean Sea economically as purely Greek, even though Turkey has a greater length of coastline.
Some Turkish analysts, such as Cem Gürdeniz, a former admiral, see it as the geopolitical issue of the 21st century and a chance to challenge treaty settlements made a century ago amid the collapse of the Ottoman empire. “We are defending our blue homeland,” he says. “It is a defensive doctrine after our continental shelf was stolen by Greece and Cyprus [and] represents the greatest geostrategic challenge of the century.”
Macron has already increased the French naval presence in the sea, and called for withdrawal of the Turkish reconnaissance ship Oruç Reis, accompanied by Turkish naval ships. The ship is undertaking seismic surveys in Greek waters south of Cyprus. A key moment may come on 12 September, when the Turkish Navtex warning for Oruç Reis is due to end. If it is extended, the risk of a naval clash between Greece and Turkey two Nato partners either by accident or design rises.
The fear that the conflict could spiral out of control has led to an urgent search for a neutral arbitrator and an agreed agenda for talks. An effort by Nato to start technical naval deconfliction talks was delayed after Greece objected to Nato’s involvement. The Greek foreign minister, Nikos Dendias, insisted that the talks would start only when the threats stopped. He then flew to New York to enlist the help of the UN secretary general, António Guterres.
Parallel mediation efforts by the EU, through the German presidency, had started to make progress. At the request of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, Erdoğan paused Turkish exploration activities near Cyprus last month, resuming only when Greece announced a maritime border agreement with Egypt similar to one signed by Turkey and Libya last November.
Germany’s mediation is hampered by Turkish warnings that the EU must be impartial and that the EU is biased towards the existing EU members, Greece and Cyprus. The Turkish ambassador to the UK, Ümit Yalçın, insists that his country is sincere in seeking talks with Greece.
A solution is difficult, since both sides have legitimate claims and the developing law of the sea, inherently complex, is interpreted differently by Greece and Turkey, leading to both sides publishing wholly contradictory maps showing the extent of their continental shelf and hence their economic exclusion zones.
The UN convention on the law of the sea (Unclos), signed by 167 states but not by Turkey, sets the limits of exclusive economic zones on the basis of a country’s continental shelf. As many as 300 similar maritime disputes have occurred worldwide. The convention also allows islands that are inhabited and economically viable to have exclusive economic zones. Greece, through its ownership of the 12 scattered Greek islands in the Dodecanese, can make a substantive claim to exploration rights.
The tiny island of Kastellorizo, just 1.2 miles (2km) from the Turkish coast and 300 miles (500km) from the Greek mainland, is a Greek possession, but in the past century has been held by Turkey, Italy and Germany and been a British protectorate. Turkey is threatening to send ships off the island to explore for hydrocarbon reserves.
Those analysts pressing both sides to attempt arbitration, as have many countries in similar disputes, say that in practice the international court of justice in The Hague, which acts as an arbitration body, may not endorse Greece’s maximalist position.
“In resolving the dispute, the primary question would be whether the islands have the same maritime area as mainlands,” wrote Yunus Emre Açıkgönül, a former Turkish diplomat and expert in maritime law. “Turkey wants to ignore the Greek islands from the EEZ definition, whereas Greece would like to give full weight to these islands. There is no clear answer to these questions. The effect to be accorded to islands has been one of the most controversial issues in the history of the law of maritime boundary definition.”
But he says case law shows factors including the size, status and location of an island and its distance from the mainland have to be taken into account. It is unlikely, for instance, that arbitration would find Kastellorizo justified expanding the exclusive Greek economic zone from Rhodes another 80 miles (125km) further east, depriving Turkey of 400,000 sq km of water.
To lure Turkey back into the lottery of arbitration would be hard since there is a risk that the bulk of the Aegean would remain Greek. But Turkey and Greece nearly agreed to settle their differences at the ICJ in 1976-78 and the plan foundered over preconditions. The stakes are higher now.
The bigger diplomatic judgment is whether the conflict is only a dispute about gas, capable of settlement by cartographers, or instead is driven by Erdoğan appropriating a pan-Islamic Ottoman ideology, largely because of his domestic political weakness.
The blue homeland theorists claim that Turkey’s troubles stem from unfair treatment by old colonial powers, including the pro-Greek former British prime minister David Lloyd George. Erdoğan’s supporters argue that at a point of historic weakness and without a navy, Turkey was forced to sign the treaty of Sèvres in 1920, and its inadequate revision at the treaty of Lausanne in 1923. This left Turkey in effect trapped as a landlocked power, even though it has about 5,000 miles (8,000km) of coastline.
Concern in French political classes about Turkey’s overall political direction is growing. Jacques Attali, who was adviser to the former French president François Mitterrand, recently said: “We have to hear what Turkey says, take it very seriously and be prepared to act by all means. If our predecessors had taken the Führer’s speeches seriously from 1933 to 1936, they could have prevented this monster from the accumulating the means to do what he did.”
The former French UN envoy Gérard Araud also put Turkish behaviour in a historical context. He wrote: “Russia, China and Turkey are revisionist powers which don’t accept a status quo based on a world order largely defined by the west in 1945 and 1991. They feel emboldened by a new global balance of power and by US policy. Where will they stop? What should the Europeans do?”
Macron put it bluntly at a conference in Lugano: “We have to create Pax Mediterranea because we see an imperial regional power coming back with some fantasies of its own history, and I am referring essentially to Turkey.”
Turkey accuses France of hysteria and pique. It claims France feels thwarted by the Turkish intervention in Libya at the start of 2020 to protect the UN-recognised Government of National Accord in Tripoli from an assault by the French-supported General Khalifa Haftar.
Turkey then exploited the GNA’s gratitude, and political vulnerability, to cajole its prime minister, Fayez al-Serraj, into signing a new bilateral maritime treaty. The treaty and associated maps totally contradict previously understood Greek and Cypriot drilling rights, in effect ignoring the existence of Crete. Erdoğan hailed the agreement as the reversal of Sèvres and the dawn of a new order.
The next few months will decide if he is right, and whether that order is achieved through war or diplomacy.