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The Tension in the Eastern Mediterranean: Is Dialogue Between Greece and Turkey Possible Despite Their Differences?

24 Sep 2020
By Cihan Dizdaroğlu
Turkish Navy training ship leaving Bizerte for Split
Source: Khaled Abdelmoumen,

The continuing escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean runs the risk of becoming a conflict between Greece and Turkey. In the absence of US mediation, trying to create a dialogue would be the most reasonable option for diplomacy and de-escalation.

Talk of mutual respect, of peaceful settlement of disputes in good faith and through dialogue is also easy and appealing.

Mutual respect in turn should manifest itself in a sense of obligation to solve all pending issues or outstanding conflicts through peaceful means and dialogue.

The emphasis on the words “mutual respect,” “dialogue,” and “peaceful” in these statements was made by the Greek and Turkish foreign ministers, respectively, in articles published in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini on 15 September 2020. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and his Greek counterpart, Nikos Dendias, appear to be on the same page in terms of using dialogue to find a settlement to the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Why, then, has the issue still run rampant through the international media? The answer lies in the historical hostility and mistrust between the two NATO allies.

Stuck in the Age-Old Enmity

The foundation of both countries, emerging from battles with one another, shaped their respective national identities and has driven them to perceive one another as the “unreliable neighbour,” the “other,” or a “potential danger.” Greece and Turkey have long been at loggerheads over a range of issues, including disputes in the Aegean Sea, Cyprus, and the rights and status of minorities. The two countries even disagree over how many problems currently exist between them – Greece argues that “there exists only one problem” in the Aegean Sea, while Turkey contends that “there exist dozens of issues.”

Greece and Turkey have hurtled towards a violent conflict in the Aegean Sea on several occasions – in 1976, 1987, and 1996 – but have always succeeded in defusing escalations through diplomacy and dialogue. Mediation guided by third parties, primarily the United States, has been pivotal in easing tensions. But despite all the competition throughout their shared history, the two countries have managed to set aside their problems and enter a period of co-operation starting in the late 1990s. This was a remarkable feat considering that no tangible changes have appeared in any of their disputes.

On the other hand, the two countries’ problems in Eastern Mediterranean have, since the early 2000s, mainly revolved around the Cyprus problem. As the parties have yet to find a solution to the competing ethno-nationalism between Greek and Turkish Cypriots over power and geography, Cyprus has continued to be a major issue. Discussions of the issues relating to islands and islets, which have recently dominated the international media, are full of references to the Aegean Sea. However, the Eastern Mediterranean began to attract Turkey’s attention when the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) moved to sign exclusive economic zone (EEZ) agreements with Egypt in 2003, Lebanon in 2007, and Israel in 2010. In response, Turkey has opposed the RoC’s activities and insisted on preserving its own rights and those of Turkish Cypriots.

The Discovery of Hydrocarbons and New Regional Alliances

The consecutive discoveries of energy resources off the coasts of Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt (Tamar field in 2009, Leviathan in 2010, Aphrodite in 2011, Zohr in 2015, Calypso in 2018, and Glaucus in 2019) represent opportunities for both the littoral states and other international actors, especially energy companies. New regional energy and security alliances began to sprout as a result, such as the East-Med Gas Forum between Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine. The forum notably excludes Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria.

While new alliances threatened to upend Turkey’s energy policy, the route of the East-Med dream gas pipeline overlapped with Turkey’s claimed maritime territories. Moreover, new regional alliances between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus, defence cooperation between Cyprus and France, as well as the US lifting the arms embargo on Cyprus have further increased Turkey’s concerns. Amidst this regional isolation, Turkey signed a delimitation of maritime jurisdiction agreement with the UN-backed Libyan government and launched research activities between Cyprus and Crete in late July to break the alleged “siege.” These made the issue, which was previously confined to the contested areas around Cyprus, an urgent priority in the foreign policies of both countries and caught the attention of the international community.

Despite several attempts at mediation and calls for dialogue in July and August, both countries doubled down on their brinkmanship, seeking to gain an advantage ahead of negotiations – policies through maximalist ambitions. Greece’s EEZ declaration with Egypt, Turkey’s extension of exploration activities in response, both sides’ military exercises with other international actors, as well as political manoeuvres within the EU are examples of such policies.

The return – for whatever reason – of Turkey’s seismic research vessel Oruç Reis to the coast of Antalya on 13 September may be a crucial step in soothing the tensions between Greece and Turkey and paving the way for dialogue.

What Does the Future Hold?

It is obvious from the statements of Greek and Turkish political actors, with the above quotes being clear examples, that both countries understand what is necessary for de-escalation in the region. However, their securitisation of the issue – which refers to the extraction of issues from normal politics – prevents them from making rational decisions. Neither Greek nor Turkish political actors wish to make the first compromise, fearing the reaction from their respective communities. This is why their statements contain constructive elements – “dialogue,” “peaceful,” and “mutual trust” – yet are fraught with numerous buts.

The continued escalation in the region could erupt into a conflict between the two NATO allies. Though this conflict would not be an actual war, an incident may spiral out of control, which both sides would certainly try to curb before the other allies step in to ease it. Both sides should therefore focus on constructive dialogue through diplomatic channels, as the Greek-Turkish forum has suggested, to ensure the benefit of everyone involved. It will otherwise be impossible to resolve their grievances in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially considering their maximalist ambitions and the prolonged Cyprus problem at the core of their dispute. However, Greece and Turkey can agree, through dialogue and without compromising, on abstaining from unilateral actions as they did for the Aegean Sea.

Handling this issue through securitisation complicates the process of preparing the public for compromises, but trying to create a mechanism of dialogue in the absence of US mediation would at least give diplomacy and preventing further escalation a chance. History has demonstrated that both countries have enough experience to coexist without making tangible changes in their disputes. So there is no need to churn out a slew of new ideas to resolve each contentious issue, as both Greece and Turkey still observe the Berne Declaration of 1976. By doing so, the two parties will continue to “reserve their respective positions” in the Eastern Mediterranean, but also “refrain from any initiative or act” until they find a settlement through negations.

Dr Cihan Dizdaroğlu (@Cdizdaroglu) is a Marie Curie fellow and assistant professor at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations (CTPSR) at Coventry University. His research project receives funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Grant Agreement, No 796053. He retains a lecturer position in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Kadir Has University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and can be republished with attribution.