The East Mediterranean Crisis Could Ignite a Greek-Turkish Proxy War

Yves here. I hope that readers who are knowledgeable about the long-running Greek-Turkish dispute can opine on this thesis. Any short article about regional politics is bound to be a bit reductivist. And even the 2015 Greece bailout negotiations bumped into relations with Turkey. For instance, one short-lived idea was to pledge rights to underwater gas exploration as collateral for new loans. The wee problem, aside from considerable uncertainty as to how much offshore gas there really was, was that Turkey also had claim on the resource.

While “proxy war” notion is plausible, I wish it has been more completely developed, particularly with respect to Turkey’s conduct in the Western campaigns against Syria and Iran.

By Alexander Kazamias, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Coventry University and author of many scholarly articles and book-chapters on Greek-Turkish relations. Originally published at openDemocracy

This year’s tension in the East Mediterranean is commonly understood as a spat about gas and oil sparked by an older Greek-Turkish dispute over the Aegean continental shelf.

This perception is punctuated by reminders of the traditional rivalry between both NATO allies which, in its current phase, dates to the outbreak of the Cyprus question in the 1950s. While both dimensions are real, they are but the tip of the iceberg of the current wrangle.

Today’s confrontation is not a bilateral dispute spiralling into regional crisis, as some commentators suggest, but essentially the reverse. Since 2013, Greece and Turkey have been caught up in a wider international crisis which threatens to turn their old differences into a proxy war.

Source of Instability

The root cause of this international crisis is the decade-old rift between the West and Erdogan, Turkey’s Islamist President, whose Middle East agenda has been a major irritant for the US, France, Israel, and many Arab states. After 2010, US-Turkish relations experienced their first rupture since World War II. This was provoked by Erdogan’s opposition to sanctions against Iran, the breakdown of his relationship with Israel over Gaza, and his support for Islamist movements augmented by the Arab Spring. This tension bred the policy of “isolating Erdogan”, which culminated in the imposition of US sanctions against Turkey in 2018.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s regional reach has stretched to limits unmatched since Ottoman times. In 2017, Erdogan stationed troops in Qatar to deter the diplomatic blockade of its pro-US Arab neighbours, built a military base in Somalia, and gained a foothold in Sudan. He intervened militarily in the Syrian and Libyan civil wars. After the failed Turkish coup of 2016, which he accuses the US of aiding, he built a strategic alliance with Russia, whilst maintaining, in neo-neutralist fashion, a volatile relationship with Donald Trump.

The current Greek-Turkish wrangle is closely connected to this new regional context. Its main connection is the 1,200-mile underwater pipeline, the “East Med”, designed to export Israeli natural gas to Europe to rival Russian supply.

In 2013, Washington and Tel Aviv abandoned Turkey as their preferred route and opted for an alternative course via Cyprus and Greece. Ever since, bilateral relations between Athens and Ankara soured, ending a fourteen-year rapprochement that started in 1999 at the EU Helsinki Summit. In opposition, Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza condemned the deal for both ignoring the Palestinians and exposing Greek security to unpredictable Turkish reactions. Once in power, alongside his U-turn in the 2015 Greek Referendum that brought more neoliberal austerity from the EU Troika, Tsipras forged close relations with Netanyahu, Trump and Saudi Arabia and portrayed the East-Med as a “source of stability” in the region.

Disregard for International Law

However, as everyone can now see, the pipeline has been a major source of regional instability. One reason is the misguided choice of charting its course via the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Cyprus and Greece, before delimiting their boundaries through treaties against Turkey’s illegal, but well-known claims.

Another destabilizing factor has been the EU’s self-contradictory policy, especially the 2016 EU-Turkey Refugees Agreement, which provides for the forcible return of Syrian refugees from Greece to Turkey. To appease racist opinion in Europe, this legally dubious deal gave Erdogan control over 3.5 million Syrian refugees, whom he can push to Greece at a moment’s notice, sparking a European refugee crisis. Last February, he gave a foretaste of what he could do when he forced thousands of refugees along the northern Greek border until his demands in Idlib were met by Germany, Britain, and France.

