Greek-Turkey tensions are not going away soon

Greek-Turkey Tensions

Cyprus has been in dispute between Greece and Turkey ever since Turkish forces invaded the island in 1974, and the subsequent unilateral declaration of a Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It builds upon a much longer history of enmity between the Greeks and the Turks going back to before the modern Turkish state was founded.

Despite multiple diplomatic efforts – there were hopes that as Turkey came ever closer to European Union membership, the Cyprus issue might be easier to resolve – it has proved as intractable as ever.

Now, there is no prospect of Turkey joining the EU. And the tensions over energy have added a new element to a very old dispute.

New Ottomans

The geographical horizons of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have certainly expanded.

Another crucial element of the puzzle is the much more assertive foreign policy being pursued by Turkey, which some have likened to a resurgence of the old Ottoman Empire.

Turkey’s strategic stance has shifted since the end of the Cold War with the demise of the staunchly secular state and a more Islamist tone to its politics.

The ruling AKP party saw a dynamic and growing Turkish economy as helping to establish the nation as a player with regional reach. Recently Turkey’s economy may have faltered, but President Erdogan shows no sign of drawing in his horns.

Turkish Military In Syria And Libya

Turkey has sought to steer its own course, engaging with other players like Russia and Iran where necessary. It has, by all evidence, enjoyed this relative measure of strategic autonomy and has sought to expand its regional footprint, weighing in heavily on the side of the GNA government in the Libyan civil war.

Like so many battles in the region – as indeed in Syria – this has become to some extent a proxy war, with various outside players lining up against each other. And in Libya, Turkey is opposed by powerful actors like Egypt and the UAE.

Turkey has intervened heavily on the side of the UN-backed Libyan government while the UAE and Egypt back the eastern militias of Gen Khalifa Haftar. Turkey and the UAE have mounted a kind of proxy drone war in Libya’s skies, with the UAE operating its Chinese-supplied drones and the Turks deploying a home-built armed drone of their own. This Turkish air power proved decisive in saving the GNA.

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The Libya conflict has also deepened the enmity between Turkey and Egypt. Relations went into the freezer following the overthrow in Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood – seen as a fraternal regime by the Turks.

Oil Exploration

Turkey has pursued an aggressive gas exploration effort, its research vessel heavily protected by warships of the Turkish Navy. There have been encounters with rival Greek vessels and a third Nato country, France, has become involved, siding with the Greeks.

A drilling vessel in the Bosphorus on the way to the Mediterranean to explore

Tensions ensued. Earlier this month, Greece and Egypt signed a maritime boundary agreement, prompting Turkish anger, a renewed exploration effort and naval deployments.

But the curious thing is that, while energy exploration almost inevitably exacerbates tension and in the longer term could well fuel a regional air and naval arms race, concerted action is going to be needed if the economic benefits of this gas are to be realised.

The Eastern Mediterranean tensions also highlight another shift in the region – the decline of US power or, perhaps more accurately, the decline of the Trump administration’s strategic interest in what goes on there.

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President Donald Trump has suspended Turkey from the F-35 warplane programme after its purchase of advanced Russian surface-to-air missiles. But there has not been any real consistent US pressure on Turkey to match the trouble that it has been creating for US policy within Nato, in Syria and elsewhere.

In the absence of clear US action, Germany has sought to mediate between Greece and Turkey, with France weighing in more explicitly on the side of the Greeks.

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