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While war in the eastern Mediterranean is unlikely, a limited engagement may be necessary

September 10, 2020 at 4:30 pm

Escorted by Navy warships, Turkey’s Oruc Reis seismic vessel is seen in the Eastern Mediterranean on 20 August 2020 [Turkish National Defense Ministry/Anadolu Agency]

Neither Turkey nor Greece wants to slide into a comprehensive conflict with the other in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey has been pushing the confrontation to the edge of the cliff for the past ten years, but is keen to avoid slipping off the edge. Whenever it is about to clash with Greece, its leaders glorify dialogue and diplomacy and call for the avoidance of worst-case scenarios.

Greece, on the other hand, armed with the provisions of the Treaty of Lausanne, its NATO and EU membership, is on its high horse and has set out its “preconditions”: no negotiations before Turkey withdraws its warships from the continental shelf and its exploratory drilling for gas in the eastern Mediterranean stops. However, Athens knows that the balance of power is tilted in favour of Turkey, and that reliance on solid and unified EU support is fanciful because, with the exception of France, none of the other major European countries seem ready to side with Greece.

A major conflict between two NATO member states is impossible to imagine, and will not be allowed to happen; neither of the two parties want it and nor does the international community. That is why we have seen mediation efforts intensifying to resolve the dispute. The US, which has just completed joint exercises and naval manoeuvres with Greece and Turkey, albeit separately, says that it is “not biased” towards either side. Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg preferred to play the role of mediator. Russia, which is linked to Greece by a close bond of Orthodox Christianity, maintains intertwined relations and interests with Turkey, reaching a point of forgiveness for the matter of the Hagia Sophia; it too has offered to play the role of honest mediator. Germany, meanwhile, before all of these parties and in its capacity as head of the EU, is playing the peace advocate between Athens and Ankara in what appears to be a race between gunship diplomacy and drilling vessels on one hand, and standard diplomacy, with its channels crowded with all kinds of mediators and messengers, on the other.

Greek PM: Dialogue with Turkey is important, but on peaceful terms

The war of words between the two historical neighbours and rivals is not making it easy for the mediators. As a result, the region is on tenterhooks. A full-blown war may not be on the cards, but skirmishes — accidental or otherwise — are hard to prevent.

I would go so far as to say that a “limited” or “controlled” engagement may be necessary to create the conditions for serious negotiations and provide opportunities for both leaders to stand down from a war footing. Such a scenario cannot be ruled out, and may even be likely, even if the costs are high.

This situation reminds me of what happened to relations between Moscow and Ankara after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in 2015. It also reminds me of the scuffles between the Syrian and Turkish armies, which made it possible to reach the Sochi understandings regarding Idlib. I also recall the recent Egyptian “red lines” around Sirte and Jufra, where Cairo and Ankara stood ready on either side of the said lines hoping that a political solution would be found for Libya.

The situation between Turkey and Greece in the eastern Mediterranean is similar in terms of “dynamics”, and there are regional and international parties waiting eagerly for the consequences of the game of bloody knuckles that the two sides are playing. Turkey’s enemies are waiting to hear Ankara scream first, while its friends (who are not necessarily Greece’s enemies), want the first scream to come from Athens. Only time will tell.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Addustour on 10 September 2020

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.