NATO’s dilemma today is not how to read Ankara’s actions. Turkish foreign policy, both before and under Erdogan, has shown little respect for International Law, including the 1982 UN Convention for the Law of the Sea and UN resolutions condemning the Turkish occupation of Cyprus. A further proof of this has been the recent reopening of the abandoned Varosha district by the Turkish occupation forces in Cyprus, forty-six years after the island’s military invasion, in explicit violation of UN Resolutions 550/1984 and 789/1992.[1] Erdogan’s disregard for international legality essentially continues an approach initiated decades ago by his secular predecessors, while several of his positions today, especially on the delimitation of maritime zones, are fully accepted by his opposition rivals. Where they differ mostly is in the way they apply this high-handed approach.

Speaking with One Voice

The West’s strategic dilemma, therefore, is whether to uphold the policy of isolating Turkey, now that its limitations have become obvious, or start re-engaging Erdogan. French President Macron, who recently sold 18 Rafale fighters to the economically bankrupt Greek Government, maintains a brazenly orientalist anti-Islamist rhetoric, and called for EU sanctions against Turkey ahead of the European Council meeting of 1-2 October. Other voices, however, have steadily urged Turkey and Greece to enter bilateral talks, albeit without much success.

While the resumption of bilateral diplomacy would be a prudent step, short of a substantially revised western policy, such talks will easily falter. Because the Greek-Turkish dispute is no longer bilateral, Athens and Ankara alone cannot make such discussions work. Greece’s allies, on either side of the Atlantic, must also set the right conditions for a successful dialogue.

This means that they must impose an immediate moratorium on all gas and oil exploration in the East Mediterranean; speak with one voice instead of selling arms to opposite sides; and issue a roadmap for a joint Greek-Turkish appeal to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to delimit their continental shelves and EEZs. Anything short of that will lead us back to the verge of war.


[1] UN Resolution 550 of 11 May 1984 states that “The Security Council… 5. Considers attempts to settle any part of Varosha by people other than its inhabitants as inadmissible and calls for the transfer of that area to the administration of the United Nations.”

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  1. charles 2

    This is a Greek point of view. From a wider European perspective, The East-Med pipeline is a marginal issue.
    The first main issue is the control of trade flows, especially oil from the Arabic Peninsula, or rather ensuring they go unhindered. The Ottoman empire prosperity relied on its chokehold position between Europe and Asia, allowing for the extraction of fat transit fee. Turkey is relevant as an autonomous regional middle power only if it can reinstate that position. If not, it will fail to have the economical firepower necessary for its geopolitical ambitions (Navies and permanent overseas deployment are expensive, as the USA knows !).
    The second main issue is the sphere of influence in Northern Africa : At its peak, the Ottoman empire controlled most of it, and had a share of the income of the protection racket that the “Barbary Coast kingdom” were running up to the beginning of the 19th century, which was a pain for Europeans (one of the reasons the French invaded Algeria and Tunisia) and for the Americans too (the first ever land action of the US Marines was in Tripoli). Fast Forward to the 21st century, the illegal immigration business and the control of natural resources (Oil/gas in Lybia and Algeria, Phosphate in Morocco) has replaced the protection racket, but it is essentially the same thing.
    The two issues are of course connected : if the South Med is not safe, one has to sail North, closer to Turkish shores…

    This is what this struggle is about : “Mavi Vatan” vs “Mare Nostrum”. A few centuries ago it was the Spain and Venice who were at the forefront and France at the collaborating side with the Ottomans, today it is France and Greece at the forefront and Spain/Germany at the collaborating side with Turkey ! As they say, in diplomacy, there are no friends or enemies, just interests…

    1. Diego M

      A peaceful resolution is always preferred, but when push comes to shove, most EU countries will back Greece militarily (and those who don’t will back Greece with money and equipment, anyway).

      Your reference to Lepanto makes lots of sense, provided that you acknowledge that the purpose of Lepanto was putting the brakes on the ongoing Turkish expansionism.

      And if there is war, it will again be due to Turkish expansionism. Europe should answer more forcefully than ever.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Thanks for the overview. People tend to just shrug when they read of another argument between Greece and Turkey and assume it will all blow over, but there is a very long and nasty history between them and despite both being within NATO, its pretty clear that both countries have considered a hot war as a likely scenario. Even in the depths of the Greek crisis, they were still spending a lot of money on arms. This wasn’t, as some seemed to think, because European weapons makers were forcing them to do so, but because the Greeks wanted them and saw military spending as a priority. And the entire situation is made worse by the major European powers interfering in an inconsistent and opportunistic manner. Quite simply, German, France and the other powers who occasionally like to dabble in geopolitics can’t make up their minds who they should be supporting, so instead keep making things worse. Erdogan, for all his many faults, has proven quite skilled at manipulating European anxieties about where Turkey is going.

