Rising Tensions In Eastern Mediterranean As Greece And Turkey Stand-Off Continues

Tensions continue to rise in the Eastern Mediterranean as a long-standing dispute over sovereign waters risks bubbling over into military confrontation. Bolstered by recent discoveries of natural resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey has increasingly prospected for oil and natural gas in the disputed waters around Cyprus, which Greek authorities lay claim to. Turkey’s actions have engendered a growing Greek naval presence in the Mediterranean, and a stand-off between the two nations continues to escalate.

On August 12th, a Greek warship and her Turkish equivalent, escorting the drillship Oruc Reis, collided. Since then, both countries have continued to show increasing displays of force, and little sign of backing down. According to Al Jazeera, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned Greece “to understand the language of politics and diplomacy” or face “painful experiences,” backing up these threats by running joint military exercises with Northern Cypriot Forces last week. At the same time, Greece has engaged in naval exercises with EU allies. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has also recently announced the purchase of 18 fighter jets, four frigates and four naval helicopters from France, according to BBC reports. Other EU nations are also rallying behind Greece. Talks at the Med7 group on Thursday openly discussed Turkish actions, and an EU council meeting scheduled for September 23rd will review the possibility of imposing “severe sanctions” on Turkey, according to The Guardian.

Although sanctions may bring about de-escalation, and boost the hampered image of the EU, they risk prolonging the crisis and drawing in a wider group of nations. It is clear that both countries must come together for bilateral talks to solve the crisis and find a diplomatic agreement to the disputed waters. However, this will not be easy. Turkey has never signed The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which typically mediates maritime disputes. What is more, the U.S., historically seen as the impartial guarantor of peace between the two nations, has been unusually silent. The Washington Post suggests this is partly due to the fact that Erdogan has “assiduously stroked President Trump’s ego,” reducing Washington’s willingness to act against Turkish interests.

Amidst U.S. absence, Germany has made attempts to mediate between the two nations since July. Although both countries openly express a willingness to enter into talks, the reality is more difficult. In an open letter to The Guardian last week, Turkish Diplomat Ümit Yalçin suggested Greece “sabotaged” talks led by Germany, and that the Greeks are deliberately using delay tactics to “avoid concrete negotiations.” Conversely, Mitsotakis tweeted that although Greece is “an advocate for dialogue,” “real dialogue cannot be pursued under threat or violations of our sovereign rights.” Therefore, the removal of the Oruc Reis from disputed waters on September 13th may provide a much-needed first step towards the negotiating table, but there is still a long way to go.

NATO has also looked to mediate, with Reuters reporting that Turkish and Greek military officials met at NATO headquarters on Thursday, and will meet again in “coming days.” However, talks will not cover territorial disagreements but rather the possibility of a hotline between the two countries to ease pressures.

An impartial mediator must emerge to enable an unambiguous and peaceful agreement over disputed territories to be reached. The region is still haunted by the last clash between Greek and Turkish troops 46 years ago on the island of Cyprus. If the current stand-off spills over into military conflict, it would be disastrous for the region and global security more broadly.

Jake Tacchi