Monday, 24 August 2020

Threatening Greece, Turkey is testing Europe’s sovereignty

 

Turkey is expanding its influence across the Eastern Mediterranean. Greece stands in its way. What will the EU do?

 

John Psaropoulos




Twice in three weeks this summer, Greece and Turkey poised to clash in the Eastern Mediterranean. On July 21 and August 10, Turkey announced it would start looking for oil and gas deposits on what Greece considers its continental shelf east of Crete.

 

The Greek armed forces went on alert. Greek and Turkish navies fanned out across the Aegean and east Mediterranean.

 

The two NATO allies have come closer to open conflict than they have since 1996, when Turkey planted a flag on a rocky Greek islet in the Aegean, and since 1987, when Turkey again sent a survey ship into the north Aegean.

 

While war in the Aegean cannot be ruled out, it is unlikely to be Turkey’s preferred option. It would isolate Turkey diplomatically, and possibly bankrupt it with sanctions. It is more likely that Turkey seeks to corner Greece into a maritime territorial settlement that skirts past established international legal norms, or forces Greece, and later Cyprus, to declare their vast continental shelves joint development zones with Turkey. 

 

 

This crisis has been years in the making, but has advanced apace since 2014, when Greece discovered large probable natural gas reserves within what it defines as its Exclusive Economic Zone – a jurisdiction which coincides with the continental shelf and gives countries exclusive commercial exploitation rights to fisheries and mineral resources under the sea bed.

 

The stakes for Greece are high. Seismic explorations it conducted suggest that it has natural gas reserves of 70-90 trillion cubic feet – as much as Israel, Egypt and Cyprus have discovered since the turn of the century combined, with a pre-Covid market value of about $200bn. Assuming gas is viable for the next 25 years, Greece’s reserves, if proven, would cover its energy needs and turn gas into a lucrative export to the European Union. As much as a third of the value of the gas would go to the Greek state in taxes and royalties – amounting to a fifth of the country’s external debt.  

 

This is clearly a future Turkey would rather claim for itself. Under the rules of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), it cannot do so. The legal EEZs of Greece and Cyprus surround it.

 

Turkey’s problem with international law

 

The nub of Turkey’s disagreement with international law is over whether islands enjoy an equal EEZ to continental coasts. Turkey’s view is that the Greek islands and the island of Cyprus should simply be ignored, in contravention of UNCLOS. It believes countries should measure their EEZs from their continental coasts. This goes against Article 121 of UNCLOS, which says that islands that can sustain human economic life enjoy the same zones and rights “applicable to other territory”. Turkey’s opposition to this was outvoted when UNCLOS was being negotiated in the 1970s, and Turkey walked out of the convention prematurely. Since 168 of the UN’s 193 members are now signatories to UNCLOS, and many of those who aren’t (like Israel and the US) adhere to its principles, it is the international legal standard by which maritime disputes are adjudicated. Greece invited Turkey to arbitration in 1975, on terms that would soon become enshrined in UNCLOS. Turkey responded by issuing NATO’s first intra-alliance threat of war if Greece extended its territorial waters to 12nm unilaterally, despite the fact that it has the legal right to do so. Under that threat of war, it is now trying to coerce Greece into a bilateral agreement that ignores UNCLOS.

 

UNCLOS allows a nation to extend its EEZ 200 nautical miles from its coast or to a line of equidistance with the coast of its neighbour. Greece unilaterally legislated maritime boundaries six years ago on this basis. This year, it signed an EEZ agreement along those lines with Italy, and a partial one with Egypt. Those agreements had been under negotiation for 40 and 15 years respectively. What precipitated their conclusion were Turkish actions, which have alarmed countries around the east Mediterranean.

 

Turkey has proposed sharing the Mediterranean with Egypt, drafting a line of equidistance from their respective continental coasts, ignoring Cyprus and the Aegean isands. Egypt had already signed an EEZ with Cyprus under UNCLOS rules in 2003, and refused. Last October, however, Turkey found a willing interlocutor in the embattled Government of National Accord in Libya. Turkey offered the GNA vital assistance in the civil war against General Halifa Haftar, who leads the Libyan National Army and has the support of Libya’s parliament. In return, the GNA ageed to sign an EEZ agreement with Turkey.

 

Such agreements are normally signed by adjacent or opposite neighbours. Libya lies at an oblique angle to Turkey across the Mediterranean. The main purpose of this agreement, from Turkey’s point of view, was to dispute Greece’s EEZ in what purports to be a legal document. The demarcated corridor of water cuts 6 nautical miles south of the Greek islands of Karpathos, Kasos and Crete, depriving them of the 12nm of territorial water and 12nm contiguous zone (where Greek customs and tax law applies) they are entitled to under UNCLOS. It also, of course, deprives them of more than 100nm of EEZ. The US, EU, Russia, Egypt and Israel denounced the Turkey-Libya agreement as illegal or ill-conceived. Greece warned Turkey that any unauthorised survey vessels sent into its EEZ would be sunk. In wars of words, however, Turkey is undeterred.

