Fatih Ceylan1, Alper Coşkun2
The 70th anniversary of Turkey and Greece joining NATO was recently commemorated. Yet, just days before that we witnessed a Turkish fisherman’s bold stance against a Greek coast guard boat’s aggressive posturing in the Aegean Sea. This incident reminded us once again that notwithstanding their bond as allies, Turkey and Greece have profound differences that bear the risk of triggering dangerous consequences. And, while no solution to these challenging problems seems to be in sight, their numbers are on the rise. This disturbing reality is further compounded by the unresolved Cyprus problem and the recent onset of dispute between the two countries in the Eastern Mediterranean. The picture is quite dim both on the bilateral front and in general geopolitical terms.
The state of affairs between Turkey and Greece wasn’t always like this. The searing memories of Greece’s ill conceived “catastrophe in Asia Minor,” were narrated by the late Dido Sotiriyu, a shared literary icon coming from the town of Aydın in western Turkey, in her iconic book “Farewell Anatolia.” But even at a time when these emotions were still raw, two visionary statesmen, Turkey’s founding leader Atatürk and Greek Prime Minister Venizelos contemplated a very different future for their countries and peoples. Having experienced the full brunt of conflict and war, they laid the foundations for lasting peace between the two countries. They developed such a sense of mutual respect in this process that Venizelos went on to nominate Atatürk for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1934.
First Blow: Johnson Letter
The positive dynamic in bilateral relations was still prevailing when Turkey and Greece joined NATO in 1952. But with the simmering problems in Cyprus turning into open conflict between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots and rising tension in the Aegean Sea, the vicious cycle of problems presenting themselves today began to materialize.
Initially, this negative dynamic had no bearing on NATO. That was until 1964, when in the aftermath of the “Bloody Christmas” ordeal in Cyprus, Ankara lost patience and displayed, including through low altitude military flights, its readiness to intervene and in an effort to prevent this from happening, the U.S. President of the time Lyndon B. Johnson took the fateful step of sending Turkish Prime Minister Ismet Inonu a letter. In this letter, Johnson infamously stated, among other things, that Turkey could not use American supplied weapons in such an effort and that it could not count on its NATO Allies, should the Soviet Union somehow get involved. This had a cold shower effect in Ankara and has since left an indelible mark on the perception of the U.S. and of NATO among official circles. It has become a point of reference that even today exponentially aggravates Turkish emotions in the context of disagreements with Western nations and particularly with the U.S.
Second Blow: Cyprus Again
The real turning point for Turkish-Greek relations came in 1974, when Turkey finally intervened in Cyprus in reaction to a coup d’état engineered with the support of the military junta in Greece. The lead actor on the Island was the notorious EOKA activist, Greek Cypriot Nikos Sampson and the objective was clear: to unify Cyprus with Greece. In an ironical twist of events, Turkey’s intervention in Cyprus led to the ousting of the military junta in Greece proper, paving the way for the return of democratic order to Greece. Turkey’s intervention also had implications for NATO, as Greece decided to withdraw from the integrated military structure of the Alliance, disgruntled by the fact that NATO had not taken action to stop Turkey’s intervention.
With Cold War dynamics gaining strength in the background, both the Turkish operation in Cyprus and Greece’s withdrawal from the Alliance’s military structures triggered tremors within the ranks of NATO. A fracture had precipitated in NATO’s southeastern flank and seeing the danger, policy makers in the U.S. saw the need for a remedy.
Aegean Crisis Begins
After the dust had somewhat settled, an “Open Ended Group” was stood up within NATO to examine the prospects of Greece’s reintegration to the Alliance’s military structure. But this effort failed because of Greece’s insistence on attributing the meaning of sovereign rights to its Flight Information Region (FIR) responsibility and Turkey’s objections to this.
Things changed, however, with the 12th September 1980 military coup in Turkey. The generals who took the helm in Turkey agreed to a plan (in essence a non-paper) prepared by SACEUR General Bernard B. Rogers, that was brief enough to not even fill an A4 sized piece of paper. It’s interesting to note that the adoption of what came to be known as “Roger’s Plan” was the first official decision taken by the Ulusu government installed by the military rulers in Turkey.
The compromise gave Greece two sub-regional NATO commands with the proviso that when a reference to any of them was needed in NATO documents, the phrase ‘when established’ was to be included in parentheses. This ambiguity served Turkey’s claim that the headquarters had not been recognised de jure.
