At the same time that the EastMed pipeline construction agreement was being signed in Athens last Thursday, Turkey’s Parliament was approving a military deployment to Libya. After signing a memorandum of cooperation with the government in Tripoli that ignores several Greek islands, including Crete, Turkey is escalating its activities in the region, while also sending “warnings” to neighboring countries.
Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said, in fact, that Ankara will thwart any plot to exclude it from tapping the East Mediterranean’s natural wealth.
Tensions in the East Mediterranean, but also in the Aegean, have been rising rapidly in recent months, bringing us to what is arguably the most dangerous point in Greek-Turkish relations since after 1974. Concern in Greece is rife, starting from the political leadership, down to the armed forces and across society. Citizens’ concerns have been recorded in public opinion polls, while questions about the likelihood of going to war have been commonplace in dinnertime conversations over the holidays.
The prevalent atmosphere is stirring a mixture of emotions, ranging from unnecessary fear to aggressive reflexes, when the situation calls for a cool head and actions on three fronts.
First and foremost, we need national unity. Our repetition of this fact may seem tiresome, but it is incredibly important. No one should be aiming at making political gains from dealing with this extremely difficult issue. It does not serve the national interest and will not be rewarded by society, not at the personal nor at the party level.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis made the right decision when he invited the energy ministers of previous governments to attend the signing ceremony for the EastMed gas pipeline, while the main opposition’s positive announcement concerning the energy deal was in the same spirit. Another encouraging development was opposition chief Alexis Tsipras’ decision to maintain a moderate stance during the recent discussion on Greek-Turkish relations in Parliament in Athens. He presented his thoughts and proposals while avoiding any confrontation.
It is time for there to be an open channel of communication between the two; you don’t need to be friends with your political rival in order to come to some understanding over an existential threat – being Greek is enough. Communication between the two biggest parties that represent three-quarters of the Greek population is essential. In this case, the prime minister will not only be briefing and talking with someone who heads the main opposition, but also with someone who was prime minister himself, and that until very recently. This means he is very familiar with the actors and situations and has – or ought to have – a sense of responsibility.
The second action has to do with the international front. While bilateral and multilateral strategic partnerships are important, no one will fight our battles for us. Nevertheless, having allies in our corner will be crucial to averting the possibility of war.
Just as the threat of use of force is sometimes the best way to deter a confrontation, the existence and advertisement of alliances can contribute to this becoming unnecessary.
The government did not put the necessary emphasis on Greek-Turkish affairs when it was first elected six months ago, choosing instead to dedicate all of its attention to the revival of the economy.
But that was then. Now it is active on every level. Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias’ trips to Libya, Egypt and Cyprus, but also to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, in combination with the signing of the EastMed pipeline deal between Mitsotakis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades, have sent powerful messages.
Also important is the other alliance, between Greece, Cyprus and Egypt, that is being supplemented by France, which will be confirmed at a meeting of the four countries’ foreign ministers in Cairo on Wednesday, Jan. 8. (The initial meeting date, Jan. 5, has been postponed due to the latest developments in Iraq and Iran).
At the same time, the adoption by the United States of the East Med Act adds another layer of security to the trilateral partnership between Greece, Cyprus and Israel. The American factor is instrumental. President Donald Trump is, perhaps, the only leader Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan will listen to right now, though the close personal relationship between the two raises legitimate concerns.
Meanwhile, domestic developments inside the United States, with Trump’s impeachment process in full swing, have led him to consign international regional issues to the back burner. Nevertheless, the Greek premier’s scheduled meeting with the American president at the White House this coming Tuesday should be capitalized upon as much as possible.
The third action is the need for honesty and straightforwardness. There is no reason to sugarcoat the situation nor is there cause for defeatism. Turkey is stronger than Greece from a military perspective and the 10-year crisis has taken a toll on the Hellenic Armed Forces. We know it; and they know it too.
On the other hand, Greeks and Turks both know – or ought to know – that Greece is no “gnat,” as one of Erdogan’s aides once said, naively. It is a key member of NATO, the most powerful defense alliance in world history, and plays a pivotal role thanks to its geography that extends to its military capabilities. It has more than a thousand armored fighting vehicles, a powerful Air Force with a large number of F-16s and Mirages with significant deterrent capabilities, even before their upcoming upgrade – and, of course, a strong navy with frigates, submarines and a multilayered defense network in the Aegean that should not be underestimated.
Another important dimension is than no pragmatic Turkish political or military leader can ignore the constantly open front at their southeastern border and transfer all of its military capabilities to the Aegean. The math, therefore, is not that simple. And even though there are certainly those in Ankara who think the timing is right for Turkey to “make a move”, matters are more complicated than that.
In any case, Greece is not considering the option of war. As it has done for decades, it chooses the path of dialogue, exploratory talks and, ultimately, recourse to the International Court of Justice. No one stands to win from an armed confrontation between Greece and Turkey, and this is what the media of both countries should be communicating.
A normalization of ties would benefit everyone involved, including Turkey, which has to realize that it cannot manage open fronts with every single one of its neighbors.
Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman expansionism and his persistently destabilizing behavior will end up costing the Turkish president himself, but also his country. He needs to realize that accepting certain norms and respecting international law will serve his country’s interests more than his current behavior does.