 

Greece’s problem with compromise

 

Turkey is not the only one to blame for the fact that this remains an open problem four decades after UNCLOS came into force. In 1999, Greece lifted its veto to Turkish membership of the European Union. It reasoned that the process of induction would civilise and pacify its neighbour. The EU gave Greece and Turkey a five-year period in which to resolve their territorial differences in the Aegean and east Mediterranean.

 

Secret exploratory talks produced results. Turkey informally agreed to recognise 12nm of Greek territorial waters from Greece’s mainland coasts, 8-10nm off the coasts of the Cyclades and Sporades islands in the central Aegean, and 6nm off its eastern Aegean islands. The deal would have raised Greek territorial water from 40% of the Aegean today to 60%. But two Greek governments, one socialist and one conservative, shied away from commitment to the deal, preferring to preserve national aspirations of 12nm of territorial waters throughout the Aegean. That now strikes many Greeks as a lack of political courage and vision.

 

Turkey is also right to point out the inconsistency between the territorial water and airspace Greece claims in the Aegean (6nm and 10nm respectively), an anachronism dating to 1931, when four extra nautical miles of actionable airspace made an appreciable difference. International law experts consider this untenable, but Greece holds onto this position in hopes of equalising both air and water territories at 10nm. 

 

Exploratory talks petered out without official agreement in March 2016. The attempted coup in Turkey later that year changed the tenor of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in foreign policy as it did internally. Last month, Germany assumed the rotating presidency of the European Council (where heads of the 27 governments meet), and began brokering a new effort to restart the secret talks where they left off.

 

Turkey’s hybrid war in the Aegean

 

This was never going to be easy. Turkey prefers to talk to the Greeks without intermediaries, and has insisted on a fresh start. This is because the growing differential in hard power favours Turkey. Since Erdogan came to power in 2002, Turkey’s national economy has more than tripled, while Greece’s has shrunk, bankrupted by the post-2008 global financial crisis. Turkey’s military budget is more than two times Greece’s, whose frigates are 30-50 years old. Turkey has a robust defence industry that produces drones, armoured vehicles, warships, German-designed submarines, and missiles with regional range. It is capable of resupplying its military over a prolonged conflict, while Greece has shuttered much of its defence industry under EU-dictated austerity policies. Unsurprisingly, Turkey is playing to its military strength.

 

While the Turkish military is not yet openly waging war in the Aegean, in recent years it has intensified every tactic short of war.

Turkish disputation of Greek territorial water and airspace used to be supported by symbolic violations. Turkish violations of Greek territorial water numbered in the dozens per year until 2009. They rose to 300-400 a year during Greece’s economic depression (2010-2016). In 2017 they shot up to 1,998, held at 1,479 in 2018 and shot up again to 2,202 last year, a level they are set to repeat this year. Something similar is happening in the air. In 2014, the year Greece discovered natural gas in its Aegean, Ionian and Mediterranean EEZ, Turkish airspace violations quadrupled to over 2,200. Last year they numbered 4,800, and are set to outpace that level this year. Greek F-16s and Mirage fighters typically rise to intercept the Turkish incursions, but this is a drain on fuel, wears down aircraft and occasionally kills pilots.

 

The Turkish coast guard has been mobilised as well. At the depth of Greece’s economic slump eight years ago, its vessels changed tactic. Instead of patrolling along the length of the Asia Minor coast, they launched sorties towards the puddles of international water that lie in the middle of the Aegean, testing Greek reactions. On February 12 2018, a Turkish coast guard vessel rammed a Greek one while performing what the Greek coast guard called “dangerous maneuvers inconsistent with international collision avoidance practices.” This year Turkish coast guard vessels openly harassed Greek ones with hot pursuits which nearly caused collisions. They filmed and posted these online.

 

The action is not always military. Greece sees Turkey’s attempt to flood the Greek land and maritime borders with refugees last March, and its mobilisation of 120 fishing vessels to enter Greek waters in July, as experimentation with forms of hybrid war. The Hellenic Coast Guard has filmed Turkish coast guard vessels guiding refugee-filled dinghies to the international waterline and releasing them into Greek waters. This year and next, Greece will roughly double the number of coastal patrol vessels and boats it operates in the east Aegean, but the rules of the game are becoming complicated. There is no longer a clear distinction between policing, search and rescue operations, and military operations. 

 

It would appear, from all this, that war has all but been declared in the Aegean, where Greece is in the process of doubling its coast guard strength, and EU members maintain about 20 coast guard vessels on dispatch. This is a warning not just for Greece but for Europe and the postwar global order. International law only applies if someone applies it. Since 1945, Greece has invested in the UN, NATO and the European Union for its security. In an increasingly unstable world, these multilateral fora are flailing, and Greece is having to invest in key bilateral relationships with the US, France and Germany to produce any leverage on Turkey. If it has to, it will ultimately fight the existential fight, but at what cost to itself, at what cost to a European Union with no joint defensive capability? And what would be the credibility of NATO after two of its allies had waged war on each other?

