James Baldwin’s much quoted reference to “the fire next time” alerts us to risks we would prefer not to contemplate. It is also a warning against complacency. Over the last few years, there has been no shortage of analyses pointing to the mounting risks in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the end, most conclude that no party has an interest in going beyond bluster and the show of force for diplomatic leverage and domestic political advantage.
Why should the current tension over competing maritime claims in the Eastern Mediterranean be any different from past experience? There are good reasons to worry.
First, today’s tensions affect a far wider region with multiple flashpoints and actors. The Cyprus dispute, once a key source of risk in its own right, is now largely a political rather than a security question. Syria and Libya have become emblematic of the new regional geopolitics in which chaos is persistent, and conflict is open-ended. External actors have become bolder in the use of force, directly and via proxies. The roster of potential direct confrontations is long: Turkey with Russia in Syria or Libya; Turkey versus Egypt or the United Arab Emirates; and not least, Turkey with Greece, Cyprus, Israel – or France.
The old constraints and conservatism regarding the use of force by Ankara have waned, fueled by operational successes in Syria and Libya. This has been accompanied by a more explicit doctrine of maritime presence. The underlying claims regarding disputed sea and air space have not changed substantially. But the existence of valuable offshore energy resources and the growing capacity for power projection has changed the equation. In the tense years prior to the late 1990s, the Aegean was the center of gravity in Greek-Turkish friction. Today, the Aegean is back at the center, but the sphere of competition and potential conflict is far wider.
Second, things go wrong. The Imia crisis of 1996 offered lessons for all sides. It was the high-water mark of Greek-Turkish tension that had plagued the region and NATO for decades. Both countries very nearly stumbled into a clash that neither side wanted, driven in no small measure by the visibility of the confrontation in the media and the pressure of public opinion. And that was when news moved more slowly and social media did not exist. The military establishments on both sides knew and understood each other. Athens and Ankara – with considerable help from Washington – pulled back from the brink. The crisis ushered in a durable period of Aegean détente.
The entire region is now the scene of more intense air and naval operations, without the sort of confidence building and risk reduction measures that prevailed even during the Cold War. With mistrust at the high political level, the risk of miscalculation only increases. It only takes a misjudgment in the use of targeting radars for aggressive behavior to be read as intentional. The recent incident of this kind involving French and Turkish naval vessels could easily have taken a more serious turn.
Finally, alliance relationships have changed profoundly. NATO allies debate whether Turkey is a partner or a rogue state. The debate is exaggerated. But there is little doubt that the strategic relationship between Ankara and transatlantic partners has reached a point of virtual collapse. At the same time, Greece’s security ties on both sides of the Atlantic have never been stronger. In the event that brinkmanship in the Eastern Mediterranean spills over into military confrontation, Ankara will likely face a strong and unbalanced reaction. There would be no winners. It might mean the end of Turkey’s European Union candidacy and a de facto freeze on cooperation in NATO, alongside other damaging sanctions. Greece would be left to face an open-ended confrontation with an estranged and potentially unstable Turkey.
Who will act to reduce the likelihood of this scenario? Washington and Brussels lack leverage with Ankara. Paris has opted to reinforce its naval presence in the region with an eye to solidarity and deterrence. If Athens and Ankara cannot defuse the situation directly, it may be left to Berlin or others to put out the fire this time.
* Ian Lesser is vice president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) and executive director at GMF Brussels.