by Hercules Chatzitheoklitos, photos by Yagiz Alp Tekin
Since late February, the Greece-Turkey border on the Evros/Manitsa river has been making headlines in global media. Tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees, primarily from Syria and Afghanistan, but also from other Middle Eastern and African countries, have been trying to cross the river and enter Greece, the gateway to Europe. It hasn’t been the first time Greece has made headlines regarding the issue of refugees, as throughout February, the citizens of Chios and Lesbos, the latter of which is already hosting around 20,000 refugees, were rioting against the construction of a permanent refugee camp on the islands, with the Greek government having to send over security forces from the mainland to quite literally crush their resistance.
Greco-Turkish antagonism is nothing new. In December, the memorandum between Turkey and Libya was signed. In addition to establishing military cooperation between the two countries, the memorandum also contained a provision of joint Libyan and Turkish underwater gas exploration and exploitation in a predetermined zone in the Mediterranean, which, much to the surprise of Greece and the international community, passed through Greek territorial waters. Since October 2019, Turkey has also been entangled in another affair on its eastern border, where it is involved in a bitter fight with the Syrian government and its ally, Russia. These two events may appear disconnected upon first glance, but, in fact, they are fundamentally linked, as this article will seek to explain.
“Prisoner of Geography”
Turkey has inherited several geopolitical problems from its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire. One such problem is the lack of control of the sea. Much like their traditional enemy, the Russian Empire, the Ottomans struggled to have free access to the high seas, let alone control of them. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Ottoman Empire rose to power by controlling the land trade routes to India and Asia and, by extension, commerce from the East to the West. With the Age of Exploration and the new seaborne trade routes to Asia around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, the Europeans no longer relied on the Ottomans, and their empire began to decline.
A similar situation is taking place today. Although Turkey does control one of the most vital choke points in the world—the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits—it does not control the seas to which these straits lead. The straits lead to the Aegean Sea, which is dotted with Greek islands and thus a part of Greek territorial waters. Despite having a coastline of 8000 kilometres (4771 miles) and the largest population in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey has limited access to the open sea.
Further South, the tiny Greek island of Kastelorizo—whose population barely exceeds 200—connects Greek and Cypriot territorial waters, again blocking Turkish access to the open sea. For decades, Greece and Turkey have been playing cat and mouse in this area, with visitors being able to hear military jets flying over them from both sides. In the East, Israel, Syria and Lebanon have also a significant presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, with Egypt also taking an active role, further obstructing Turkish access to the open sea. The Turkish occupation of close to 40% of the island of Cyprus and the creation of the so-called ‘Turkish Republic of Cyprus’ carries the potential to ease this dilemma, but its lack of international recognition limits this prospect.
The EastMed pipeline and Libya
With the discovery of gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey is feeling the effects of its exclusion from the open sea. As Greece, Cyprus, and Israel had signed the EastMed agreement to exploit these gas deposits and construct a pipeline to Europe, the Libya memorandum served to interrupt this isolation by establishing an ally in the Mediterranean that outflanks the EastMed states. The construction of the pipeline echoes Turkey’s Age of Exploration predicament, when Europeans found a way to bypass Ottoman trade routes, as this new pipeline in the Eastern Mediterranean would supply up to 10% of Europe’s energy needs, without Turkey's participation. The West, failing to understand this strain on Turkish geopolitical ambitions, did not react positively to the Turkish-Libyan memorandum, with the EU condemning the deal on the grounds that ‘It infringes upon the sovereign rights of third states, does not comply with the Law of the Sea and cannot produce any legal consequences for third states.’
This rift is unusual, as it demonstrates cracks in the NATO alliance, its members turning against each other. Turkey has already been on thin ice, especially since its purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia, against US wishes, which led to its elimination from the F-35 programme.
Syria and Syrians
The other feature that Turkey inherited from the Ottoman Empire is the multitude of ethnicities residing at its borders. Throughout the ongoing Syrian Civil War, Kurdish militias have been successful in establishing autonomous regions, prompting Turkey to create a cordon sanitaire in northern Syria out of fear that Kurdish presence there could fuel Kurdish separatism inside its own borders. In order to more successfully deal with this issue, Turkey decided to move its operation further into Syrian territory to Idlib—a rebel stronghold, which Turkish-supported fighters have been able to control undisturbed under the auspices of the 2018 Sochi agreement between Turkey and Russia.
Since February, Turkish forces have been actively involved in fighting the Russia-supported Syrian government in Idlib—a manifestation of yet another division inside NATO. Facing attacks from Syrian forces, Turkey turned to NATO for assistance. In realist terms, fighting Russian proxies was the main purpose for which the alliance was created and continues to exist; yet, in this instance, NATO, while offering its condolences and its sympathies, did nothing to support its member’s struggle.
So Turkey played another card. The nation already hosts 3.5 million refugees, and with the ongoing Idlib conflict, more migrants escaping the unrest there will be heading North, to Turkey’s territory, so Turkey decided to direct some of them to the Greek/EU border. This decision was made shortly after Turkish forces in the region were hit by aerial bombardment, leaving 33 Turkish military personnel dead and many more wounded, marking the highest loss of Turkish personnel since their involvement in the conflict. Turkey maintains that it was Russia who was behind—or at least allowed for—this Syrian attack, as it knew the location of Turkish troops and did nothing to stop it. That served to escalate Russo-Turkish tension to a point reminiscent of the situation in 2016 when Turkish air defences shot down a Russian fighter jet.
With no help offered from its allies, Turkey seeks to extort it from them. The EU has already demonstrated that it is willing to cooperate with Turkey if it takes measures to keep the migrants within its own borders. In the 2016 EU-Turkey deal, Turkey received £2.3 billion in aid to help migrants, among other benefits. This poses a substantial plight for the liberal democracies of Europe and the West. They understand that the migrant issue is practical as well as political. Thus, it seems quite possible that Europe will either crack under the pressure of public opinion and allow the migrants in or bend to Turkey’s will and provide it with further aid and political support.
Greek policy is very much dependent on which path the EU will choose to take, as Greece’s own capabilities are limited, both in stopping migrants at its borders and hosting them. EU leaders have been visiting the border regions to inspect the situation and have pledged 700 million euros as well as the support of Frontex, the European border control agency. Greek camps in the islands are in shambles—they are unable to keep up with the influx and are not equipped to deal with the tens of thousands more trying to cross into Greece from Evros.
The riots in Lesbos, although far from representative of the whole of Greek public opinion, suggest a shift and will certainly be on the minds of policymakers as they decide on their next step. European politicians are watching the situation unfold very closely, as the result of the 2015 wave of refugees in Europe has had a dramatic impact on the European political scene and is still felt today. Many European parliaments have witnessed the rise of right-wing populism, with German politicians fearing that another surge of refugees would further steer voters towards the far-right AfD, the opposition party with the most seats in German parliament. It is also worth noting that the vote for Brexit occurred during the aftermath of this influx.
Turkey is seeking to rewrite the rules of the game in the Middle East. French President Macron’s comment that NATO is experiencing brain death is a sentiment shared in Turkey. NATO’s interests lie somewhere else, and European leaders shape policy without Turkey in mind. The portrayal of Erdogan as a want-to-be Sultan with the aim of restoring the Ottoman Empire—imagery invoked by Greek and international media—is far-fetched and purposefully provocative. Yet, what can be said for certain is that Turkey is taking its own path, away from the auspices of the EU and NATO.