Saber noises in the Mediterranean can seem confusing. After all, Turkey and Greece are members of the same defense alliance: NATO. And this alliance was established to come together and defend any member against a common enemy. But nevertheless, these two neighbors often seem to be on the verge of mutual conflict.
The size of Greece’s defense budget shows how threatened it feels: at 3.8% of its annual budget, it spends more on defense than any other NATO member.
Tensions are often high in disputes over the eastern Mediterranean islands. These are competing claims to maritime boundaries, including valuable resources like oil and gas.
In 1996, differences on the small uninhabited island of Imia saw the two sides come a hair’s breadth from going to war. And in 2020 there was another serious escalation in yet another territorial dispute. Next week, a Turkish drillship will go in search of natural gas.
Turkish drilling vessel Abdülhamid Han is ready to search for natural gas
Time and again, NATO leaders have been forced to step in and prevent clashes. In 2020, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel had the support of her fellow European leaders when she stepped in to play a key role in the arbitration between the two countries again at loggerheads.
Today, Turkey is questioning Greece’s sovereignty over a number of eastern Aegean islands: Rhodes, Lesbos, Samos and Kos. Greece points to the fact that Turkish jets have been ordered almost daily to fly over the Greek islands.
Turkey looks to the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which drew the current border after the Greco-Turkish War and gave Greece control of the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos and Ikaria. The 1947 Treaty of Paris, after World War II, Italy ceded the Dodecanese Islands to Greece. But the treaties called for the demilitarization of the islands.
However, Greece justifies the presence of troops on the islands by the need for self-defense against the landing craft positioned on the Turkish west coast.
Turkish national Devlet Bahceli (right) showed a map on which key islands are marked as Turkish territory
Extremist fervor on both sides
Even though the confrontation has a long tradition, the recent confrontation has been particularly fierce. Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Turkish nationalist MHP party and President Erdogan‘s AKP coalition partner, had allowed himself to be photographed holding up a map showing all the key islands in the eastern Aegean, including the largest island, Crete , marked as Turkish territory.
Domestic issues also excite politicians of all persuasions. Turkey will hold presidential and parliamentary elections next year. Erdogan and his AKP supporters fear the polls will cause a massive setback. Galloping inflation is leading the country to ruin. Thus, the tendency is to emphasize foreign policy to distract people from their very real concerns.
But there are also saber blows from the Greek side, even if they are not usually the work of members of the government. On Greek television, former vice-admiral Yiannis Egolfopulos romps, describing how Turks should be taught a lesson: “Just let the Turks take the first step, then they will experience something they have never experienced .”
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock ruffled Ankara in July
Is Germany neutral?
So what is Germany’s position on this dispute? On the question of the sovereignty of the islands, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock did not mince words during her last visit to the two countries: “The Greek islands are Greek territory and no one has the right to question that,” she said.
This prompted his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu to complain that Germany is no longer neutral. He went on to say that under former Chancellor Angela Merkel, “Germany was an honest broker. Germany’s policy was fair.” But more recently, he said, “that sense of balance is unfortunately being lost”.
Greece, however, also feels that Germany is not giving it fair treatment. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias harshly condemned German arms exports, including the sale of submarines to Turkey: “There is a real danger that these submarines will be used to undermine the balance forces in the Mediterranean,” he warned.
Compete in favor of Washington
In the end, Germany really plays only a secondary role in the conflict. The Greek and Turkish heads of state and government are above all seeking Washington’s support in the ongoing rivalry.
Initially, it appeared Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was scoring points. In mid-May, he addressed both houses of the US Congress. His message: after Ukraine, NATO could not allow a “new source of instability on its southeastern flank”. During this trip, Mitsotakis also finalized the purchase of F-35 fighter jets.
But, a few weeks later, on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Madrid, President Biden also raised the prospect of deliveries of fighter planes, in order to ensure Turkey’s support for the accession of the Sweden and Finland in NATO.
The Turkish government took advantage of the war in Ukraine. Washington’s dissatisfaction with Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles seems to have been forgotten. Today, NATO especially needs its members to remain united in times of crisis.
This article was originally written in German.
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