Turkey’s balancing act: Keep the status quo with Greece while avoid armed conflict

Rami Rayess

Published: Updated:

With its regional and international problems mounting from east and west, along with a financial breakdown, Turkey has an old recurring crisis that it has to deal with: its turbulent relations with Greece.

The Cyprus split in 1974 after Turkey's invasion of the island triggered international condemnation, while more recent maritime border issues and naval clashes in the Aegean Sea, Ankara isn’t making many friends, and as relations with the European Union and NATO falter the country has a bleak outlook.

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Ankara’s many interests are best served by preserving the status-quo with Greece, while refraining from any actions that might lead to an armed conflict.

Turkey’s expansion in Syria, Iraq, Libya and the Caucuses has alarmed several nations that believe this growth could upset sensitive relations within the region, as a whole.

Most of the powerful players in the Mediterranean basin are not on friendly ties with Turkey. These include, France, Egypt, Israel wider regional players such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Turkey’s developing political and military relations with Moscow are also alarming the West, particularly after the purchase of the Russian made S400 defense system.

The same applies to the Turkish-Iranian rapprochement. The tripartite coordination between Moscow, Ankara and Tehran in Syria has been significant in comparison to the absence of the West.

March 25th marked the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Greek war of independence from Turkey. The two neighbors have had a long history of rivalry and conflict.

Yet, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had announced that 2021 will be a year of a, “no eat, no west” foreign policy for Ankara. This would affect, in one way or another, the turbulent relations with Athens which is also an active NATO member, along with Turkey.

Raising tension with Greece could be an experiment where Ankara tests the waters with the West, and based on the reaction, it will influence its future strategy.

When France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE extend their support to Greece in any maritime conflict that arises, Turkey will have second thoughts about pushing this agenda.

If it is serious about the “no east, no west” policy, it must find ways to rearrange its relations, and particularly with Arab gulf states. Ties have deteriorated significantly with most, with the exception of Qatar.

The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that a “new era of Turkish-Greek relations had begun as of 1999.” In 2010, the two countries set up the High Level Cooperation Council (HLCC). Between 2010 and 2014, bi-lateral trade doubled reaching almost $5.6 billion. Reciprocal visits between officials in both countries became a regular occurrence after a boycott that was in place for years. When Erdogan visited Athens in 2017, it was the first such visit since 1952.

However, the Aegean Sea has always been an area of tension between the two nations. The Lausanne Treaty of 1923 balanced equally the rights of both states, but disputes over territorial waters, continental shelves and airspace linger on.

The Cypriot conflict with Greece has been a source of tension and had detrimental effects on the island too.
Since 1974, the state has been partitioned into two separate parts; the Northern part has a proclaimed Republic which is only recognized by Ankara. Turkish-Greek political divisions have stood in the way of reaching a UN brokered peace plan aiming to reunite the island.

Needless to say, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots have paid the price of this conflict: lives were lost, people were displaced and the capital city, Nicosia, was divided and has the most famous Green line in the world.

Turkey should have one issue less to worry about. Its new foreign policy aimed to rehabilitate its poor relations with the European Union, the West and other international players comes at a time when turning east towards Russia, China and Iran has not paid off.

Tehran has signed a 25-year strategic agreement with China. With American military bases, and a NATO member since 1952 Turkey’s strategy with one and all needs managed carefully. Its antagonists across the Mediterranean and beyond will increase, while its protagonists watch.

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