The Aegean and the Mediterranean – between diplomacy and confrontation


Key points:

  • For a bigger part of the post-WW2 years the USA had been considered the key force for regional stability in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean projecting its influence by sheer military and economic power and a set of indispensable constant allies like Greece, Turkey and Israel and a number of situational ones.
  • After the Cyprus crisis of 1974 followed by the Turkish invasion and the occupation of the northern part of the island by the Turkish forces, the split between Ankara and Athens on a number of major issues burst out again resulting in a succession of dangerous clashes often bringing the two neighbors to the brink of war.
  • The decision of the United States for a gradual disengagement from the region, which began during the Obama administration and continued through the Trump administration, has coincided with a worsening of US-Turkey relations caused by a number of issues, the most challenging of which has been Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system.
  • Four problems stand out at the heart of the current crises bedeviling the U.S.-Turkey security relationship. First, the framework for cooperation based on the strategic partnership within NATO formed during the Cold War no longer fits the complexity of the relationship today. Second, important policy divergences have created a deficit of trust. Third, erosion of the institutional base has weakened elite support for the relationship today. Fourth, popular support for the relationship in both countries is waning as well.
  • Despite the absence of a grand strategic choice, the rationale behind the Cold War era strategic relationship remains relevant—the geostrategic value of Turkey for the United States’ security interests justifying U.S. security reassurance to Turkey. Both countries seem willing to sustain cooperation at the heart of the relationship based on collective territorial defense, as enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, and the issues that fall within the wider reach of NATO, while maintaining bilateral engagement on issues that fall outside of the reach of NATO.
  • Since 2018, an annual Strategic Dialogue has given US-Greece ties major impetus and contributed to a peak in relations not seen in a generation. Beyond regional collaboration, all aspects of the bilateral agenda—energy, military, security, trade and investment cooperation, people-to-people ties—have grown over the course of the Strategic Dialogue.
  • The Aegean issues between Turkey and Greece are multifaceted. The essence of the problem is such that the two sides have fundamentally different perspectives concerning the Aegean. For Turkey, the Aegean Sea is a common maritime area between the two riparian states. For Greece, the Aegean Sea is part of the Greek homeland, a kind of Greek lake.
  • The crisis knot in the Eastern Mediterranean is too tight. It intertwines both bilateral and multilateral issues of a number of participants and different options are possible for the evolution of the situation in the coming years – both in diplomatic and military-strategic aspects. Complete and simultaneous untying the knot is hardly possible. Tensions may rise on one front and be lowered on another.
  • With the new American administration now all regional powers beginning with Greece and Turkey know that a revival of the transatlantic link is on the horizon and there will be a coordination and genuine search for a common strategic approach.
  • Several possible scenarios for the development of the situation in the region can be identified. 1. Gradual de-escalation and lowering of tensions. This is an option in which each crisis outbreak leads to negotiations and immediate reduction of tensions as a result of international intervention or mediation (by the EU, NATO, OSCE, UN or some of the interested great powers). 2. Dangerous escalation leading to a stalemate and freezing of the crisis as a result of international pressure. This is a likely scenario in the present situation unless Erdogan leaves/loses power in Turkey. 3. Open Military Conflict. This is of course is the least likely option, but still a possible one.
  • A Full-scale war between Greece and Turkey should be ruled out, because it is neither in their interest nor in the interest of the great powers. In the foreseeable future, however, tensions between Greece and Turkey will continue with alternating escalations and attenuations. Instability, military exercises, propaganda, psychological operations and the use of illegal immigration as a political tool, as well as diplomatic balancing on the brink of war – are all likely to continue, with each stakeholder trying to use these tools to his/her advantage for solving own internal and external problems. Attempts to achieve some, albeit partial, results through bilateral negotiations at various levels or through mediation will continue with varying degrees of success, but they will have the character of crisis management.

Vassil Sotirov

Ph.D. Bulgarian Journalist, Vice President, European Journalists Association (the communication network)

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April 2021
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