The Turkish-Greek Feud and their Changing Strategy

Geopolitical analysts have taken an interest in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey in recent years. These two NATO members are experiencing rising tensions, which have spilled over into military face-offs and diplomatic rallies across the Middle East. Besides their troubling history of conflict, including the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus and the 1996 Imia islands incident that almost resulted in war, the two are currently arguing over their respective Exclusive Economic Zone (EZZ).

Opposing Interests in the Aegean

Greece wishes to expand its EZZ in the Aegean islands from six to 12 nautical miles, as it has recently done elsewhere with countries like Italy, Albania, and Egypt. Worried about its geopolitical stance, Turkey has openly threatened Greece with war if they expand their Aegean Sea islands’ EZZ. It also claimed Greek seabed for exploitation and disputed Greek sovereignty over the Aegean islands.

The Turkish claim stems from the Turkish feeling of encirclement by Greece and belief that Greece is encroaching their western Aegean coast through their islands, which, even with their small size, have the same status as the mainland. The expansion of the Greek EZZ would allow the Greek State expanded authority in that area. This expansion would essentially create a net for Greek authorities in the Aegean that would allow Greece to control trade and military vessels passing through these waters that lead up to the Bosporus strait and importantly Istanbul and the Black Sea. Turkey’s arguments are based on the Greek island of Kasterlorizo at Turkey’s southwestern flank which occupies nine square kilometres and sits at a distance of only two kilometres from the Turkish mainland, but hundreds of kilometres from mainland Greece. Turkey alleges that such a small island limiting to such an extent naval flow around it is irrational and unfair. This argument motivated Turkish policymakers to declare the “Blue Homeland” policy, claiming hundreds of thousands of extra square kilometres of territorial waters belonging to other countries, particularly Greece and Cyprus.

It was under this context that a major maritime dispute occurred between Turkey and Greece in 2021. A Turkish seabed research vessel sailed close to Greek islands, escalating into a face off between Turkish and Greek fleets that lasted for weeks and resulted in two opposing frigates colliding, before the US called for de-escalation, demonstrating the risk that an accident could spill over into a conflict when both parties exercise brinkmanship.

Strategic Challenges

Since 2010, Turkish president Recep Tayyep Erdogan steered Turkey’s foreign policy to hostility with regard to Israel in an effort to affirm Turkey’s stance as a major player in the Muslim world, which is also what motivated the conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque in 2020. This distancing of Turkey from Israel left a void that Greek foreign policy officials exploited through support for Israel in the Palestinian matter, as of late abstaining from voting on a United Nations resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Additionally, in 2021, Greece signed an agreement worth $1.3bln with an Israeli defense company regarding the operation of a training facility and the purchase and maintenance of Italian Leonardo aircraft.

Since the Arab spring, Turkey has been one of few safe havens for the Muslim Brotherhood and other such organizations of the Middle East, including Hamas. This, along with similar policies regarding the conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Iraq, led many Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia to reconsider their relationship with Turkey, taking a turn for the worst. With this context, in February of this year, Egypt, Cyprus, and Greece signed a military cooperation agreement, including joint exercises, training, and intelligence sharing. Furthermore, Egypt and Greece have signed an agreement to build an underwater cable to transport green energy from Egypt to Greece and the EU. Greece also established strong military ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia in 2021 as the latter’s F-15s participated in Greek Aegean aeronautical exercises. Later that year, Emirati F-16s were stationed in Crete amid rising tensions with Turkey. Greece also provided Saudi Arabia with Patriot air defense systems and personnel to protect the country’s energy infrastructure from Houthi missile attacks.

Interestingly, amid the Palestinian conflict, in February of this year Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met with Erdogan to discuss recent geopolitical issues in the region. This rapprochement is led by their joint effort to provide humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip and the two also discussing shared plans regarding Libya. Turkey also gained legitimacy and sympathy from the UAE and Saudi Arabia as the two have acted in solidarity with the Palestinian people in face of the current humanitarian crisis. Furthermore, as of 2023 Turkey’s VP and finance minister met with UAE and Saudi officials to discuss possible investment plans into the country’s defence and energy sectors, with Erdogan later securing a total of $50.7bln in investments from the UAE.

These advancements show how both countries have moved beyond NATO and European institutions to seek geopolitical alliances and cooperation to gain an advantage in the diplomatic sphere. Turkey’s longstanding controversial stance regarding troublesome Middle Eastern groups had painted Turkey negatively by important actors such as Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. However, through its support of the Palestinian cause, Turkey has gained back its legitimacy in the Arab world–albeit at the cost of its ties with Israel. On the other hand, Greece had always looked to maintain a stable, non-conflictual relationship with Middle Eastern nations, particularly on the Palestinian issue and regional rivalries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. This has proved increasingly difficult as the region devolves back to conflict and instability. Despite recent developments, Greek foreign policy experts have recognized and leaned towards Israel due to its importance in the eastern Mediterranean and the support for its right to self defense by the US.

“No Unsolvable Problems”

It is important to point out that as of December of 2023, Turkey and Greece have tried to re-establish and heal their broken relationship, with the first meeting between Erdogan and Mitsotakis in years. This new attempt came as the deadly 2023 Turkish earthquakes heavily damaged Gaziantep and caused the deaths of over 50,000 people, and Greece being the first country to send rescue teams and humanitarian aid. Through the previously mentioned meeting, the two sides plan to: double trade volumes to $10bln, hold high-level meetings annually, and collaborate in the energy and infrastructure sectors with new bridges across the Evros river on their border and the division of seabed resources. This is not the first time such rapprochements have been attempted between the two leaders. Still, as conflict rages on in Ukraine and the Middle East, they both seek to establish themselves as pillars of stability and gain geopolitical leverage.

This article was written by Atlas News contributor Kimonas Theodoropoulos.

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