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07.06.2022 Author: Vladimir Odintsov

Who and Why Is Fueling the Confrontation with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean?


NATO has been struggling to sweep under the carpet the rift between its individual members, especially one of its most noticeable “cracks” in relations with Turkey. US and European media feature a lot of articles disparaging Ankara’s independent policies, a push that has especially picked up steam after Turkey refused to fast-track NATO ascension for Sweden and Finland. At least, until these two Nordic countries publicly backtrack on supporting Kurdish organizations that Turkey has designated as terrorist.

Increased tensions between NATO and Turkey has been especially conspicuous in the Eastern Mediterranean, a region where Turkey and Greece has been locking horns for several decades over a territorial dispute. In 2020, this conflict was compounded by the confrontation between two southern NATO members over oil and gas deposit exploration in the region when the two nation engaged in a naval stand-off after Ankara, Athens and Cyprus all claimed that these areas are their exclusive economic zone. To show that it is adamant in this economic and territorial face-off, Ankara dispatched its seismic survey vessels to the Greek islands and in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone, a move that triggered Athens’ retaliation, including the deployment of additional forces on the Greek islands adjacent directly to the Turkish territory in September 2020.

As of today, these two Mediterranean nations are at odds over a range of issues, including competing claims to jurisdiction in the Eastern Mediterranean, airspace in this region, division of Cyprus along ethnic lines and the status of islands in the Aegean Sea. Turkey has demanded that Greece demilitarizes its Eastern islands as per the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and 1947 Paris Treaty. As for the Greek authorities, they have dismissed the demand as a “deliberate misinterpretation” of international legal norms accusing their in-name-only NATO ally in ramping up hostile activities in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Armed confrontation between Greece and Turkey has been gaining momentum ever since as President Joe Biden has showcased US rapprochement with Athens. In doing so, US President tried to crack down on Ankara for not taking into account Washington’s stance and pursuing independent policies, including on forging closer ties with Russia.

Athens has got the message clearly. In an effort to secure US backing within an intensifying conflict with Turkey, on May 12, the Greek Parliament ratified a defense cooperation agreement with the United States that provides for the creation of four new American military facilities in addition to the four US military bases already operating in Greece. Greece’s kowtowing didn’t go unnoticed by the US, which arranged in May a “demonstratively friendly” visit of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to Washington during which the determination to make Greece “a key ally of the US on the southeastern flank of NATO” was touted. At that, Mitsotakis jumped at the opportunity and mounted a diplomatic offensive against Turkey accusing Ankara of “creating issues for the North Atlantic Alliance and major security threats in the Eastern Mediterranean”.

Turkey has been trying to get Washington, an arbiter chosen by NATO members, to address the concerns regarding the escalation in relations with Greece more than once, but no significant shifts on this matter ensued.

Against this backdrop, on 26 May, according to Turkish Hürriyet newspaper, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Turkish Foreign Minister, lashed out at Greece and even launched threats against it over Athens’s refusal to demilitarize the islands in the Aegean Sea. “We have said openly to the US: they have a policy of balance in Cyprus as well as in Turkey and Greece and the Aegean islands. We see a deviation from this balance, we warned the US. While people said that bases in one NATO country are not a threat to another NATO country, this increase has not escaped our attention, of course”, he said. “What are the conditions, that it will not equip these islands? Greece has been militarizing them since 1960. “We are extremely serious, we are not bluffing because these islands are under conditions. “If Greece, which speaks of international law in every speech, does not comply with it, we will go further. Greece’s steps are aimed at posing a threat to Turkey”, the minister argued.

On May 29, tensions in relations with Greece were further fueled by Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan who warned Athens that its animosity towards Ankara cannot be tolerated. “We are friends with those who are friends with us, but they should know well that we do what is necessary with those who see us as enemies,” he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron who has been at odds with Turkey since 2020, has taken a critical stance towards Ankara. According to Greek newspaper Ekathimerini, speaking as he left a European Council meeting in Brussels a few day ago, the French leader did not pull punches when he castigated Turkish officials for questioning Greek sovereignty over many of its islands in the Eastern Mediterranean. As it cited Macron, the outlet highlighted his support “of all Europeans, and especially of France” for Greece as well as his statement that “no one can endanger the sovereignty of some member states today.”

Growing public outcry in Turkey over the US and NATO stance was reflected on 2 June by a Turkish outlet Haber7 that published its readers’ comments. The latter not only lambasted the Greek decision to hand over another four bases located on its territory to the US military, but also, as a reader nicknamed Muammer, pointed out: “The US is trying to ignite a war between Turkey and Greece.”

As for Greece’s response, according to The Greek Herald report on June 2, it announced a plan to triple the extension of the steel wall along the country’s border with Turkey up to 120 km while seeking EU financial support to implement this project.

It seems that the EU along with NATO, at the apparent behest of Washington, defiantly do nothing to mend ties between Greece and Turkey as the conflict between them drifts toward violence. Instead of solving their own issues, these two formations opted to stay under Washington’s thumb supporting its military ambitions in Ukraine and in the Asia-Pacific region that offer the US and European military and industrial circles prospects of additional profits from inciting new armed conflicts.

Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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