The latest spat between two NATO members, Turkey and Greece, reveals deep cracks within the organization and has exposed the vulnerabilities and dilemmas of a once powerful alliance. It is also evidence of an ever-greater divide between the EU and Turkey.
Tensions between Turkey and Greece have increased after a series of disputes over the interpretation of international maritime law and territorial waters in the Eastern Mediterranean, where rich gas deposits have been found. Last month, Greek and Turkish military ships collided in contested waters near the Greek island of Kastellorizo, which lies just 2 km (1.2 miles) from the Turkish coast. Turkish military vessels guarded the country’s seismic research ship. This flexing of military muscles has raised concerns of confrontation between the two NATO members, who share a long history of disputes.
In short, while Greece has insisted that a country’s continental shelf should be measured from islands that belong to a particular state – an interpretation that has been supported by the UN Law of the Sea –Turkey builds its case by claiming that a nation’s continental shelf should be measured from its mainland coast.
Turkey’s exploration of the Mediterranean for hydrocarbons has pushed it at loggerheads over energy resources with many other countries in the region. Ankara has been criticized for its foreign and security policies, which have often been seen as incompatible with the interests of NATO members. Many analysts suggest that one of the main causes for the current discord with Turkey lies in Ankara’s implementation of the Blue Homeland Doctrine developed over 15 years ago, that seeks to expand Turkey’s influence in the Mediterranean as well as the Black Sea, and to exploit energy and other resources.
One of the main causes for the current discord lies in Ankara’s implementation of the Blue Homeland Doctrine that seeks to expand Turkey’s influence in the Mediterranean.
The disagreement grew when Greece signed a maritime deal with Egypt in August, to counter Ankara’s agreement with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, which defines the maritime border between Turkey and Libya, and permits Turkey to jointly exploit energy sources in the Mediterranean. The accord has triggered a series of incidents in the Mediterranean, adding to the list of Turkey’s unilateral moves in Syria and Libya as well as the decision to buy Russian S-400, and pushing Ankara in serious odds with NATO and the EU.
NATO has tried to de-escalate the situation. Its Chief, Jens Stoltenberg, encouraged the Greek and Turkish sides to engage in dialogue, along with Germany and the US—two influential NATO members seeking to take a mediator role in the dispute. The EU, however, explicitly threatened Turkey with sanctions if it continues with its unilateral drilling activities and aggressive moves.
Although NATO has never been designed to adjudicate disputes between its members, the alliance has developed some basic deconfliction arrangements, such as minimum distances between aircrafts and ships and the establishment of hotlines.
The later has been set up as a military mechanism to prevent serious clashes following talks between Turkey and Greece at the NATO headquarters in Brussels. The hotline will enable direct communication between the two sides, similar to one that was installed during the Cold War between Moscow and Washington.
While current initiatives may calm the brewing tension in the short run, it is obvious that NATO faces much deeper dilemmas, which seriously undermine its cohesion.
“NATO – and most of its members – know that they need to calm things down if they want to maintain NATO’s image of cohesion.”
According to Barah Mikaïl, Founding Director of Stractegia – a Madrid-based consultancy specializing in Middle Eastern geopolitics, this is why NATO’s Secretary-General is trying to mediate between the two countries. “NATO – and most of its members – know that they need to calm things down if they want to maintain NATO’s image of cohesion. They also know that Turkey is an important military, geographic, and strategic partner, and that if they don’t handle all this with care, they could be facing a fierce and aggressive reaction from Turkey,” he told Inside Arabia.
It seems that Turkey is trying to write a new set of rules while testing the patience of the alliance, knowing that it is an important geostrategic member of NATO. On the other hand, Tarik Basbugoglu, a PhD candidate at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland and an expert on Turkey’s foreign policy, explained that although Turkey does not want to leave NATO, it has been disappointed over the lack of understanding and solidarity it received regarding the Gulenist military coup, Turkish military operations in Syria against Syrian Kurds, and Turkish policy in the broader MENA region.
In Mikaïl’s view, Turkey is trying to get the maximum benefit before it takes a break and considers negotiations, recognizing that it is in a position of power. “It did so in Libya; it tried to do so in Syria; it is pushing in the same way on Nagorno Karabakh—of course, Ankara/Erdogan could always push things beyond some red lines and create a risk zone, but Turks also know where to stop,” Mikaïl explained. “And they know how to pressure NATO in order to get what they want, and to make themselves feared and taken [seriously],” he added.
Nevertheless, it seems that NATO has become paralyzed over the Turkey-Greece issue—two nominal allies that have never been very friendly.
Basbugoglu observes that although the Trump administration seemed to be neutral towards the recent Turkish-Greek tensions, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to Cyprus and Greece to calm down both sides. He recalls that Pompeo warned the Turkish government to not escalate the friction by sending the Oruc Reis survey vessel to the East Mediterranean during his Cyprus visit.
The US Embassy in Turkey expressed its support to Ankara by saying that the US did not accept the Sevilla map which increases the maritime border zones of Greece.
Yet, Basbugoglu noted, the US Embassy in Turkey expressed its support to Ankara by saying that the US did not accept the Sevilla map which increases the maritime border zones of Greece. Therefore, according to Basbugoglu, “the Trump leadership sought to play a constructive role in decreasing the tensions in the East Mediterranean.”
However, in Mikaïl’s opinion, it is impossible to broker between Greece and Turkey without taking sides, as their demands are diametrically opposed. “This is why an ‘external’ mediation may be needed, but there is not much NATO can do since it also cares about keeping in its ranks a country [Turkey] that is essential for both its military and geographic projection – especially towards Russia, the endless raison d’être for NATO,” he added.
Moreover, by being overly obsessed with Russia and focusing primarily on its eastern flank, NATO has long neglected its southern flank that is highly vulnerable and exposed to the destructive impact of Middle Eastern conflicts and growing tensions among its members.
Furthermore, in the absence of firm leadership, NATO has not been able to respond to the particular interests of some of its larger members. Thus countries like Turkey often pursued their own geopolitical tactics which collided with the aims of other members of the alliance, causing frictions that seriously undermine the stability and very foundation of the organization.
Many observers agree that the United States has adopted a much lower profile over the years, starting with Obama’s “leading from behind approach” and continuing to an even larger extent during the Trump era. Such an approach has often been heavily criticized at home and abroad, as US foreign policy is losing a clear sense of direction.
Faced with numerous challenges from outside and within, it is rather unclear whether NATO possesses enough capabilities to alleviate rivalries in the Mediterranean.
Basbugoglu believesthat while NATO played a crucial role in decreasing the tensions between Turkey and the French-Greek alliance in the East Mediterranean, the bilateral problems within NATO like the Turkish-French spat could decrease its conflict mitigation capacity.
Mikaïl, on the other hand, is not sure if NATO can find a solution and impose it on Turkey and Greece, but he believes it can succeed in moderating stances. Still, unless Ankara gets some benefits from negotiations, it will be hard to soften its stance.