Are Greece and Turkey Edging Towards War?
What are some of the signs that two countries are heading towards war? When one country’s military enters a neighboring nation’s territory, tears down the national flag and raises their own. When one nation regularly enters another’s airspace, forcing the other country to scramble its fighters? When one nation harasses the other nation’s head of state’s aircraft? When one nation starts to bring its gold reserves home or places it in the custody of a safe international bank’s control? When one of the nations enters talks to quickly lease some warships?
If these are potential signs of war, then it is quite possible that Greece and Turkey could be edging towards war – a war that could impact the Middle East, especially Syria.
Much of the dispute centers on the Aegean Sea and who controls most of it. And, it has little to do with territory as much potential natural gas reserves that lie under the Eastern Mediterranean.
The current dispute in the Aegean is part of a struggle stretching back centuries, from the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453, to centuries of Ottoman Turkish occupation of Greece, to multiple wars in the 19th and 20th centuries, to Turkey’s invasion and occupation of Northern Cyprus in 1974.
After oil was found on the Aegean Sea’s continental shelf, questions over the ownership of uninhabited islands took on extraordinary importance. Both Greece and Turkey issued permits to their companies to extract oil in disputed waters, sending research vessels to the area, and accusing one another of trying to gain control over the lion’s share of the oil-bearing shelf.”
According to international law of the sea, most of the Aegean Sea is in Greek territory. Turkey, however, has refused to sign the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, which enshrines a 12-nautical mile (22 km) standard of territorial waters surrounding island territories. In 1995, Ankara threatened that an attempt by Athens to make good on the 12-nautical mile limit prescribed by the UN Treaty would constitute a cause for war. Greece, for its part, condemned the Turkish ultimatum as a violation of the UN Charter.
Territorial waters also define airspace and much of the Aegean Sea falls under Flight Information Region (FIR), which requires aircraft to file flight plans. While civil aviation is normally allowed passage under international treaties, foreign military and other state aircraft (unlike military vessels in the territorial waters) do not have a right to free passage through another state’s national airspace.
As a result, Turkey has refused to recognize Greece’s territorial and airspace claims. The conflict over military flight activities has led to a practice of continuous tactical military provocations, with Turkish aircraft flying in the zone of contentious airspace and Greek aircraft intercepting them. These encounters often lead to so-called “dog-fights,” dangerous flight maneuvers that have repeatedly ended in casualties on both sides.
This airspace dispute led to an incident last week that could have led to war just as the assassination of Austrian Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo led to World War One.
Last week on Tuesday, Turkish F-16 fighter aircraft harassed a helicopter carrying Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the Chief of the Hellenic National Defense General Staff Admiral Evangelos Apostolakis.
The helicopter was flying from the Greek islet of Ro to Rhodes, another Greek island in the Aegean Sea.
The Turkish jets, which were flying at approximately 10,000 feet, contacted the pilot of the Greek helicopter and asked for flight details. The Hellenic Air Force (HAF) responded by sending its own jets, which caused the Turkish fighters to veer off and leave.
The island of Ro is close to the Turkish mainland and has been the site of territorial disputes in the past. The Hellenic Army does have a presence on the small island, and earlier this month they fired tracer rounds at a Turkish helicopter that flew over its airspace.
The episode comes just over a week after a Greek Air Force pilot died after his Mirage 2000-5 fighter jet crashed near the island of Skyros. The pilot was returning from intercepting two Turkish Air Force F-16 fighters that had intruded into Greek airspace.
The crash does not appear to be due to the Turkish mission but made the situation in the region tenser.
Neither Greek nor Turkish leaders appear to be backing down. Just a few hours before the helicopter incident, Tsipras was speaking to a crowd at the island of Kastellorizo, pledging that Greece would defend its principles “in any way it can … and will not cede an inch of territory.”
The speech appeared to reference Turkish President Erdoğan’s statement that the Treaty of Lausanne, which recognized the sovereignty of the Republic of Turkey and defined its borders after the Turkish War of Independence, needed to be “updated.”
“Our neighbors do not always behave in a manner befitting good neighbors,” Tsipras said, but added that he was sending Ankara “a message of cooperation and peaceful coexistence, but also of determination.”
The talk may be of coexistence, but Greece is preparing for conflict. Last week Deputy Defense Minister Kouvelis said that Greece will acquire two frigates on lease from the French Navy. However, on Monday, French Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, denied that there was any discussion on leasing warships to Greece.
On Wednesday, Greek Defense Minister Kammenos held a press conference and denied the reports. He said that what happened in reality was that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed the possible construction of frigates in Greece.
Specifically, the defense minister said that the two leaders discussed the possible use of profits on Greek bonds held by the central banks of other European countries, such as France, for the construction of frigates. Macron had appeared to be positive to such a prospect, Kammenos said.
It also appears that Greece wants to upgrade 85 Greek Air Force F-16 fighter jets by the United States. However, Kammenos said the program requires parliamentary approval and would cost €1.1 billion.
One concern for Greece is its financial problems and the enormous amount of money it owes its EU partners, especially the Germans. This limits defense spending.
Kammenos also delayed a possible purchase of 20 F-35 fighter jets from the US. “We want to give our pilots the best means, but we do not have the possibility for the time being,” he said adding any discussion on this issue is “hypothetical.”
