Turkey-Greece Tensions: Will War Break Out This Time?

This paper deals with the contentious issues between Ankara and Athens and the causes of tension between them, and discusses the different dimensions of the current tense situation from its predecessors. The paper examines the possibilities of transferring the state of tension between the two countries into a direct military clash between them, through the factors that motivate and prevent this.


After the Greek defense systems tracked Turkish fighters over the Mediterranean, tension returned to prevail in relations between Ankara and Athens, with threats and hints about a possible military clash between them, and each of them submitting complaints against the other to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union and the UN Security Council.

This paper examines the contentious files between Ankara and Athens and the causes of tension between them, and the current tension between them differs from its predecessors. The paper studies the possibility of the state of tension between the two countries moving into a direct military clash between them, through the factors that drive and prevent it.

The paper considers that despite the sharp statements from both sides and talk of a military clash, the latter remains an unlikely possibility at the present time, although there are future developments that may increase its chances and possibilities.

Background: complex conflict

The Turkish-Greek conflict is one of the traditional unresolved conflicts since the last century. Historical, religious, national, cultural and geopolitical contexts contribute to igniting it, which constantly strains relations between the two countries with periods of calm that can be considered an exception, even though they are members of NATO, supposedly allies or at least not opponents.

Traditionally, the two countries’ visions contradict and collide over a number of contentious files, foremost of which is the Cyprus issue, the Aegean islands, including the issue of their armament, territorial waters and airspace overlap, the Greek veto over Turkey’s entry into the European Union, and the demarcation of maritime borders in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas (1) . However, the discovery of quantities of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean has rekindled the differences between the two countries in the last few years regarding the demarcation of maritime borders and the determination of their exclusive economic zones in the Mediterranean in particular, because the matter is linked to the sharing of expected wealth, especially natural gas, on the one hand, and geopolitical competition. In the region, on the other hand.

Just as the expected gas wealth in the region has shaped the relations between the two countries, it has also framed the map of alignments in the region. After decades of stagnation in the solution regarding the Cyprus issue, Turkey retreated from supporting the unification of the island, calling for the establishment of two states, one for the Turkish Cypriots and the other for the Greek Cypriots (2) . This seems to be motivated in part by the expected Turkish (and Cypriot-Turkish) interests in dividing the maritime borders according to this solution.

On the other hand, Greece established with Greek Cyprus, “Israel”, Egypt, Italy (and Jordan and Palestine), with the support of the UAE and France, the East Mediterranean Gas Forum at the beginning of 2019 in an attempt to confront and isolate Turkey (3) , to delineate the latter’s maritime borders with Libya in November of the same year (4) , and the same idea was repeatedly presented to Egypt (5) .

Since the sixties of the last century and then with the Turkish military intervention in Cyprus in 1974, under the name “Cyprus Peace Process”, the tension between the two countries has escalated several times, reaching its peak in 1996 over one of the Aegean islands (6) . However, relations between the two countries took an escalating trend in the last few years due to the conflict in the eastern Mediterranean, and they almost reached the brink of a military confrontation in August 2020 (7) .

NATO intervened as a mediator between the two sides, and Turkey reduced its exploration activities in the eastern Mediterranean as a goodwill gesture, and between the two sides began exploratory dialogues on the differences and outstanding issues between them. Then the Russian-Ukrainian war was a positive factor in the relations of the two countries. The Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, visited Turkey and met with President Erdogan in March 2022, speaking of the need to “keep the channels of communication open and improve relations despite the differences,” on the grounds that The two countries bear “a special responsibility in the changing European security architecture” on the sidelines of the Russo-Ukrainian war (8) .

The causes of the recent tension: what’s new?

Despite the positive atmosphere established by Mitsotakis’ visit to Turkey, relations between the two countries quickly returned to tension, first politically and then on the ground.

The latter visited Washington last May on the occasion of the 201st anniversary of the start of Greek-American relations. In his speech before Congress, he called on the latter’s members to take into account his country’s sensitivities in any arms deal to Turkey, especially the situation in the eastern Mediterranean (9) , which the latter saw as an incitement to Not to sell it to the F-16 fighters , which Washington recently negotiated.

The Turkish reaction was very sharp, and Erdogan protested against the “involvement of third parties” in the Turkish-Greek relations, contrary to what the two countries had agreed upon, announcing the end of the dialogue between them (10) .

On the ground, Ankara has complained about the Greek defense systems harassing F – 16 fighters from its air fleet during a NATO mission over the Mediterranean. Ankara said that Athens used the Russian S-300 defense system against its fighters and that it jammed its radars (11) , which the latter denied. This development carries important implications for Ankara, as it is the first time that Athens has used the Russian system, which is supposed to be inactive, and on the other hand, it is evidence – from its point of view – of the double standards of the United States and NATO, as Turkey itself has been criticized and punished for its purchase of the system. Russia’s S – 400 defense system, including its removal from the F-35 fighter jet project .

