Aris Marghelis is Research fellow at the Centre for Maritime and Oceanic Law (Centre de Droit Maritime et Océanique), University of Nantes – Translation from French by Angus Clarke
The major developments in Turkey’s regional politics from the end of 2019 have had the effect of shaking up Greece and turning 2020 into an exceptional year as regards its foreign policy. Apart from new maritime delimitations, Greece has above all looked to develop synergies, including those with the Middle East’s military powers, through which it might counter Turkish designs in the eastern Mediterranean where Greece is the first target, along with Cyprus. It is also looking to modernise its air force and navy. Several unknown factors nonetheless raise doubts about this new strategy, notably the evolution of the Cypriot question, the consequences of Joe Biden’s agenda, the Russian factor and the situation in Libya.
From the moment when Turkey ‘crossed the Rubicon’ by signing a delimitation agreement on 27 November 2019 that infringed upon Greek maritime rights, Athens moved ahead swiftly with two delimitations of its own, one with Italy in June 2020and one with Egypt the following August, aiming to counter the Turkish-Libyan accord. In October 2020, Greece came to an agreement with Albania, one of Turkey’s strategic partners, that the settlement of their maritime borders should be left to international arbitration. Finally, in January 2021 it extended its territorial waters in the Ionian Sea to 12 nautical miles, reiterating its discretionary right to do the same along the whole of its coastline if need be, knowing that an extension beyond 6 nautical miles in the Aegean Sea would be a casus belli for Turkey. So many measures coming after decades of a status quo.
THE TRADITIONAL VECTORS OF FOREIGN POLICY HAVE PROVED TO BE INSUFFICIENT
Faced with the danger of a military escalation with Turkey in 2020, Greece took cognisance of both its need, which is undeniable, but also of the limits of its links with the European Union and NATO. The EU remains Greece’s principal asset but is hampered by its internal divisions on foreign policy. States like Spain, Italy, Germany, Hungary and Malta have shown themselves to be very reluctant to adopt a firm approach towards Turkey. On the other hand, France, Austria and even Slovenia are championing a robust attitude combined with substantial support for Greece and Cyprus.
For its part, concerned to preserve its cohesion, NATO has remained true to its traditional equidistance between Greece and Turkey. This is a position that Greece has taken badly; considering itself to the be the wronged party and then to be treated equally with its aggressor is, from the Greek point of view, simply playing the aggressor’s game. It is not by chance that Turkey greatly prefers to work within a NATO context to that of the EU and that it has increased pressure on allies and structures within the alliance, conferring a ‘quasi political commissionaires’ role  on its diplomats working in these areas. The setting up of the ‘deconfliction mechanism’ right at the heart of the Atlantic Alliance is in fact quite typical of the way in which the NATO-Greece-Turkey trio works. After it was announced at the start of September 2020 by Secretary General Stoltenberg and the Turkish government, Greece immediately made it understood that the only way to lower the tension was to remove the cause, demanding that the Turkish seismic research ship Oruç Reis and its escort leave the Greek continental shelf. It was quite unacceptable for the Greek authorities to accept any ‘lowering of the tension’ under NATO’s aegis without the prior departure of this flotilla. The deconfliction mechanism was finally set up in October once the Turkish ships had returned to port, and Greece has ensured that it is limited to strictly operational concerns with no impact on political matters.
Athens has therefore taken note of the inherent limitations of these two structures which are in any case interconnected, and this has led it to create alternatives to check Turkey’s aggressive policy: military and diplomatic partnerships that are both bilateral and regional and that are combined with a significant rearmament programme.
NEW MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC PARTNERSHIPS
Leaving the United States to one side, of all Greece’s European partners France is without doubt the most important and the most powerful as far as Athens is concerned. It demonstrated unfailing support during the crisis of 2020 which undoubtedly made the difference in the way in which the crisis evolved and in its outcome. Beyond the increase in joint military exercises, Athens and Paris have also increased their cooperation where arms supplies are concerned, as will be discussed later. This valuable support, linked to traditional relationships between the two countries, is clearly not unconnected with Turkey’s policies in North Africa and the Sahel which have led France to give her support to Greece and Egypt in the eastern Mediterranean, to act both as regional outposts and a means of readjusting the balance of power.