However, the wealth of the natural gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean may encourage Greece to find the money to upgrade its military.
Optimism has mounted over the east Mediterranean’s potential as a gas-producing hub after geological surveys pointed to vast reserves around Cyprus. If unlocked, the resources could reshape energy geopolitics, transforming the region economically and lessening Europe’s – and Turkey’s – dependence on Russia for gas.
The gas reserves have created two opposing groups – the Turks and Northern Cyprus and Greece and Greek Cyprus.
“Our approach is to keep calm and go on,” the Cypriot government spokesman, Prodromos Prodromou, told the Guardian. “We cannot accept Turkey interfering and creating problems in what, as underlined by the EU, is a sovereign right to exploit our natural wealth.”
“We are heading for a full-blown crisis in the eastern Mediterranean,” said Hubert Faustmann, professor of political science at the University of Nicosia. “And that is because Turkey is determined not to allow exploitation of any resources without its consent and participation of Turkish Cypriots.”
Warning foreign energy companies not to “overstep the mark” last month, Erdoğan said Ankara would be prepared to take military action, just as it had done in Syria, if required.
“We recommend that foreign companies operating in Cypriot waters not trust the Greek [Cypriot] side and become a tool for business that exceeds their place and powers,” he said. “The Greeks and Greek Cypriots would stop swaggering when they saw the Turkish military with its ships and warplanes approaching.”
“There is a real danger of a Turkish confrontation with international drill ships,” said John Roberts, energy security specialist at the Atlantic Council. “The Turkish government does not recognize the government of Cyprus in the way the rest of the world does and that means it does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus has an exclusive economic [maritime] zone. If it pursues this argument to its logical end, it will use force to keep uninvited visitors at bay, which would put it at odds not only with the EU but partners in NATO.”
Turkey is also taking financial measures for war. Turkey announced that it has decided to repatriate all its gold stored in the US Federal Reserve and deliver it to the Istanbul Stock Exchange, according to reports in Turkey’s Yeni Safak.
It won’t be the first time Turkey has asked the American Federal Reserve to ship the country’s gold back: in recent years, Turkey repatriated 220 tons of gold from abroad, of which 28.7 tons was brought back from the US last year.
According to the latest International Monetary Fund data, Turkey’s gold reserves are estimated at 591 tons, worth just over $23 billion. This makes Ankara the 11th largest gold holder, behind the Netherlands and ahead of India.
Gold has become the recognized method to work around the international financial system. In fact, in recent years, Turkey has worked with Iran to sell its oil in international markets in exchange for gold. Therefore, Turkey’s repatriation of its gold may be in preparation for buying arms if it faces an embargo.
A Potential Greek/Turkish conflict and what would Happen
The spark that is most likely to cause war would be a Turkish military operation to occupy some Greek islands close to Turkey. This would force Greece to try to retake the islands and precipitate a conflict on land, sea, and air.
On the face of it, Turkey has the advantage as it has a larger army. However, much of the combat-ready part of the Turkish Army is engaged in Syria and Iraq. It’s also engaged in counter insurgency operations in Turkey.
Another problem for Turkey is that many of its military officers are in jail or have defected to other countries, including Greece. There are reports that 25% of Turkish military pilots are in jail, which makes the Turkish Air Force a hollow force.
Although taking the Greek islands would be easy, holding them in the face of Greek opposition would be difficult if Turkey wishes to retain its presence in Syria and Iraq. It also faces increased insurgency as the Kurds may decide to take advantage of any shifting of Turkish military assets to the Aegean theater of conflict.
Turkey also faces the opposition of NATO. Turkey’s deteriorating relations with other NATO allies and the NATO agreement to assist a NATO nation that has been invaded means that Turkey may face several NATO nations. France has already indicated that it favors Greece. It’s also safe to say that the US and Britain are also likely to assist Greece. Germany has already imposed an arms embargo on Turkey.
NATO assistance may not involve a head-to-head conflict with Turkey but could include naval patrols to keep Turkish forces off Greek islands, protection of natural gas exploration vessels from Turkish interference, and aerial patrols over disputed airspace. There is also intelligence sharing that could assist Greece.
The Kurds in Syria and Iraq could benefit as some NATO countries, especially the US may send more arms to the Kurds so they can tie down Turkish forces along the Syrian and Iraqi border.
Turkey’s military operations in Syria could dramatically change from one of offense to one of defense. They might even be forced to give up some ground as forces are sent to the Aegean.
There is also some doubt if Turkey could rely upon some of its allies. As we have noted in the past, Turkey and Russia have fought dozens of wars and have conflicting goals in the region. Would Russia, who wants to diminish Turkish control of its navy’s entrance into the Mediterranean from the Black Sea, want more islands in the Aegean to be under Turkish control? Unlikely.
Although there is no guarantee that Greece and Turkey will go to war, the likelihood is there. Turkish aircraft are said to have entered Greek airspace thousands of times over the last few years, leading to a number of dog fights between the air forces. There are also Turkish landings on Greek islands near the Turkish mainland. Add to this the wealth of natural gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean. These are all a fine fuel that is only awaiting the spark – a spark that could bring many nations into the conflict.