There are eight Turks for every Greek, so you might think the Greeks have to fold. But Greece has the backing of France, Italy, Israel, Egypt, and practically every other country in the eastern Mediterranean and the Arab world, as well as the entire European Union, so it has just called the bet and raised it.
This poker game is all about rival claims to seabed territory with promising gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been throwing his weight around – or maybe he’s just bluffing, but how much is Greece willing to risk to find out? Especially since Athens can’t be sure which way its friends will jump if the shooting starts.
The quarrel between Greece and Turkey is mainly about control over the waters and seabed of the Aegean Sea that separates them. The Aegean is only an average of 200 km. wide, and it would be easy just to run a line down the middle – except that there is a chain of Greek islands running down Turkey’s west coast, often within sight of the mainland. Almost all the other islands in the sea are Greek too.
So it’s a Greek sea, really – but Turkey refuses to accept that. In defiance of both traditional maritime law and the 1982 United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea, Ankara insists that the Greek islands do not generate their own territorial waters and seabed rights. It claims half the Aegean Sea as its own, and a big chunk of the Mediterranean beyond it too.
You can see why Turkey feels cheated by geography, but the law is the law for every country, and by and large Turkey abided by it – until the prospect of undersea gas wealth and the pressures of populist politics spurred it to push its spurious claims very hard.
It’s really fool’s gold. The recent collapse in gas and oil prices is likely to last long after the Covid-19 crisis ends, perhaps even permanently, for renewable energy prices are now competitive with fossil fuels and demand is trending downwards. Laying seabed pipelines is expensive, and even without the risk of war it’s unlikely to happen in the eastern Mediterranean now.
Does Erdoğan realise this? Maybe so, maybe not, but either way he needs a foreign crisis so he can pose as the hero of Turkish nationalism. The long, credit-fueled boom that sustained his popularity has given way to economic stagnation, his military incursions into Syria, Iraq and Libya have made him many enemies, and he badly needs a win.
Since last year Turkish seismic exploration and drilling ships, escorted by warships, have been searching for gas in waters off Crete and Cyprus that no other country in the world regards as Turkish. In reply, French and Italian warships and fighter aircraft from the United Arab Emirates have taken part in joint exercises with Greek and Cypriot forces.
The European Union has given Turkey until late September to stop its “illegal activities” in the eastern Mediterranean, after which sanctions may be imposed. And last Thursday Greece declared that it was going to extend its territorial waters in the Ionian Sea from six nautical miles to the maximum permitted twelve miles.
That’s the Ionian Sea, between western Greece and Italy, not the Aegean, between eastern Greece and Turkey. In the Aegean both Greece and Turkey still observe the old six-mile limit in practice, although it is unclear whether Turkey officially accepts it in theory. But Greece is signalling that it might go to twelve miles in the Aegean too, which would pretty well turn it into a Greek lake.
Both Greece and Turkey joined NATO during the Cold War out of fear of the Soviet Union, and the other NATO members are now trying hard to ward off a conflict that could break the alliance. But it’s an uphill struggle, because the two countries have been enemies for a long time.
The Turks conquered all of the Balkan peninsula, including Greece, and ruled over it for centuries. Greece took part in the attempt to carve up what was left of Turkey as European colonies after the First World War. The Turks expelled the long established Greek minority from most of the country when that attempt failed.
Two generations later, the Greek government engineered a bloody coup by ex-EOKA terrorists in Cyprus with the intention of unifying the island with Greece. Turkey invaded in order to stop that and protect the Turkish minority in 1973, and its troops are still there to support the separatist government of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus.
There have been at least three other Greek-Turkish crises since then, none of which ended in war. This one probably won’t either, but it’s going to come closer than any of the others did. Erdoğan sees his power slipping away, and he’s getting desperate.*