The Greco-Turkish deadlock of the Mediterranean


The Greco-Turkish deadlock of the Mediterranean

Athens announced on the 24th of December that the United Nations had published the Greco-Egyptian agreement on the delimitation of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) between the two countries; one that Ankara considers “null and void”. Turkey’s Oruc Reis will resume its controversial seismic exploration mission, along with Ataman and Cengizhan vessels, near the shores of the Greek island of Kastellorizo until June 15, 2021. They are considered as Greek-claimed waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. These events are predicted to only further exacerbate Greek-Turkish tensions within the wider region. 

Text: Zareh-Sevag Sarkissian


The United States, a vital ally of Turkey, has given its support for the EastMed pipeline project that will extend beginning from offshore Israel, to Greece via Cyprus, and then into the wider European market. It is planned to meet 10%-15% of Europe’s gas needs. This comes after the US already hit Turkey with sanctions on four Turkish officials and the Presidency of Defence Industries, a government office responsible for strengthening national security and managing the supply of military technology, for purchasing S-400 missile defence systems from Russia in spite of American protest. This has caused a strenuous relation between the two NATO allies for two reasons. One, the US has shown favour to the Greek side in the oil feud of the Eastern Mediterranean, thus decreasing the chances that Turkey could earn an oil profit. Two, Turkey sees the arms sanctions by the US as an attack on its sovereignty; claiming they expected support against terrorist organizations and forces rather than sanctions from an ally; despite the US claiming Turkey is still a ‘valuable ally’.

Another major diplomatic blow to Turkey, nevertheless, came with the European Union Parliament’s decision, with overwhelming majority vote, to sanction Turkey after Erdogan’s ‘illegal’ exploration of gas in the eastern Mediterranean, and his equally illegal visit to breakaway Northern Cyprus. The votes were 631 in favour, 3 against, and 59 abstentions. However, following the December Summit, the EU delayed any talks of sanctions until consulting first with NATO and the new US administration. Earlier in July, during a meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council, Athens had proposed immediate sanctions on Turkey for its drilling actions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Of the EU member states, only 7 supported this proposal while 19 opposed it. Brussels up until then had only imposed a minor sanction since July 2019. It had targeted two Turkish citizens complicit with the drilling activity, had limited its assistance to Turkey for 2020, and appealed to the European Investment Bank to review its lending activities in the country. Yet, despite all this show of strength, and the possibility of introducing arms sanctions in March 2021 if Ankara remains uncooperative; the EU allocated €6 billion to Turkey in a deal aimed at stopping migrants heading into Europe. Turkey had already let go of droves of said migrants but almost all were turned back by the Greek coastal guard in the recent month. 

This whole affair has also created tension within the EU. This has come after Germany’s chancellor has been reluctant to impose an arms embargo on Turkey particularly that of the already delayed submarine deal. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias accused Germany of failing to live up to its leadership role by rejecting the arms embargo pleas; even voicing confusion as to why this has to be discussed when a fellow EU country is at military risk. Moreover, several Members of European Parliament (MEP) have sent letters advising against the submarine deal. Tensions were likewise sown within the Greek government itself, after the leftist party Syriza accused PM Mitsotakis of failing to protect the country’s national interest in the whole East Mediterranean affair. 

In contrast to that claim, the Greek General Directorate for Defence Investments and Armaments has requested the purchase of two-dozen F-35 fighter jets from the US, the latter which has been enthusiastic about. This comes also after the Greek armed forces are bound to receive 18 Dassault-made Rafale fighter jets and four frigates from France; as well as bidding to hire 15,000 military personnel in the next five years. Turkey responded that it would utilize its S-400 defence systems in case of an aerial threat. This build up in Greek defence comes as no surprise after the many Turkish military expeditions within its periphery. 

An unexpected alliance between Israel and the UAE, witnessed this year, had also placed its intended target as Turkey and not Iran, as they both see the former as a more serious threat to the region. France has also stopped deeming Turkey as a reliable partner within the region; whom Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg agreed with by stating the EU ‘must re-evaluate’ its position with Turkey.

Moreover, two other major events have led to the speedy decline of relations between Greece and Turkey this year as well; conversions and clandestine activities. The seeds of a dark past were once again sown by the Turkish government when the Hagia Sophia was declared a mosque by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) despite many protests in Greece and elsewhere. The Hagia Sophia had hitherto been converted into a museum ever since the founding of the Turkish Republic under the reforms of then leader Kamal Ataturk. This was followed by the conversion of another historic Byzantine church, the Chora church, into a mosque only one month after the Hagia Sophia, stirring Greek anger yet again. Furthermore, Turkish documents were accidentally leaked earlier this year, revealing planned invasions of Greece and Armenia at the height of the Syrian civil war in 2014. The AKP’s anti-Greek and anti-Armenian rhetoric, its incursions in the maritime domains of its Hellenic neighbours, as well as its tremendous aid of Azerbaijani armed forces in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war have all demonstrated the seriousness of these documents.


During President Erdogan’s term in office, and his AKP’s neo-Ottoman aspirations within the Near East and North African regions, many diplomatic relations of Turkey have been strained. These countries include Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, Israel, UAE, Greece, Cyprus, and many others. This has been precipitated by military interventions in several countries within the MENA (Middle-East and North Africa) region and recently the South Caucasus. The resurface of late Ottoman anti-Greek, Armenian, and Western rhetoric has found place in the party’s discourses as well leading to further deterioration of relations. Nevertheless, the main catalyst for the increased tensions between Greece and partners against Turkey was the latter’s unsanctioned oil drilling attempts off Cyprus and seismic survey of the continental shelf, by the Turkish ship Oruc Reis, in parts of the Mediterranean over which Greece claims sovereignty, despite Ankara’s rejections of the claim. The survey ended just recently on the 30th of November, but had begun in late July. Another expedition is soon to restart.

Undeniably though, the largest historical antagonism to the Greek people from the Anatolian Turks came during the late years of the Ottoman Empire and at the turn of the 20th century in what was the Genocide of the Greeks during the years of 1913-23 that claimed the lives of an estimated 1.2 million Pontic, Ionian, Cappadocian, and other Greek populations living within the Ottoman borders (Shirinian, 2017). It has not been forgotten till today.