The change of power in the US – and a wish to re-set relations with the EU – are behind Ankara’s de-escalation of tensions in volatile waters.
Turkey and Greece resumed their exploratory talks after a five-year break on January 25. Resuming the talks after such a long break was received positively by many international actors as a sign of de-escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Deciding to reopen diplomatic channels is an important improvement to peace and the stability in the region. However, the balance remains fragile and where these talks will lead is still not clear.
The parties started the talks in 2002 to discuss the delimitation of maritime zones in the Aegean and develop confidence-building measures. They met 60 times until March 2016 but the dialogue on finding solutions to current disputes lost momentum after the failed coup attempt in Turkey in 2016. Even though exploratory talks would not necessarily lead to a final resolution of the region’s disputes, former Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras confirmed in February 2019 that talks “came very close to a solution”.
The parties reconvened on January 25 in Istanbul and the next round of talks is planned to take place in Athens. Before the meeting, however, Turkey announced a new NAVTEX for its survey vessel, the Oruç Reis, in the Gulf of Antalya in December 2020 until June 2021. This was a concerning gesture by Ankara, as the same vessel was escorted by the Turkish navy in the disputed waters earlier – and caused an escalation of tension between Greece and Turkey.
Although the agenda for the talks was not officially revealed by either party, Turkish media stated that Turkey was again prepared to bring disputes both over the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean to the table in a package. This would include demilitarization of the Aegean islands, delimitation of territorial waters, airspace and the continental shelf. On the other hand, Greek officials insisted that the talks aimed to reach a solution in maritime zones only.
Resuming talks eases sanctions pressure from EU
After the EU leaders’ summit in December 2020, the EU decided to discuss imposing sanctions on Turkey at its upcoming summit and asked the EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, and the Commission to prepare a report on how to proceed in March 2021.
However, resuming the exploratory talks has deescalated the tension in the region and eased the political pressure on Ankara. Turkey’s decision to limit the research activities of the Oruc Reis in undisputed waters was followed by Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s visit to Brussels the next month. There, he had meetings with Borrell, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg and Turkey rapporteur Nacho Sanchez Amor. Following the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council meeting, Borrell referred to the exploratory talks and said the EU had “taken note of the important message that has been sent since then by the Turkish authorities”. He added: “We reaffirm the importance of contacts with Turkey in order to move forward and consolidate dialogue”.
The change in Turkey’s position not only linked with the relations with the EU but with changing balances in the US after the presidential elections in November.
New US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s hearing at the summit showed that the special relationship between former US president Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would hardly be reestablished under the new Biden administration. Moreover, Trump’s approval of new CAATSA sanctions on Turkey just before leaving office, following Turkey’s acquisition of S400 missile defences from Russia, heralded a tougher position against Turkey. These developments, and the risk of further deterioration of relations with the US, seem to be taken seriously by Ankara. Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar’s statements can be read from this perspective; he proposed a new model as a solution to the S-400 crisis based on the one used to resolve a standoff in the 1990s between Greece, Cyprus and Turkey over the deployment of S300s on Cyprus. While Washington seems uninterested in this offer, observers took Akar’s statement as a signal of compromise.
If Turkey is showing a wish to recalibrate its relations with the West, it has certain motivations for changing position. First, it seeks damage control by de-escalating tension in the Eastern Mediterranean to avoid further sanctions that could devastate its economy.
Second, it expects to open a new page in relations with the EU that could lead to a positive agenda in March. Rather than facing new sanctions, Ankara expects to see improvements in the spheres of revision of the customs union and on visa liberalization. Third, it wants a fresh start with the White House, considering that the EU intends to coordinate with Washington before reshaping its policy towards Turkey.
Greece is getting more proactive in the region
Athens has meanwhile increased its defence expenditure dramatically to balance Turkey in the region. It signed a $3 billion agreement with France to get 18 Rafale fighters in January 2020, is set to sign a $1.68 billion deal with Israel to establish a new flight school and plans to buy F35s multi-role combat aircraft from the US to strengthen its air force.
These multi-billion agreements contribute to Greece’s strategic relations with supplier countries. Moreover, the recent Philia Forum in Athens, which brought together Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on February 11, shows that Athens is pursuing a proactive foreign policy in the region, bringing actors together. The effort seems to be leading to cooperation at a military level with the Gulf as well. Greece plans to dispatch Patriot defence missiles to Saudi Arabia to protect energy sites and infrastructure, the Middle East Monitor said on February 6.
While establishing close relations in the region, Greece is also taking steps to bolster its maritime zone on its western shores. On January 20, it extended its territorial waters from six nautical miles to 12 in the Ionian Sea. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told the Greek parliament that this extension should send a message to the east as well, meaning Turkey. However, following this move, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said the extension did not affect the Aegean Sea – and Turkey’s position remains that territorial waters in the Aegean should not be extended unilaterally.
Talks on the Aegean could spill over to other areas
Resuming the exploratory talks is a chance to restart a constructive dialogue in the region. While the focus is mainly on the Aegean, the dialogue has a potential to spill over to other elements, including Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean. However, these topics are entangled with domestic politics and nationalism. Moreover, the parties continue to invest in their military capabilities, increasing the burden on the taxpayers. All this leaves limited leeway for diplomacy. Thus, international institutions like the EU, NATO and the UN, including third parties, can play a constructive role to overcome bottlenecks in the future. In this regard, the next round of the talks, the Cyprus meeting in New York and the EU summit should be followed closely in March.