Border Conflict Escalates Erdoğan Risks War with Greece

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to redraw national borders in the Mediterranean region and is alienating neighboring countries. Turkey and Greece, both NATO allies, are mobilizing their navies against each other.
Turkish President Erdoğan: aggressive and unpredictable

Turkish President Erdoğan: aggressive and unpredictable


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In June 2006, Cem Gürdeniz, the head of the Turkish Navy’s planning staff, outlined a foreign policy concept that interested few at the time because it seemed overly audacious and aggressive. In a speech he gave in Ankara, Gürdeniz called for Turkey’s expansion in the Mediterranean region, saying the government needed redraw its borders, taking up arms if necessary, to secure the country’s economic and political interests. He called his plan "Mavi Vatan,” Blue Fatherland. "I wanted Turkey to rise to become a real maritime power," he said in a Skype interview.

The reason people in Ankara didn’t take the proposal seriously back then was that Turkey was still striving to become a member of the European Union. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time and has since become president, had no interest in a territorial dispute with neighbors like Greece.

Gürdeniz’s own career came to a sudden halt when, like hundreds of other officers, he was arrested in 2011. The self-described Kemalist felt more committed to the secular heritage of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern-day Turkey, than Erdoğan’s Islamist-conservative government.

Erdoğan had no use for such people. Despite his innocence, Gürdeniz spent three and a half years in the high security Silivri prison near Istanbul before he was rehabilitated.

Since then, Turkey has reoriented its foreign policy. Erdoğan has abandoned the goal of EU membership and is now pursuing a more nationalist course. The government has also rediscovered Gürdeniz’s old plan.

"It’s About the Future of Turkey”

Erdoğan has placed the eastern Mediterranean Sea at the center of his maneuvers to attain greater geopolitical power. The president, his foreign minister and the right-wing extremist party he shares power with in a coalition government are all suddenly speaking publicly about the "Blue Fatherland.”

Furthermore, Gürdeniz has risen from being an enemy of the state to the architect of the government's foreign policy - a reality that he is more surprised about than pleased with. "This is not about Erdoğan,” he says. "It’s about the future of Turkey.”

The territories in the Mediterranean region are currently defined by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, but Erdoğan is no longer willing to accept its terms. His country, he claims, was disadvantaged by the way the border was drawn.

Both Turkey and Greece have mobilized their navies in recent weeks. The last time the situation in the region grew this tense was back in 1996, when Turkish and Greek warships faced off over two uninhabited islands in the Aegean Sea.

The issues underlying the conflict are rather technical, but that doesn’t make them any less explosive. At the heart of the matter is which country is entitled to what share of the eastern Mediterranean.

Up in Arms

Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, individual countries may exploit raw materials within a radius of 200 miles of their islands in a so-called Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The Turkish government is currently up in arms over that provision because several Greek islands are located only a few kilometers from the coast of Turkey, and the size of the Turkish EEZ is much smaller than Ankara would like it to be.

The dispute could be resolved if both sides were to refer the matter to an independent institution - the International Court of Justice in The Hague or a court of arbitration. The parties would have to agree to share the disputed sea area until a verdict is reached. Instead, however, they are insisting on maximum demands.

In November, Erdoğan pledged support for Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj in the fight against warlord Khalifa Haftar. In return, Sarraj agreed to a deal with Turkey, one element of which would extend Turkey's EEZ beyond the Greek island of Crete.

Neither Greece nor other neighboring countries, including Israel and Egypt, recognize the agreement. Athens and Cairo negotiated a deal in early August that stands in opposition to the Turkish EEZ.

But Erdoğan is moving forward anyway. Almost two weeks ago, the Turkish president dispatched the research vessel Oruç Reis, escorted by warships, toward Greece to carry out seismic surveys off the island of Kastellorizo. Shortly afterward, he announced he also planned to search for raw materials off the coast of Cyprus.

Alarm in Europe

Europeans are alarmed. The Greek government said that Erdoğan’s actions were "destabilizing and threatening peace.” Following a meeting of EU foreign ministers the week before last, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called on Turkey to cease its search for natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean "immediately.”

French President Emmanuel Macron even sent his own warships into the Mediterranean in a show of support for Greece. In tweets posted in Greek, he accused Ankara of provoking tension with its unilateral action.

Interest in gas is only one of several reasons for the open hostility. Over the past 10 years, surveyors have discovered gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean holding almost 50 times the amount of gas currently consumed in France each year.

Foto: Chris Kleponis / imago images

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 35/2020 (August 22, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

But the fossil fuel is located deep below the surface and exploiting the reserves would require considerable effort. Meanwhile, oil and gas prices have collapsed in recent years, making drilling efforts hardly worth the effort, say experts. Citing economic reasons, companies like BP have already announced that they have no plans to develop new fields in any new countries.

Erdoğan Feels Sidelined

It seems likely, though, that Erdoğan is also pushing the "Mavi Vatan” doctrine forward out of injured pride and domestic political calculations. The Turkish head of state feels he is being sidelined in the exploitation of raw materials in the Mediterranean.

Indeed, when Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Italy recently joined forces to create the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, Turkey was left out. In July, the Israeli government agreed to the construction of the Eastmed pipeline which, against Turkish objections, will transport gas from Israel’s waters to Europe via Cyprus and Greece.

The concern has been great in Berlin that the situation in the Mediterranean could spiral out of control.

When Erdoğan "feels he doesn’t have a seat at the table, he generally flips the table over,” Max Hoffman, an expert on Turkey at the Center for American Progress, tweeted earlier this month.

The conflict in the Mediterranean also offers a welcome opportunity for Erdoğan to distract from his domestic political troubles. The Turkish economy has been in a crisis for years now, and it has been further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. The lira is at a historical low of almost 9 lira to the euro.

Erdoğan has also seldom been as unpopular in public opinion polls during his time in office as he is now. It’s even possible he won’t get reelected in 2023.

There’s disagreement in Europe on how to deal with the increasingly aggressive and unpredictable Turkish leader. French President Macron, in particular, is advocating a tougher position. Paris and Ankara are already facing off against each other in Libya, where they support different camps in the civil war.

It was only in June that the French frigate Courbet stopped a freighter in the Mediterranean accompanied by Turkish warships that had been suspected of smuggling weapons into Libya illegally.

The French Defense Ministry claims that the Turks directed their fire control radar at the Courbet, a maneuver that usually precedes the firing of weapons. The French were probably only able to avoid an escalation by turning away at the last minute.

Berlin Seeks To Mediate

The German government, on the other hand, wants to get Erdoğan back to the negotiating table. Talks between Ankara and Athens with mediation from German Chancellor Angela Merkel failed before they ever really began.

On Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas flew to region to mediate – first stopping in Greece to visit with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and then with Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias in Athens. After that, he planned to continue on to Ankara to meet with Mevlüt Cavusoglu. Before departing on the shuttle diplomacy trip, Haas said, "Turkey and Greece are our NATO allies. Solutions to the dispute over the natural gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean can only be found on the basis of international law and in sincere dialogue with one another.”

The concern has been great in Berlin that the situation in the Mediterranean could spiral out of control, even as the result of an accident. Erdoğan has already made clear that he would not leave an attack on a Turkish research vessel unanswered. And in Greece, nationalists are urging the government of Prime Minister Mitsotakis not to budge in the dispute with Turkey.

Officials in Germany’s Foreign Ministry say that nobody wants an armed conflict between Greece and Turkey, two NATO member states. However, the fact that both are building up their militaries is increasing the danger of war in the eastern Mediterranean with each passing day.

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