Turkey has sent official letters to the permanent members of the Security Council, to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, to the Secretary-General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, most member states of the European Union, and to his High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell. The letters included what Ankara considers to be Greece’s “illegal practices and extremist demands”, explaining Turkey’s view and position, as well as Greece’s “provocative and hostile steps” toward Turkey (12) . According to Ankara, since the beginning of this year, Greece has violated Turkish airspace through its fighters 256 times, and Turkey’s territorial waters with its coastguard boats 33 times, and harassed Turkish fighters 158 times (13) .

Ankara believes that Greece is deliberately straining relations with it, and the Turkish president said: Some countries – he did not name it – are using Greece to fight a proxy war against Turkey, as happened a century ago (14) , but some Turkish officials mentioned that he meant France and the United States of America (15) ) .

After a Greek bet on some regional powers, such as Egypt, the UAE and “Israel”, to confront Turkey and the latter’s unwillingness to it and then normalize relations with Ankara, and after years of comprehensive French support for Athens in confronting Ankara within the corridors of the European Union and at the level of the armament file, and after a decline The European Union itself is not aware of the course of sanctions and pressure on Ankara (16) , the latter believes that Greece is betting on the United States’ support for it.

Washington and Athens renewed the defense cooperation treaty between them in light of tension between the latter and Ankara, including the expansion of American military activity in Greece and its use of additional military bases (17) . The Greek Foreign Minister, Nikos Dendias, said after signing: that the two countries will face threats in the eastern Mediterranean, in A reference to Turkey (18) . Turkey also criticizes the United States’ abandonment of its neutral position in the conflict between the two countries as well as on the Cyprus issue in favor of Greece and Greek Cyprus (19) , and declares its disbelief in Washington’s narrative that its military bases in Greece and Crete and its military maneuvers with Greece near the Turkish border are directed against Russia ( 20) .

3
Meeting of Greek Foreign Minister Dendias and his Turkish counterpart Cavusoglu in Athens in May 2021 (Reuters)

The outcomes: Will there be a military clash?

The level of tension between the two countries has risen over the past months and reached its climax with the incident of targeting Turkish fighters, which Ankara considered an unjust hostile act and the spirit of the alliance within NATO. The matter did not stop at the two countries complaining to each other about the international and regional organizations. Rather, they started talking about the possibilities and scenarios of a military solution, and even preparing for it.

The Turkish president described the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea as “occupied,” which means not recognizing their subordination to Greece, especially the islands that were transferred to the latter from Italy directly in accordance with the Paris Peace Agreement, 1947, without Turkey’s consent (21) . His Prime Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said: Greece’s arming of the islands raises the issue of its sovereignty over them for discussion on the grounds that Greek sovereignty is linked to the condition of disarmament (22) . Erdogan threatened Greece, saying: “We may come to you suddenly one night” (23) , a sentence that he has repeatedly repeated in the face of the organizations that his country considers terrorist and separatist in northern Syria before launching military operations against them, and it is – that is, the sentence – part of a song associated with the operation. Turkish military action in Cyprus, 1974, against Greece itself; Which increases its significance.

And because each country represents the historical, religious, and national enemy/enemy of the other, assessments and assessments multiply in both of them, which see war as an inevitable scenario, and some of them take the form of a direct threat of war. In what appeared to be an attempt to prove the validity of its narrative that Turkey wanted war, Greece dug trenches on its borders with the latter as a defensive measure for any possible land war (24) .

Erdogan emphasized more than once that Greece is not an equal, neither economically nor militarily, to his country, suggesting that direct military confrontation with Turkey is not in its interest and does not serve its self-interests. In addition to the geographical, demographic and economic aspects that clearly favor Turkey, the numbers of the Global Fire Power website support this Turkish vision on the military side as well. The Turkish army is ranked 13th in the world compared to the 27th of the Greek army, according to the 2022 classification (25) .

The following table makes a comparison between the capabilities of the two countries and the numbers comprising the air, land and naval forces in each of the two countries with regard to the most important weapons in any military confrontation, according to the same website (26) .

weaponTurkeyGreece
Planes1057633
combat aircraft205188
helicopters474270
combat helicopters10729
tanks30221243
naval fleet156120

Despite this, there are estimates that the air force is decisive in any potential confrontation between the two sides, and that Ankara fears the obsolescence of its air fleet, especially after it was removed from the F-35 fighter project and has not resolved the F – 16 fighter deal with the United States, in exchange for Greece obtaining Rafale planes. from France and the F-16 and possibly the F-35 from the United States, which could turn the tide in its favor in the long run (27) .