THE GULF STATES
After several years of apparent disinterest vis à vis the Arab world, Greece seems to be operating an energetic return to the Arabo-Muslim states. It has concluded a number of cooperation agreements with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and also a strategic partnership that includes a mutual defence agreement signed on 18 November 2020, a first for Greece outside NATO. Theoretically this would mean that in the case of any aggression it could count on the support of the sizable Emirati air force. As a sign of the new dynamic of military cooperation between the two countries, four Emirati F-16s were stationed in Crete throughout August, right in the middle of the crisis with Turkey In addition, this partnership could prove very beneficial to the Greek air force in the long term given the similar equipment used by both air forces, which both want to acquire the F-35 stealth multi-role combat aircraft, and which already have the modernised F-16.
As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, relations are more discreet but are developing on the back of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. This affects the space sector but above all the military. Graeco-Saudi air exercises are to take place in the next few weeks in the Mediterranean. At the Americans’ request an agreement on the deployment of Greek Patriot missiles is about to be signed, aimed at protecting the Saudi oil producing infrastructure that has regularly been targeted since 2019. In return Riyadh will update the missile systems at its own expense. Greece pointedly comments however that these are defensive weapons and that it has no desire to be associated with any active support for the war in Yemen.
On the other hand, this opening of the door to the Gulf, eased by the recent normalisation of relations between Israel and several Arab states under the preceding US administration, seems to have been done at the expense of Greek-Iranian relationships that had been cordial for a long time. In fact the pro-Greek lobby in Washington seems to have moved closer to those favourable to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UEA, all of them hostile to Tehran.
Close to the Arab world until 1990 (when Athens officially recognised Israel), Greece strengthened its links with Tel Aviv from 2010 within a context of deteriorating Turkish Israeli relations. Greek Israeli cooperation, which involves Cyprus in the majority of its planning, rests on the double dimension of energy and the military. With regards to energy, the three states are planning to install the longest undersea electric cable in the world (1200 km/750 miles), aiming to link Israel with Europe in order to ensure the Hebrew state’s supply in case of emergency. But their flagship project is of course the East Med gas pipeline. Nevertheless, the regional architecture it would involve and above all its technical feasibility and profitability, raise doubts as to any real chance of its fulfilment. Until work on the project has truly started nothing is certain and it appears to be more of a geopolitical tool. As well as the question of energy, Greece has just announced that it will open its doors to Israeli tourists in spite of the Covid pandemic. On the military level, the cooperation between Greece and Israel which started in the 2010s, is now seeing an upturn and is concentrated on joint training, intelligence sharing and cybersecurity. Israel offers Greece and Cyprus an east-west axis to complement the north-south axis established with Egypt, thus allowing coverage of the eastern Mediterranean. For their part these two European states provide Israel with a direct connection to Europe as well as training areas and a regional strategic depth which has been lacking particularly since the ‘loss’ of Turkey, a valued military partner of previous years. What is more, the regional policy of the previous US administration made it clear that it is now possible to develop links with the Hebrew state without automatically damaging relations with the Arab world, while at the same time curbing the Turkish strategy of creating a Sunni alliance against Israel. The Palestinian Authority and Israel even took part in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, established in February 2020, and which in September became a regional intergovernmental organisation with its headquarters in Cairo.
With Egypt, Greece has developed deeper strategic relations since President al-Sisi came to power in 2013 and has intensified military cooperation, a cooperation that regularly involves France and the UAE. This has been all the more so because the al-Sisi regime, with very close ties to Riyadh and Abu-Dhabi, is on very bad terms with Ankara with regards to Libyan and Turkish support for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Despite everything Egypt remains cautious and does not wish to antagonise Turkey any more than necessary, taking for example a neutral stance on the subject of maritime delimitations east of the 28th meridian, where Greece is claiming maritime zones around the Kastellorizo archipelago, a claim that is fervently denied by Turkey. An agreement by Egypt of a maritime boundary delimitation agreement with Greece east of the 28th meridian would be a resounding taking of sides against Turkey, but without benefitting any of Egypt’s vital interests.
