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Aegean angst: Greece and Turkey's dangerous Eastern Mediterranean game
From fierce post-World War One fighting in the 1920s to the Cyprus dispute that erupted in the 1970s, the Aegean Sea has always been a source of contention between Greece and Turkey.
Today, it has once again returned to the top of international headlines, with demagogic speeches in both Athens and Ankara reviving a long-standing conflict between both countries.

[Photo: Getty]

From fierce post-World War One fighting in the 1920s to the Cyprus dispute that erupted in the 1970s, the Aegean Sea has always been a source of contention between Greece and Turkey.

Today, it has once again returned to the top of international headlines, with demagogic speeches in both Athens and Ankara reviving a long-standing conflict between both countries.

However, grafted on to this historical rivalry is a much more complicated set of energy and geopolitical concerns, with the battleground in the Eastern Mediterranean extending far beyond the borders of both countries.

The spark for recent tensions was the signing of a memorandum between Turkey and the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya in December 2019, which consisted of two axes. The first was the redrawing of maritime borders between Ankara and Libya, which the Greek government considered a threat. 

The second, and boldest, part of the pact was an understanding on security and military cooperation which allowed Turkey to militarily intervene in the country's war to support the GNA, bringing with it a set of hostilities from France, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt.

As a result, Athens looked for a way to prevent Turkey from expanding its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, with the Greek prime minister's visit to Paris earlier this year marking a distinct turning point in Greek foreign policy.

The meeting between French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis crystallised new political and military relations between Paris and Athens, which the French president called a "framework of strategic defence".

[Photo: Getty]

The French side promised to support Athens' position against Ankara regarding the maritime border issue and the Cyprus dispute, and Athens, in return, agreed to coordinate its foreign and military policy in cooperation with Paris.

Two days after the meeting, Paris dispatched warships to Greek shores to demonstrate the French government's support of a European ally against Turkey, marking the first escalation by Athens against Ankara.

It was, however, actually a French escalation with a Greek face, and was a key reason for escalating regional tensions that have culminated in today's extreme rhetoric on both sides. 

Geopolitical standpoints

In the current conflict, each side is trying to impose its point of view beyond the realms of international law, or in some cases by building new international relations. The Greek side relies on two elements.

Firstly, it uses its EU membership to put economic pressure on Ankara. Athens is also taking advantage of its stance during the migrant border crisis with Turkey, the so-called 'Evros crisis', when Greece presented itself as a shield for Europe against immigrants and refugees, demanding that the EU imposes economic sanctions on Ankara, whose economy is already suffering.

The second element of Athens' posturing is as a front for Ankara's common enemies. The Greek government today presents itself as a bulwark against the Turkish administration and a conduit for those who want to send messages of pressure and threats against it.

On the other hand, Turkey understands the EU's economic need for the Turkish market. In recent years, Turkey, far from discussing its EU membership, which is essentially brain dead, has managed to build high-level bilateral relations with EU countries like Italy, Spain, Malta and others.

These relations constitute protection for Ankara in any Greek movement within the EU. Ankara knows that the Greek side is not keen on going to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is unlikely to adopt the full Greek vision for its share in the Eastern Mediterranean.

But while Politicians from both countries are calculating their stances based on the manoeuvre room available to them, the big player in Washington could well have the last word.