 

Greece’s diplomacy

 

After the July 21 crisis, Germany did manage to foster a dialogue on the parameters of what would have been a new round of exploratory talks. Turkey declared a moratorium on exploration, and, some diplomatic sources say, reluctantly agreed to continue exploratory talks where they had left off in 2016, at Greek request, rather than on a clean slate. But on August 6, Greece announced its EEZ deal with Egypt, which overlaps with Turkey’s dubious deal with Libya. This enraged Erdogan, cut talks short and launched the Oruc Reis on August 10.

 

Greece’s EEZ deals with Italy and Egypt rest on the UNCLOS principle that islands are entitled to an EEZ. Greece can now sit at the negotiating table with two very powerful legal documents – but will Turkey now do so? There is a sliver of hope that Turkey is leaving itself a back door to de-escalation.

 

The EU and US roles

 

Two players can still influence this equation – the EU and the US. The departments of State and Defence have noticed the building imbalance of forces in the Aegean. Last October, Greece and the US signed a new Mutual Defence Co-operation Agreement that is stationing more US  forces in Greece, spending more US treasure to upgrade Greek bases, and increasing joint exercises. It has mobilised the International Development Finance Corporation to underwrite US investments in Greek shipyards and ports. But these investments will take years to build frigates, and it is far from certain that Greece can count on US forces in any practical sense. The US deems their mere presence to act as a deterrent to Turkey, but has not said that it is prepared to use them for the defence of Greece outside a NATO framework.

 

Congress is also alarmed. Incensed at Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles and its illegal drilling in Cyprus’ EEZ, last December it passed the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act. It allows the US to sell or transfer weapons to Cyprus for the first time since 1975, authorises the US to join in an energy partnership launched by Greece, Israel, Cyprus and Egypt, and cuts off Turkey’s access to the F-35 fighter jet. It also calls on the departments of State and Defence to draft a list of Turkish sanctions targets.

 

Ultimately, though, American policy may be compromised without a willing president. Donald Trump enjoys excellent (but apparently intellectually unequal) relations with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as both CNN and Newsweek have recently reported. Far from pressing Turkey to end its occupation of Cyprus, this relationship has already blessed new Turkish incursions in Syria and Libya. Trump’s remaining months in office appear to present Erdogan with a final opportunity to extend his reach with US tolerance, and the Greek military is said to expect constant tension at least until November 3 – and until January 20 if Joe Biden wins.

 

The history of US interventions also gives Greeks pause. The US resolved the 1996 standoff over the Imia islets by removing them from Greek sovereignty. Turkey didn’t claim them, but it did advance its policy of disputing Greek sovereignty wherever it can. And US reassurances of security and stability in the region have never recovered since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in July of 1974. In fact for many Greeks the current White House, occupied by an unpopular president, compromised by impeachment and struggling to regain the initiative in a self-obsessed and self-destuctive America, bears worrying resemblance to the Nixon administration in its final days.

 

The EU has developed no common foreign or defence policy, nor a centralised military command, but it does have economic clout, buying 42 percent of Turkish exports. Its greatest leverage lies in threatening Turkey with sanctions, which it is drafting at Greece’s request. EU foreign ministers are to convene on August 27 to review the sanctions targets and decide what action to take. But some countries – notably Germany - have more commercial interests in Turkey than others, and are likely to baulk at hurting them.

 

France has emerged from the European policymaking bouillabaisse as the clearest advocate of action in the Mediterranean. “It would be a serious mistake to leave our security in the Mediterranean in the hands of other actors. This is not an option for Europe and it is not something that France will let happen,” Macron said during a visit to Cyprus on July 23.

 

Macron was not just referring to the standoff in the Aegean, or to the unauthorised Turkish drilling that has been taking place in Cyprus’ EEZ with relative impunity, but to the fact that Turkey is consciously extending its military and diplomatic influence over its former Ottoman dominions in Iraq, Syria and now Libya. Here, Erdogan turned the tide of the war in the GNA’s favour last May with the help of 3,800 Syrian jihadist mercenaries on his payroll. France, which has been fighting jihadist movements in the Sahel single-handedly since 2013, appears to see the threat to European interests far more clearly than do other EU members.

 

Erdogan has also made overtures for an EEZ deal to the Palestinians in the Gaza strip and to Tunisia. No doubt, these overtures incude similar security guarantees to those offered to the GNA in Libya, as Turkey actively pursues exports of military goods and services. A Mediterranean and Middle East whose security is underwritten by a Neo-Ottoman mercenary army commanded by Turkey may be an acceptable wordview to the Trump White House. It is not acceptable to many Europeans or Arabs. 

 

The Greek government realises that as a predominantly Christian, democratic nation with NATO and EU membership, Greece is the biggest stumbling block to Erdogan’s aspirations. Many Greeks hope that the present crisis will finally galvanise the EU into realising that its own security, prosperity and self-esteem are at stake, and may develop defence reflexes independent of NATO, where Turkey’s presence is bullish. The alternative is a Europe buffeted by increasingly acquisitive and disruptive foreign policies emanating from Turkey, China and Russia. Such a Europe would not be a respectable neighbourhood, and not one the US would wish to defend forever.

 

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