Egypt undeniably remains the key state for Greece in the eastern Mediterranean, for its decisions determine any number of developments; it is quite clear that the regional situation would have been radically different and in any event much more complicated for Greece had the Muslim Brotherhood come to power in Egypt.
A SUSTAINABLE STRATEGY?
Greece’s new regional strategy has developed in response to Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy, even if its elements had been in embryo for several years. To be able to counter Turkey’s ambitions in the long-term, Greece has to provide a consistency to its synergies by promoting a credible and federal regional architecture. This rests on three principal axes: economic, diplomatic and military.
Economically, apart from the issue of gas, one of the great challenges is to ensure control of the connective corridors between the Middle East and North Africa on the one hand, and Europe on the other, but above all to be the junction that connects the Middle East and North Africa to the rest of Europe. From this there emerges a certain rivalry between on the one hand Italy and Malta, who because of their preferential economic, commercial and political relations with Turkey hope to manage the latter’s presence in the eastern Mediterranean in order to maintain their network of trans-Mediterranean connections, and on the other hand Greece and Egypt, supported by France. In this context the Chinese factor is decisive. Piraeus, now controlled by the shipping giant COSCO, became the Mediterranean’s premier port for container shipping in 2019 (ahead of Valencia). In combination with Greece’s inclusion by China in its policy of cooperation with the countries of central and eastern Europe in 2019, this all reinforces Greece’s regional strategy of attracting maritime trade flows. In this respect cooperation with Egypt, which controls the Suez Canal, but also with Saudi Arabia which borders the Red Sea, is clearly essential. As regards this new strategy Greece cannot neglect the Chinese factor, even though Beijing’s ability to pressure Athens must not be overestimated because the American authorities maintain several important bases in Greece and keep a close eye on any new Chinese infrastructure in the Aegean.
On the diplomatic level the Greek foreign minister, Nikos Dendias, has taken on the very complex task of establishing, from North Africa to the Middle East, a group of states favourable to the regional architecture Greece seeks to promote while at the same time denouncing Turkish expansionism. The recent ‘Philia’ forum (meaning ‘friendship in Greek), which brought together Cyprus, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrein and France (but not Italy) characterises Greece’s efforts to operate as the junction between the Gulf and the Mediterranean and to position itself as the entry point to Europe in a way that will more effectively counter Turkey’s aggressive strategy of occupying the eastern Mediterranean space. Beyond all this, Athens’ decision to re-establish a representative office in Damascus, to open an embassy in Senegal and to argue for an increase in European presence – including Greek – in the Sahel demonstrates that Greece has clearly understood that the eastern Mediterranean, Sahelian and Middle Eastern questions are interconnected.
Militarily, Greece is spending more on defence than at any time in its history, with the air force being the main beneficiary. France will supply 18 Rafale multirole fighters to Greece at a cost of 2.8 billion euros, the first of which are expected in summer 2021. Greece has also come to an agreement with the United States for the upgrading of 84 F-16 fighters and the purchase of seven MH-60R helicopters, a decisive acquisition for its military capacities in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean. Besides this, Athens has submitted an official purchase request for 18 to 24 F-35 stealth multirole combat aircraft. Finally, it has reached an agreement with Israel to hire Heron drones, as well as establishing an international fighter pilot training centre at a cost of 1.4 billion euros over a period of 20 years, accompanied by the sale and modernisation of training aircraft. The centre will be situated at Kalamata in the south-west of the Peloponnese and will be run by the Israeli company Elbit Systems. These new measures should significantly increase the deterrent value of the Royal Hellenic Air Force, whose pilots have a very impressive reputation, whereas their Turkish opposite numbers have been notoriously under-trained since the purges that affected the Turkish air force. Significant spending has been made on the navy too, with Greece looking to acquire four frigates. Despite needing to balance relations with the US, hugely influential within the top levels of the Greek military, the Franco Greek Belharra project appears to be favourite. With a cost of 5 billion euros, the French proposition fulfils all the criteria set by Greece: the modernisation of the four frigates that the Royal Hellenic Navy currently has, the acquisition of two modernised frigates as an interim solution and the construction of two of the four new frigates in Greek shipyards. These ‘Frigates for Defence and Intervention’ (4,500 t) are of a general-purpose type: anti-submarine and anti-aircraft. The Dutch and the British are also submitting bids. As for the army, the Hellenic Vehicle Industry (ELVO), which has been struggling for a long time, has been bought over by a consortium of Israeli companies and over the next few years will be renewing the army’s transport fleet and other vehicles. On top of this Greece has decided to extend the period of compulsory military service to 12 months again, after it fell to 9 months in 2009, but introducing at the same time the opportunity of a shorter – and therefore more attractive – national service if the whole period is spent in a border area, thus ensuring the supply of personnel to those units deployed there. In addition, an extra 15,000 soldiers will be recruited over the next three years. These initiatives are taking place after more than ten years of underinvestment and within the context of an aging cadre of regular personnel and aging equipment. There is no doubt that these changes have been accelerated by the very militarised nature of Turkey’s regional policy, even if they were in any case already necessary.