De-Militarized status of Aegean Islands
Nevertheless, this so called plan also fell short of presenting a lasting solution to existing problems. Greece continued its practice of trying to erode the de-militarized status of some of its Aegean islands, an effort it pursues to this day by trying to register its military assets on the island of Lemnos in the context of NATO. Turkey fields this effort in NATO by vetoing the Latter’s declared contributions to the Alliance. Greece follows suit by vetoing Turkey’s submissions, albeit without any substantive reasoning other than its desire to retaliate.
Turco-Greek disputes in the Aegean Sea not only had implications within NATO, but at times, they brought the two Allies on the brink of war. There as a particular spike in the risk of conflict in the 1970s over conflicting claims on exploration rights in the continental shelf. Tensions were eased by the 1976 Bern Agreement, whereby Turkey and Greece retained their national positions but also agreed to refrain from unilateral actions and on the need to search for amicable solutions. This did not, however, mark the end of tensions in the Aegean Sea. This continuing reality led to a series of agreements between the sides between the 1980s and late 1990s, culminating in a related set of confidence building measures in the NATO context.
Confidence Building Measures
One such development was announced by the NATO Secretary General Javier Solana in 1988, on the basis of an agreement reached in Athens that same year by the Turkish and Greek Foreign Ministers. Efforts within NATO were followed by similar attempts under the auspices of Secretary General Lord Robertson in 2003, leading to temporary respite from tension. This was reinforced by the establishment of Allied Air Component Command in İzmir in 2004. The announcement of a deconfliction mechanism between the two countries within the context of NATO by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in 2020 was the latest iteration of these efforts. That came after the flare-up in the East Mediterranean related to the exploitation of hydrocarbon resources and conflicting claims, including in the environs of Cyprus.
If the parties demonstrate and maintain the necessary political will, it is possible to reach a common understanding ground that can be reached depending on the exploratory talks aiming at a permanent peaceful arrangement in the Aegean.
Greece does not hesitate to accuse Turkey of violating international law in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. It is displaying an attitude that ignores Turkey’s legitimate rights and interests in both seas. Based on the developments in Cyprus and the potential offered by the hydrocarbon resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, it presents a fictional approach to “cornering” Turkey in its own way.
Lausanne and Paris Peace Treaties
In regard to international law (1923 Lausanne and 1947 Paris Peace Treaties), Greece does not hesitate to demonstrate an attitude not in conformity with those two Treaties and that ignores the demilitarized status of the Eastern Aegean Islands and the Dodecanese, which constitute its obligations.
Not only does Greece feel nervous when Turkey brings this situation to the attention of the UN, but it prefers to deviate to a collision course and to arm itself against Turkey, which it sees as its main threat. Faced with Greece’s intransigent attitude, Turkey naturally takes its guard and insists on the need to resolve existing conflicts through dialogue and mutual negotiations.
Greece and Turkey to lose
The current tense climate necessitates the following: In order to reach a compromise in the future predicated on legal basis, the zero-sum perspective, in other words, the understanding of “the other party’s loss is my gain” must be abandoned. As long as Greece continues to see Turkey as its main threat and does not desist from presenting it as such to its own public as well as the third parties coupled with the habit of building its international networks on this distorted perception and in constant opposition to Turkey, it will be difficult to make real progress.
Third parties, such as the USA and the EU, must also encourage a sustainable and equitable solution to these problems without any prejudice and partial attitudes. In fact, some recent developments (the US ending its drilling activities off Crete, Russia’s reaction to the military build-up in Greece) could lead to encouraging the Greek leadership to cooperate with Turkey. Hence the need for keeping this issue alive whether recent developments result in convincing the Greek authorities, still finding strength in their narrow and selfish agenda, toward a commonsensical settlement.
Almost a century ago, Atatürk and Venizelos, the two visionary statesmen of both countries, set aside their post-conflict traumas, even when they were still fresh in their memories, and sought to re-establish friendships between the two countries and their peoples.
For a long time, both sides preserved that heritage alive based on friendship and good neighborly relations. However, the slack in the heritage for one reason or another pitted the two countries against each other. Even sometimes hands were on the trigger. The issue of who won what and lost, particularly on a regional scale, did not disappear from the agenda. The aspiration to seek a compromise was put in the backburner.
As things stand, the global agenda is pregnant with new and serious inflection points against the backdrop of ever increasing strategic competition. It is imperative that both countries read this reality in all its nakedness. Both sides would suffer irreparable wounds from an additional crisis that could engulf the region. It would be much more realistic and beneficial for Turkey and Greece to reclaim the legacy of Atatürk and Venizelos with a new vigorous and fresh understanding under such sensitive and obviously challenging circumstances.
1 Ambassador (r), Former Permanent Representative of Turkey to NATO (2013-2018), Vice President of Ankara Policy Center (APM)
2 Ambassador (r), Senior fellow, Europe Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace