Waves of tension in the Aegean Sea: How will NATO address 2020 Greco-Turkish relations?

By THO Academic Liaison, Sean Russell

A brief glance into the history books of the twentieth century illustrates the long and tenuous relationship between Turkey and Greece. With multiple armed conflicts under their belt, Greece and Turkey often appear as a trademark historical rivalry. However, following their dual admittance to NATO in 1952, these two nations found themselves united under the same banner. How has NATO been affected by this relationship, and vice versa how has the bilateral Turkish-Greco relationship changed following joining NATO? How has this internal contradiction played out over the course of the last half-century, and how will NATO address the rising tensions of the present in order to ensure the cohesion and stability of NATO in the coming future? 

To navigate the intricacies of the multi-hundred-year Greco-Turkish relationship the US and NATO must open their history books, drawing on historical context to better understand the tensions of today. To begin, ancestral states of both Greece (Byzantium) and Turkey (Ottoman) have occupied the other for long expanses of time. Following the creation of the modern states of Greece and Turkey, under the Treaty of Lausanne the countries exchanged populations, uprooting people from their historic lands to homogenize the new nation-states. In 1974 the Cyprus coup d’etat began, pitting Greece and Turkey against each other leaving modern scars on their visions of the other.

However a glance at history will not illuminate the full picture, NATO must also address modern issues that have come about due to technological progress and the geopolitical events of the 21st century. Discoveries of natural gas reserves in the Aegean sea and surrounding the island of Cyprus have raised the stakes of maritime border disputes. Massive migrations of refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil war traveling through Turkey have been a focal point of tension between the two countries. All of this on top of the EU and non-EU divide between the two countries, the competing economic interests of these two nations further outline the present divide.

Under the UN convention on the Laws of the Sea, Greek islands off the coast of Turkey expand the Greek maritime economic zone to encompass the majority of the Aegean. Turkey has claimed this as utterly unfair, describing it as a forceful act to landlock the country and disregard its needs and interests. Greece cites historical and cultural ties to the islands, supporting the UN guidelines of maritime economic zones. This tension of the Aegean has recently resulted in a bilateral agreement between Turkey and Libya to open up an economic corridor splitting Greek maritime jurisdiction. This move was directly followed up by an agreement between Greece and Egypt to counter, further angering Ankara. Another flashpoint of tension surrounds the island of Cyprus, divided in two by the Republic of Cyprus supported by Greece and the Republic of Northern Cyprus supported by Turkey. The Republic of Cyprus is internationally recognized and an EU member, complicating the issue and pushing Turkey away from the EU. Maritime disputes surrounding the island echo the same issue at hand in the Aegean Sea, with reserves of natural gas being too valuable to relinquish to the other.

While the refugee crisis is a pressing issue of the region, it pertains more to the EU. If the EU attempts to mediate the issue it may only complicate it further, raising the stakes of the situation. President Erdoghan has previously threatened to open its borders, encouraging Syrian refugees to migrate to Europe. If the EU were to take a more active role in this issue it would further alienate Turkey: a non-EU country. Whereas NATO brings both countries under the same banner, allowing for more open dialogue and common ground.

NATO should focus on resolving maritime issues in the eastern Mediteranean to preserve the cohesion of the alliance. In NATO’s perspective, it is to their advantage for Turkey to pursue energy independence from Russia. It is this reason that Turkey has gone to such an extent to secure these reserves. NATO must also respect Greek claims that are held up by the United Nations, also weighing the benefit of Greece controlling these reserves for the benefit of their rebounding economy. These conflicting interests make the Greece-Turkish relationship difficult to navigate. However NATO should view this as an opportunity to solve multiple problems within the alliance and improve the well-being of its member states. Joint administration of these eastern Mediterranean natural gas reserves should not be out of the question. It is likely that there will be an initial rejection of this idea from both sides. If NATO plays its cards right by hearing out both sides, weighing the costs and benefits, and slowing down the process so there are no rash decisions made, then it is possible for NATO to come out of this crisis stronger than before.

In its position, the US could improve the situation by organizing summits and active discourse amongst the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean. This issue will not be resolved without discourse and consensus. Violence, specifically border clashes and naval engagement, is not the answer. This should be avoided at all costs if the US wishes to maintain the alliance. 

The US should not attempt to remedy or solve the issue on its own accord and interests, rash actions could lead to further divide. NATO and its member states should open dialogue up between the two countries, avoiding bias and coming to a conclusion that suits the needs of both Turkey and Greece. Disputes and clashing interests in Libya have found Turkey on unsteady footing with France and other NATO members, this along with tension surrounding Turkey’s purchasing of the S400 may complicate open negotiations. However, if these two countries are to come to a fair compromise, both of their interests must reasonably be met. 

If the US and NATO do not address the tensions of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, they will not simply go away, rather they will boil over. The answer to this problem is not self-evident, many factors and contradicting interests will have to be taken into account. Whatever the answer to this issue will look like, it will be arrived at through open ears and open minds. The simple answer to reducing tensions between the two countries is to improve open communication. October 1 2020, NATO has made steps in this direction establishing a military deconfliction mechanism. This action, also established in the region during the 1990s, creates a hotline between Athens and Ankara with the goal of de-escalating and preventing conflict at sea and in the air. 

To assure de-escalation and a return to bilateral friendship, NATO must continue in its efforts to create a dialogue between the two countries. The US should be an active member in creating this channel of open discussion, to both decrease tensions and improve its bi-lateral relationship with Greece and Turkey. NATO will face many challenges in the twenty-first century, addressing this internal divide will be a test of the alliance’s resolve in the years to come.


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