THE UNKNOWN FACTORS
THE CYPRIOT QUESTION
2021 could mark a turning point for Cyprus. Turkey has made it clear that it now rejects the UN solution for the Cypriot question – that of a bizonal, bi-communal federation – in favour of a two-state solution. This constitutes an important change in Turkish claims and is a form of pressure that is clearly not unrelated to regional developments. In this respect an informal meeting that has been arranged for April 2021 in Geneva between Greece, the UK and Turkey, as guarantor powers, along with the Republic of Cyprus and representatives of the Turkish Cypriot community, could turn out to be crucial for the future of not just the island, but also the region and the apportioning of maritime boundaries. Greece’s aim remains the maintenance of the UN structure that was put in place to resolve this conflict dating back nearly 50 years.
JOE BIDEN’S POLICY
If Donald Trump was regularly portrayed as being too compliant vis à vis the Turkish president, it was nonetheless under his administration that Greek American relations flourished. The American military presence on Greek soil reached new levels and for the first time the US adopted an attitude that deviated from their strict policy of even handedness between Greece and Turkey. Thus, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Cyprus without meeting the Turkish Cypriot leader (a first) and while there he signed a series of agreements relating to security, including – to Ankara’s great displeasure – raising the US embargo on non-lethal defence articles and services. Pompeo also visited the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch in Turkey but without meeting any Turkish officials. If this was seen in Greece as a clear demonstration of US support, the development of cooperation with Athens and Nicosia is aimed above all at punishing Ankara for its too close relationship with Moscow, while also loosening Cyprus’ traditional links with the Kremlin. The background to this relative American volte face is of course Russia; as proof, the only sanctions taken by Washington against Ankara at the present moment concern Turkey’s acquisition of Russian S-400 missiles and have nothing to do with Turkish behaviour in the eastern Mediterranean. Besides, the vocabulary used by US officials is careful not to close the door on Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, as the recent joint naval exercise between the nuclear aircraft-carrier USS Eisenhower and the Turkish frigate Gemlik, at the beginning of March 2021 bears witness; even if the US ambassador in Athens underlined the excellent nature of the US-Greek military exercises that had taken place just a few days before, declaring that “Defence relationships between the United States and Greece have reached a historic high point and they continue to grow stronger each day”.
In this context, Joe Biden’s arrival could change the situation. Indeed two of Greece’s close partners have suddenly found themselves in the White House’s sights on account of human rights: Egypt and Saudi Arabia. While on the other hand Turkey has not yet been seriously concerned. The Turkish president has been careful to take the initiative in order to reduce the risk of this happening, in the knowledge that several members of the Senate and of Congress have asked Joe Biden to take up the question of human rights in Turkey. But it looks as if any severity with regards to President Erdogan will above all have to do with Russo-Turkish relations. It’s worth noting that the vision of the eastern Mediterranean shared by the new head of the European department of Joe Biden’s National Security Council, Amanda Sloat, coincides remarkably well with that of the Turks. The United States are presented as being a much more legitimate body to intervene than the EU, whose necessarily biased approach would remove any credibility in resolving the Greek-Turkish conflict. That corresponds perfectly with Turkey’s vision and its desire to disengage Greece from the EU. Turkey also wants to be associated ‘without conditions’ – a term very dear to Ankara – with regional energy synergies, without however the slightest reference to international law, the very precondition in question. At the end of the day, it is Turkey’s agenda that has become the definition of the ‘Greek-Turkish disagreement’, (territorial waters, air space, sovereignty of islets, maritime areas) whereas the Greek position remains that the only real disagreement lies in the delimitation of maritime areas, everything else constituting unilateral and illegitimate Turkish claims that are non-negotiable because they are subject to Greek jurisdiction.
