Due to disagreements over the delimitation of maritime jurisdiction areas in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey and Greece returned to the brink of a hot conflict in August 2020. Thanks to the engagement of NATO and the EU, tensions between the two countries were reduced. Given that the main reason for the tensions between Turkey and Greece in recent years is a disagreement over the eastern Mediterranean, why is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan bringing up longstanding and intractable problems in the Aegean Sea such as the militarization of Greek islands rather than the problem of the eastern Mediterranean to trigger a crisis with Greece?
Turkey claims that Article 13 of the Lausanne Peace Treaty prohibits the establishment of naval bases or fortifications on the Greek islands of Midilli (Mytilene), Sakz (Chios), Sisam (Samos) and Ahikerya (Nikaria).The Greek military forces on those islands would be limited to a regular contingent called up for military service, which would be trained locally, and to gendarmerie and police forces in proportion to the total law enforcement forces in Greece.
To understand why Erdoğan has burned bridges with Greece and what his real goal is, it is necessary to analyze the political developments of recent days and the causal relationship between these developments.
As clearly stated in the Strategic Compass document, which sets out the principles for the European Union’s defense and security policy, a meeting of EU defense ministers in Brussels on March 21, shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, noted that the world has moved from a unipolar system led by the United States to a multipolar system and that competition among the great powers has begun. The document explicitly states that the EU must have ” hard power” to protect its rights and interests in this conflict, and it provides a roadmap and concrete steps to achieve these capabilities.
The EU and its locomotive, Germany, are aware that in the competition for great power, one cannot succeed with economic power alone. That is why the EU has taken measures to create its own military. After a long hiatus, Germany announced that it would increase its defense spending. While the EU is preparing to take concrete steps to become a military power, Turkey, which has made great strides in the defense industry in recent years, is listed in the Strategic Compass document as a problem creator rather than a cooperation partner. Turkey is mentioned three times in the Strategic Compass document.
“Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean remain, due to provocations and unilateral actions against EU Member States and violations of sovereign rights in breach of international law, as well as the instrumentalisation of irregular migration, and have the potential to escalate quickly; ensuring a stable and secure environment as well as a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship, in line with the principle of good-neighbourly relations, is in the interest of both the EU and Turkey. …
“With Turkey, a contributor to CSDP [Common Security and Defence Policy] missions and operations, we will continue to cooperate in areas of common interest. We remain committed to developing a mutually beneficial partnership, but this requires equal commitment on Turkey’s side to advance on a path of cooperation, sustained de-escalation and to address EU concerns, in accordance with the statement of the members of the European Council of 25 March 2021,” the document says.
In the March 25 European Council statement, the EU called on Turkey to refrain from renewed provocations or unilateral actions in violation of international law in the eastern Mediterranean. The EU stated that it stands ready to use the instruments and options at its disposal to defend its interests and those of its member states and to preserve regional stability.
Last year the Erdoğan government understood the message of the EU, which implicitly threatened sanctions, and stopped seismic research activities that were causing tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. This is because relations with the EU, especially with Germany, the engine of the union, are crucial for Erdoğan’s future political career. On the other hand, Erdoğan has exacerbated tensions with Greece, which is also a member of the EU, by using the disagreements between the two states over the Aegean Sea. This dilemma shows that Erdoğan is seeking conflict with another power over Greece, not with the EU.
Despite all his efforts, Erdoğan has not been officially invited to the United States and has not been recognized as a political interlocutor by US President Joe Biden. Erdoğan is aware that without support from the United States, his political leadership will continue to deteriorate.
According to the near-future predictions of the Erdoğan administration in the competition for great power, the US needs NATO in its competition with China. Although the EU’s creation of its own hard power and its economic relations with China do not much bother the US for now, the US wants to see the EU on its side in the near future, when the great power competition will intensify. EU countries can only act together with the US under the umbrella of NATO, the only international organization that can hold the EU and the US together.
The Strategic Concept, to be adopted at the NATO Summit in Madrid on June 29-30, 2022, will determine the future of NATO. The demonstration of solidarity by NATO Allies at this summit is fully consistent with US policy objectives, and any stance that will harm that unity and solidarity will first disturb the United States. Since Erdoğan knows the importance of NATO for the US, he thinks if he creates a crisis within NATO, Biden will step in and talk to him directly for a solution. For this reason he wants to fabricate a crisis by using the militarization of the islands in the Aegean Sea with Greece, which has a US naval base on its territory and has developed strategic relations with the US in the military field.
Erdoğan knows very well that the Turkish-Greek problems are not ones that can be solved in a short period of time. As a result, Erdoğan is not eager to resolve them. His real goal is to create a crisis with Greece within NATO in order to be able to negotiate with the United States.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.