The recent escalation of tensions in the Aegean has the potential to strengthen the political bond between Greece and its Western allies, as well as forcing the EU to move from threats to sanctions against Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will try to keep tensions high enough to present a heroic front to his Islamist / nationalist base, but not high enough to trigger EU sanctions.
David L. Phillips, Director of the Peace and Rights Building Program at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, recently said:
“On the first anniversary of the Turkish invasion and occupation of Rojava (northeastern Syria), Erdogan seeks to distract the Turks from Turkey’s failed democracy and the faltering domestic economy through war in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey and its jihadist satellites are also threatening another Armenian genocide, targeting the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
NATO is more than a security alliance. It is a coalition of countries with shared values. Turkey, under the Erdogan dictatorship, is Islamist, anti-American and hostile to Europe. Turkey’s application to join NATO would be dropped immediately if applied today. “
Phillips was one of the signatories of the statement “It is time to break with Erdogan”, published on October 9 by the director of Justice for Kurds, Thomas S. Kaplan, and President Bernard-Henri Lévy, in a double-page section of the New York Times.
A few days after the Times statement was released, the tug of war in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas became even more tense between traditional rivals Turkey and Greece. Athens declared a NAVTEX [aviso de navegación] for shooting exercises in the Aegean covering a period including October 29, Turkey’s national day. Ankara responded by declaring its own NAVTEX in the Aegean for October 28 and decided to send its reconnaissance vessel Oruç Reis to the disputed continental shelf, just 6.5 nautical miles from the Greek island of Castelórizo.
This escalation has the potential to increase the political link between Greece and its Western allies, as well as forcing the EU to move from threatening sanctions to actually sanctioning Turkey.
On October 14, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas canceled his planned trip to Ankara to show solidarity and support. “[…] that Greece has us, all in the European Union and Germany. “He also reminded his audience that the NAVTEX crisis with Turkey will be discussed at the next EU summit, a hint of possible sanctions.
The US State Department called the Turkish move a “calculated provocation.” “Turkey’s announcement unilaterally increases tensions in the region and deliberately complicates the resumption of crucial exploratory talks between our NATO allies Greece and Turkey,” spokesman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement. “Coercion, threats, intimidation and military activity will not resolve the tensions in the eastern Mediterranean.”
Erdogan has ideological, diplomatic and pragmatic reasons for climbing. Ideologically, his dogmatic Islamism is inherently anti-Western. He loves to portray any dispute through the lens of unsophisticated parochialism that can be summed up in the phrase “We are good Muslims who oppose infidels.” He will try to keep tensions high enough to show a heroic front to his Islamist / Nationalist party supporters, but not so high as to provoke EU sanctions at a time when Turkey’s economy is in crisis. On the pragmatic level, Erdogan knows that any foreign confrontation will increase his approval rating at home.
Ankara has more options with which to take on Greece, including the use of weapons in the Turkish Straits.
The 1936 Montreux Convention on the Turkish Strait regime established the Bosphorus as an international sea route, but gave Turkey the right to restrict ships from non-Black Sea countries. Approximately 3 million barrels of crude oil and 20 million tons of petroleum products cross the Bosphorus each year, and these figures are likely to increase in the near future. More than 40,000 vessels passed through these waters in 2019 while carrying nearly 650 million tons of cargo. This level of traffic reaffirmed the Strait of Turkey as one of the most important maritime trade corridors in the world.
In 2019, Greek-owned ships accounted for almost 21% of the global merchant fleet capacity and 53% of the EU fleet, with 4,936 ships over 1,000 gross tonnes and a total capacity of 389.7 million tons of dead weight. Greek-owned vessels account for 32% of total tanker capacity, 23% of dry cargo vessels and 15% of chemical and petroleum products capacity. In 2018, the injection of money into the Greek economy was 16.6 billion euros. These figures make Greek shipowners the largest group by nationality. Therefore, it would be a severe blow to the Greek economy if Turkey restricted Greek maritime traffic through the Turkish Straits.
“Turkey has the right to close its strait to maritime traffic alleging security threats in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas,” Lt. Col. (ret.) Mithat Işık said. “Turkey may consider closing the Strait if [las tensiones con Grecia] they continue like this. “He quoted Article 20 of the Montreux Convention:” In time of war, Turkey being belligerent, the provisions of Articles 10 to 18 will not apply; the passage of warships will be left entirely to the discretion of the Turkish Government “.
According to retired Admiral Cihat Yaycı, “If the EU imposes sanctions on Turkey, Ankara can force all commercial maritime traffic to adhere to daytime hours, declare guide ships mandatory, determine sea routes … Turkey may slow down the passage of ships. Greek and Greek Cypriot ships … can even close the Strait. “
Is this true? Actually, it is not. Turkey can use the articles of the Montreux Convention as a pretext to regulate maritime traffic through the Turkish Straits only during war.
Like all multinational conventions, the principle of good faith applies to the Montreux Convention. The signatories are expected to act in good faith when interpreting and implementing the convention, ”said a senior Turkish diplomat. “It will bring Turkey nothing good if Ankara applies restrictions on maritime traffic just because ‘these days we don’t like our Aegean neighbors.’
That sums it up. It appears that Turkey will try to maintain an optimal level of tension over the Aegean: hot enough to keep the Turks united behind their leader, but not so hot as to provoke heavy-handed Western retaliation.
Source: BESA Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies
Burak Bekdil is a columnist from Ankara. He writes regularly for the Gatestone Institute and Defense News and is a member of the Middle East Forum.