And because the individual capabilities of both countries are not the only determinant of estimating the possibilities of a military clash, the latter remains a theoretical possibility, but it depends on a number of motivating and inhibiting factors.

The outstanding issues between the two countries remain a major motive for clashing, especially the issues of gas and arming the Aegean islands and, to a lesser extent, the Cyprus issue, especially since it is linked from several angles to the national security of the two countries. The islands, which Turkey accuses of arming Greece, in contravention of the Lausanne Agreements, 1923, and Paris Peace, 1947, are located only kilometers from the Turkish mainland, and the gas expected in the eastern Mediterranean will be an important source of the economic power and status in general for the state that will receive it.

Greece’s continued escalation despite Ankara’s threats, including the shooting of a Turkish merchant ship in international waters (28) , indicates its desire to continue the tension apparently. In addition, the many factors that formed the ground for the Russian-Ukrainian war, foremost of which are the deteriorating economic conditions globally and the repercussions of the Corona pandemic and other factors, may heat the Turkish-Greek relations as it did with other regions of the world such as Taiwan and the Balkans.

Among the factors that can contribute to heating up the atmosphere between the two countries is the proximity of pivotal electoral stations in both countries; Turkey is waiting for crucial presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2023 (and there is a possibility that they will be presented), and Greece will precede it next spring with parliamentary and municipal elections; The sharp rhetoric, threats, and possibly field frictions will be factors that bring voices in light of the mobilization in the two countries against each other and the internal state of support for the clash in both.

In addition to all this, there is a state of distrust between the two countries, and their lack of any agreed upon mechanism or reference for legal separation between them after Greece’s retreat from negotiations according to the Berne Agreement (29) , the suspension of dialogue rounds between them, and the preoccupation of the United States and NATO in the Russian-Ukrainian war, as well as the lack of Reciprocal pressure tools except for the military field.

There is no doubt that the discovery of gas basins in any disputed area between the two countries may be an explosive factor between the two countries and push the state of tension to the level of a clash between them. Indeed, its discovery in non-disputed areas may have led to this because of its disruptive effect on the balance between the two countries.

On the other hand, there are factors that contribute to preventing the two countries from moving from tension to military escalation and direct confrontation. At the forefront of these factors is the Russian-Ukrainian war; The last thing NATO could want is a war between two of its members as it tries to focus on confronting Russia in Ukraine. Therefore, it is expected that the alliance, and specifically the United States of America, will mediate between the two countries and ease the tension between them before developments escalate.

There is no doubt that the two countries’ membership in NATO constitutes a relative guarantee that matters will not escalate between them, whether in terms of the alliance’s impact on both countries or in terms of the difficulty of finding allies and participants for either party in a war scenario. For Turkey, any escalation with Greece may be a direct reason to abort the F-16 fighter deal with the United States of America, which is counting on it to renew its air fleet.

Also, the US military presence on Greek soil, near the Turkish border and on the island of Crete in particular, could be a disincentive to any expanded military clash between the two countries. Perhaps the economic conditions experienced by the two countries, on the one hand, and the expected cost of any war between them in human, economic, military and strategic terms, on the other hand, are among the constraints of the military option.

In summary, despite the presence of a number of local, regional and international factors that could push the two countries towards a clash, the cost of this option (especially if it deepened and extended over time), the two countries’ membership in NATO, the fear of third parties entering the line of confrontation and other factors, make the confrontation Military action between the two countries is unlikely.

Therefore, the sharp and high-ceilinged statements from the two countries towards each other can be understood as messages to the inside where the two countries are close to important electoral entitlements for both of them, as well as messages of strength towards the other side to deter and reduce the possibilities of conflict in the first place.

However, the tense atmosphere between the two countries, the sensitivity of the contentious files between them, and the potential areas of friction, especially in the Aegean Sea, make their transition from the area of ​​tension to escalation always a possibility, especially if it was unintentionally/unplanned, but rather as a result of inaccurate estimates, unintended errors, or rolling developments. fieldwork. However, friction of this kind – if it occurs – can still be quickly controlled and contained, as happened in previous experiences, and an expanded war between the two countries remains an unlikely possibility in the foreseeable future, and no real evidence is based on it at present. However, the continuation of the contentious files between the two countries without frameworks and paths for dialogue and a solution keeps the possibilities of confrontation between Turkey and Greece existing in the future, especially affected by other developments such as the elections or the discovery of gas in disputed areas or the like.

About the author

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Saeed Al Hajj

 Researcher specializing in Turkish affairs.REFERENCE

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SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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