    The authors final line is sensible, but unfortunately European desperation for more energy options will mean they will never give up hope of an eastern Mediterranean source of gas. As so often, it is greed for fossil fuels that drives so many of these conflicts.

  3. Maff

    …provides for the forcible return of Syrian refugees from Greece to Turkey. To appease racist opinion in Europe…

    One does not have to be a racist to support democratically endorsed border control.

  4. David

    Yes, there’s a long history here, not least because Turkey is the “former colonial power” as very frequently in the region, though we tend to forget this. What we are seeing now is a policy often described as “Neo-Ottomanism,” which seeks to regain what Erdogan sees as Turkey’s rightful place in the region. The associated “Blue Homeland” strategy is intended to give Turkey effective control over the seas off its coasts, including, in this case, the Eastern Mediterranean. Whether they have the financial and military resources to do this is unclear, and Erdogan seems to be gambling on Libyan oil and the gas deposits in the region to save the Turkish economy.

    The funny thing is that, pre-Erdogan, Turkey was making a lot of progress integrating itself more closely into the West. Its position and the size of its Army made it a valued NATO member, and, if most European states felt a certain cultural and historical sympathy for Greece, they were often exasperated by the pettiness and aggressiveness the Greeks displayed internationally. The Turks tended to field polished diplomats with international credentials . There were voices calling for Turkey to be allowed to join the EU until quite recently (dodged that particular bullet). Now, the Turks have upset a lot of people – notably the French, because of their support for the Muslim Brothers political Islam ambitions (which as you may have seen have caused some trouble of late) and their cynical exploitation of Syrian refugees to put pressure on western states.

    So this isn’t really Greece vs Turkey Round 94, and it shouldn’t lead to war between the two countries, though I can understand that some in Greece might see it that way. There are several bigger games going on here.

  5. Alex

    By the way, Turkey’s relationship with Russia, which was never particularly good, took an additional hit now when Turkey supported Azerbaijan against Armenia in Karabakh providing drones and other military equipment, and likely intelligence as well.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are several pipelines bringing Azerbaijani oil to the west, and they are pretty close to zones of conflict in Karabakh and South Ossetia.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      That Turkey/Russia relationship is tenuous at best. As David notes above, the Greeks haven’t forgotten the Turkish occupation, and I’d imagine that as long a a national hero like Kazantzakis remains popular, they won’t. Kazantzakis may write about the triumph of the human spirit in general, but in his books the triumphing was often done at the expense of the hated Turks. So if push did come to shove (I don’t believe it will since we’ve heard rumors like this for decades) between the two countries, the sides may very well line up along religious lines which are a lot stronger bond than any recent partnership between Putin and Erdogan, with the orthodox Russians siding with the orthodox Greeks. Then things get messy real fast.

      1. Aleric

        Likewise, the Turks don’t forget the post WWI invasion and occupation by Greek forces, backed by the Allies, which had the goal of splitting the region into half-a-dozen statelets to be managed as French and British “Mandates”. (Look at how well that has turned out for Syria/Lebanon/Iraq/Palestine). Fighting back and reunifying under Ataturk is the founding story of the current Turkish nation. Greco-Turkish War

        I’m not defending the brutal and evil things the Turks have done, especially the Armenian Genocide, but to understand the situation I think it is helpful to see how Turkish paranoia and expansionism have grown out of a legitimate existential crisis.

        1. lyman alpha blob

          Oh for sure, and thanks for the link. If things do turn hot, clearly this wouldn’t be the first proxy war. Plenty of nastiness to go around on both sides for millennia – Achilles dragging Hector’s corpse around the walls of Troy wasn’t the most peaceful gesture either. When two peoples have been at each other’s throats all the way back into mythical times, well that’s really a hornet’s nest nobody should be poking.

  6. XXYY

    News flash. Any and all petroleum products that are still in the ground must remain there, if the survival of the human species (or at least modern civilization) is to continue.

