Turkey and Greece: The Best of Frenemies
by Ertan Karpazli
On March 21, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu greeted his Greek counterpart George Katrougalos in the Turkish coastal city of Antalya as they met to turnaround strained ties between the two NATO allies. But while the diplomats may have embraced like two old friends, bubbling under the surface of smiles and handshakes lie two centuries of unresolved disputes.
For Turkey, today’s problems stem from the attitude of the Greek Cypriot government in Cyprus, which enjoys international recognition at the expense of the Turkish Cypriots in the island’s breakaway north. The Greek Cypriots have wasted no time in offering licenses to US, French, Italian, Israeli, South Korean and Qatari energy firms for the exploration and exploitation of newly discovered hydrocarbon reserves around the island. The discoveries in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) declared by the Greek Cypriot government coincide with similar discoveries off the coasts of Israel and Egypt. Such finds have interested European gas importers looking to diversify their supplies away from Russia. Regional players in the Eastern Mediterranean have also initiated joint efforts to work out a route to the European market.
In January, Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority formed the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), which envisions an undersea pipeline to Europe. Having already agreed on the demarcation of their respective EEZs, member states effectively locked Turkey out. Using Greece’s easternmost outpost of Kastellorizo, an island just two miles off Turkey’s south-western coast, Athens extended its EEZ into what Ankara claims as Turkey’s continental shelf. Turkey therefore sees the EMGF as an intrusion on its rights.
Nonetheless, a number of experts have already said the EMGF pipeline is nothing more than a pipe dream, and a pipeline through Turkey is the only feasible route to Europe. Turkey, however, has demands. First, Turkey says Turkish Cypriots should be equal partners in deals made over Cyprus’ natural resources, and has countered Greek Cypriot unilateralism with its own drilling off the island. Negotiations to end the frozen conflict in Cyprus collapsed two years ago over Turkey’s insistence in maintaining the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee. The treaty granted Turkey, Greece and Britain, the right to intervene to safeguard the bicommunal power balance in Cyprus. It is upon this treaty that Turkey bases its legal argument for its presence in the island’s north since 1974. The treaty is highly unpopular among Greek Cypriots, who reject it as an outdated pact now replaced by EU guarantees. Turkish Cypriots, meanwhile, have long considered the treaty to be non-negotiable.
However, on April 12, Katrougalos and Cavusoglu will meet in Greece to discuss possible alternatives. Before this, Turkey would have abruptly dismissed any suggestion of the treaty’s abrogation. So what changed? Well, economic woes aside, Turkey’s geopolitical aspirations have suffered years of setbacks. The ousting of Mohamed Morsi’s government in Egypt in 2013, the resurgence of the Assad regime in Syria, the rise of PKK-affiliated militants east of the Euphrates, an ongoing diplomatic crisis with Israel, stagnation in its EU accession process, and fall outs with NATO’s big brother the US have left Turkey with few options. Furthermore, the emergence of an anti-Turkish multinational bloc in the Mediterranean risks leaving Turkey regionally isolated. Yes, the EMGF project may be futile, with little chance of the Eastern Mediterranean reserves reaching international markets, but the idea alone is paving the way for EMGF states to boost cooperation in security.
Early in March, Greek sources reported that Israel and Greece will start building a long-range marine radar in eastern Crete, most likely to serve as an early warning system against Turkish navy vessels in the Aegean. Also in March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced ahead of a meeting in Tel Aviv with his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras, Greek Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, that Israel’s navy would be deployed to protect the EMGF pipeline. Similar warnings have also been issued by Egypt. Although these statements did not explicitly mention Turkey, they came after Turkish warships blocked drilling in the region with impromptu naval exercises.
In late February, Turkey held the Blue Homeland war games in which it displayed its full naval prowess in the Black Sea, Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, seemingly to deliver a message to those seeking to box Turkey into the Bay of Iskenderun. Realistically, no single country in the region, with the exception of perhaps Egypt, can equal Turkey’s military strength in gunboat diplomacy, but a bloc of nations might. It could be argued that this is the real objective of the EMGF project, especially for France and Italy, who aim to keep Turkish influence out of Libya. However, without the support of the US Sixth Fleet, which Pompeo could not promise during his trip to Tel Aviv, such a confrontation would likely remain at a stalemate.
With both their cards laid out on the table, it seems Turkey and Greece are done testing each other’s reflexes. They can now begin down the roadmap to greater cooperation. Naturally, both sides will take cheap shots to gain leverage in talks, but for the most part, Athens and Ankara finally appear ready to set aside their differences, with regional peace proving more mutually advantageous than the status quo, or even further yet, all-out war. So, for better or worse, Turkey and Greece are likely to remain the best of frenemies.
Image: Evzones, Presidential Guard
Courtesy of Luc.T / Flickr
Ertan Karpazli is a British journalist and political analyst based in London, Istanbul and Nicosia who specializes in geopolitical developments in and around the Eastern Mediterranean. His commentaries on the Cyprus peace talks and related issues have been published by TRT World, T-Vine, The New Turkey, Daily Sabah and Middle East Monitor.