Having played a crucial role in the creation of the modern Greek state, but also that of the Turkish Republic a century earlier, Russia is in a certain manner an unavoidable element in the Greek-Turkish equation. It is not by chance that the development of Russo-Turkish relations took place in parallel to that of Greek American relations, removing it should be noted, any possibility of friendly dialogue between Athens and Moscow. Historical relations between the two states reached their lowest point in 2018, when Greece and its neighbour to the north, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, settled the disagreement over the name of the small Balkan republic that had brought them into conflict since 1992, in order that the latter could join NATO, to Moscow’s displeasure. But despite everything, since summer 2019 and the election of the current Greek government, contact appears to have been re-established which is not unconnected to the growing dissensions between Russia and Turkey. On the other hand, any prospects of a long-lasting and profitable partnership are not realistic. As things stand, the degree of cooperation between Greece and the US, and the leanings of the Biden administration, can only allow a return to cordial relations between Athens and Moscow at best. Nevertheless, a new factor in the eastern Mediterranean could readjust Russian policy in the region, something Athens will follow closely especially as far as Libya is concerned, currently seen as the barometer of regional tensions and which is now part of the Greek-Turkish equation.
Appalled by the Turkish-Libyan agreement, but lacking influence on developments in Libya, Greece urgently tried to put together a basic policy on Libya by cutting contact with al-Sarraj’s Tripoli based government and increasing its contacts with the military and civil authorities in Cyrenaica. However, the new government set up in Tripoli in February 2021 has been recognised by the fiercest competitors on Libyan soil (Turkey on one hand, the UAE and Egypt on the other), which appears to indicate the start of a process of reallocation of influence. In this context Greece immediately decided to reopen its embassy in Tripoli and to establish a consulate in Benghazi. Greece has no wish to lose Libya from sight again after the shock of the Turkish-Libyan accord that abruptly brought the country into the Greek-Turkish equation and reminded Athens of the geographical realities of its regional environment (Crete is equidistant from Tobruk and Piraeus).
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In conclusion, this recent flurry of expansionist Turkish regional policies, combined with Donald Trump’s policies, has had a catalysing effect: that of shaking Greek-Turkish relations out of their traditional bilateral structure – arbitrated by a US careful to maintain NATO’s cohesion at all costs – and of pushing them into a wider regional framework, one that needs a radically different approach, namely new diplomatic and military partnerships. In this arrangement Greece has several assets. If Turkey retains undeniable advantages such as the importance of its market and an important regional status, Greece, like Cyprus, is a member of the EU. This membership increases its diplomatic weight, its capacity for action and its appeal in a region without any other European countries. On top of that it has a savoir-faire and a solid presence in the maritime world, essential in its strategy to use space, and which increase its global credibility. Finally, its relatively small size compared to Turkey is not necessarily a disadvantage: it eliminates any suspicion of an undercover agenda of local hegemony which could otherwise lead to distrust amongst its partners.
On the other hand, Greece has genuine challenges to confront. Quite apart from the special case that is Syria, it and Cyprus alone are threatened by Turkey in their territorial substance and the exercise of their sovereign rights, and this constitutes a fundamental difference between them and their European and regional partners. Therefore, a normalisation, even relatively minor, of Turkey’s relations with other countries in the region could lead to an undoing of the partnerships that Greece has struggled to establish, to a ‘re-bilateralisation’ of Greek-Turkish relations and a new isolation of Greece.
It is therefore essential that Greece cultivates its appeal as a partner, while at the same time promoting its regional plan independent of the Turkish factor, in order that this new strategy can survive a possible and long-term change in Turkey’s attitude. This is a tricky gamble, especially in light of European divisions and uncertainty as to the new regional picture, which will in fine be that of the new Biden administration.
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