    Wars over oil patches and oil shipping routes, which cost millions of lives, may have been great fun for vicious and greedy world leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries, but that time is necessarily over.

    Time to shift our war-fighting to water, food, and rare-earth deposits. Or maybe we can all just get along.

  7. dbk

    Pretty good summary I thought; true, it’s from the Greek side, but it’s a moderate estimation of where things stand.

    A couple things: (a) The Refugee Situation. There are two parties-culprits; one is the EU, which has endeavored to stem the flow of immigrants/refugees in absence of a comprehensive + enforceable policy (sending them back to Syria hasn’t worked); (b) The Ultimate Instigator of ME/NE havoc – scarcely ever mentioned in the relevant publications, as if millions of people just up and decided one day “Hey, let’s all immigrate to Germany/Sweden, etc.” It doesn’t work that way.

    The Aegean’s natural gas should be left under the sea floor – it’s too late in the climate change crisis to embark on new extraction efforts. (I agree with @XXYY). Nobody wants to admit this though, because all parties are looking to make big bucks out of same.

    Turkey’s busy provoking Greece in Cyprus too at the moment; probably the two parts need to become two countries, but this seems too great a diplomatic challenge. Turkey’s also been actively converting famous churches and World Heritage Monuments back into mosques. (Haghia Sophia, the Chora Monastery).

    Greece’s PM is behaving pretty calmly, I don’t think he’s easily provoked. But then, the Greeks are backed up in the Eastern Med by the French, which can help you retain your head in even the most nerve-wracking circumstances.

  8. Andrew Thomas

    I know that tensions have grown very high. Provocations galore. But, if it comes to war, Greece and Turkey will be combatants, not just proxies. And, I ask sheepishly, proxies for whom and for what purposes? The horrid atrocities of Turk upon Greek and vice-versa are quite real, but are being kept alive by nationalist propaganda that ebbs and flows, depending upon the domestic political needs of one or another group of ruling elites in Ankara and Athens that, to use George Carlin’s immortal words, don’t give a (family blog) about their lowly countrymen and women. Anyone fortunate enough to have experienced the Aegean Sea firsthand, as I have, has to be disgusted by the idea that any government, Turk or Greek, would deliberately turn it into the Gulf of Mexico. Disgusted, but not surprised. But it still mystifies me- if two long-time members of NATO go to war with each other, whose proxies will they be, and what is NATO if that would occur?

  9. RickV

    Erdogan’s expansionist policies are putting increasing pressure on Turkey’s balance of trade account, with the Lira falling to an all time low against the US dollar. With oil at $40/barrel and the Kovid19 pandemic surging, Erdogan is putting his citizens at risk of a severe economic dislocation.
    “Time to shift our war-fighting to water, food, and rare-earth deposits. Or maybe we can all just get along.”
    I would submit include wind and solar in that request, both resources available in large quantities in the region.

  10. Poul

    The East-Med pipe line is of no relevance even if you add Cypriot & Lebanese gas resources. The total Israeli gas resources found are no more than one years consumption for the EU. And as 50% is put aside for Israel¨’s own energy needs the amount of gas available for export is very low. The pipe line is also expensive and require gas prices at a higher level than now in order to pay for the construction. Given that the EU expects a lower gas consumption it is not very likely that the East-Med line will be built.
    There are only two countries which can replaced Russia – Iran and Kazakhstan. And as Kazakhstan needs Iranian and Russian permission to run a pipeline across to Azerbaijan they are not really an option.

    Israel has already signed gas agreements with a company owned by the Egyptian military intelligence (the Egyptians have spare capacity to make LNG for export) so that speaks volumes about Israel’s expectations to the East-Med.

  11. jpr

    It’s also important for people in Europe and N. America to not get drawn into these dating back to medieval times grudge-matches, e.g. Armenians ( ) and Kurds (who slaughtered Armenians 100 years ago but are now funded by every last government in the region–including Armenia–that has beef with Turkey; see Stephen Kinzer’s book on Turkey and articles in nytimes).

    The mindless lionization of “anarchist” Potemkin villages set up in Syria (because women’s militias!) should also not be encouraged. Let this kind of “hyperintense adolescent fantasy live-action role-playing” (aka LARPing) remain in video games where it rightly belongs:

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