Turkey and Greece have resumed their sabre rattling – contributing to the increased instability being felt in the eastern Mediterranean – and the stakes are higher than ever. Border security for Greece and the EU, as well as energy exploration off the coast of Cyprus, remain at risk. Meanwhile, the refugee crisis is only growing as the coronavirus continues to take lives, unaffected by political borders.
Europe has long dreaded a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis, which saw approximately 1 million asylum seekers find sanctuary on the continent. Many fled from war-torn Syria, but some also migrated from Iraq and Afghanistan. Others sought to escape the brutal and ongoing civil war in Libya, with a portion escaping unrest in sub-Saharan Africa. Most travelled across the Mediterranean and landed in Greece and Italy. Deaths at sea rose to record levels. Throughout the crisis, EU solidarity to frontline southern nations was severely tested, and eurosceptic nationalist parties rose in response.
Turkey currently hosts nearly 4 million Syrian refugees – the most in the entire world. Though the EU has essentially used the country as a means to outsource the refugee problem at the cost of 3 billion euros, the move has also given Turkey leverage against the EU, and Greece in particular. Even still, the Mediterranean nation suffers a disproportionate burden in caring for migrants who make it to its shores. In addition to not receiving enough support from the European Union, Greece must also now contend with increased aggressiveness from Turkey at a time when the pandemic threatens their citizens and the world. It’s a deadly combination.
Playing Football with People’s Lives
In recent months, Turkey has used the presence of refugees and asylum seekers to put pressure on Greece and the EU, claiming that the former is in violation of human rights.
Recently, Turkey rescued 22 migrants adrift at sea, alleging that Greece had pushed them away from their waters and that the refugees had been “dragged out to sea and left to die” by the Greek Coast Guard. Greece, however, contends that Turkey has long aided migrants in trying to cross borders and enter Hellenic waters.
Late last month, the Greek government claimed that a Turkish coast guard boat had unsuccessfully attempted to escort migrants across the Aegean and into their territory. In an official statement, Greece noted that after failing to breach their maritime borders, the Turkish coast guard picked up the migrants at sea. “The boat did not enter Greek waters at any point, despite efforts by the Turkish patrol boats to escort it in,” the report said.
And yet, this is only one out of a series of incidents, with others resulting in violence and even the loss of human lives. Muhammad Gulzar, who was seeking refuge on the Turkish-Greek border, was shot and killed on March 4, as Ankara engaged in brinkmanship games to try to pressure the EU into taking a more active role in addressing Syria’s refugee crisis. After days of unrest, violence broke out at the Kastanies-Pazarkule crossing, resulting in the use of live ammunition and Gulzar’s death. It wasn’t until mid-March – when the pandemic rose to full force – that Turkey transported migrants back from the border. Greece and Turkey have both blamed each other for the border violence.
Greek authorities have noted acts of provocation from their eastern neighbour, including Turkish guards shooting into the air across the border. Two such incidents occurred within 24 hours of each other at the Evros border crossing earlier this month. On May 5, a leaked video showed Greek fighter jets intercepting two Turkish F-16s that had violated Greek airspace over the Aegean. Days before, a separate set of Turkish jets harassed a helicopter carrying Greek Defence Minister Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos.
“The number of violations of Greek national airspace by Turkish military aircraft reached 4,811 in 2019, the largest number in one calendar year since 1987. There were 384 mock dogfights between Greek and Turkish fighter jets last year, while there were only 13 such fights in 2010,” read a January report by the Hellenic National Defence General Staff, after cataloguing increased Turkish aggression in Greek and Cypriot waters throughout 2019. The two countries have long disagreed on their maritime borders and airspace jurisdiction; Greece claims ten miles of air space around a chain of islands lined up along the Turkish west coast, some of which are in close proximity to the Turkish mainland. Turkey recognises only six miles of that airspace as Greek.
Tensions are not likely to defuse soon. European border protection agency Frontex predicts that more migrants will soon depart Turkey and once again head for Greece. A report released on May 4 reads, “The restrictions on Covid-19 have been gradually lifted in most Aegean provinces, but not yet in Canakkale, Istanbul and Izmir. If freedom of movement is restored in these areas, massive movements of migrants towards the Greek-Turkish border can be expected.” The report also notes that Greece has stationed 262 additional police officers to the Evros border river region.
Greek General Konstantinos Floros held two teleconferences with NATO officials earlier this month to discuss Turkish developments in the eastern Mediterranean, warning that any escalation could lead to dramatic and unwanted consequences. The “risk of an accident and the serious consequences that such a thing will bring” is real, Floros cautioned.
Greece has lodged a demarche, a type of political protest, against Turkey. The nation has also released an official statement contesting Turkish claims that the sovereignty of some Greek islands “is not clear”.
“The provocative violations of our sovereignty in the air and at sea are not legitimised via repetition or becoming ‘routine’. They remain illegal – in complete violation of international law and counter to the obligations undertaken by a country that says it wants to become a member of the EU – and undermine peace and stability in the region,” the statement reads.
In a teleconference held May 4, the foreign ministers of Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, France, and the United Arab Emirates denounced the “ongoing Turkish illegal activities” in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and its territorial waters. A joint declaration issued by the ministers after the conference states that Turkey’s sixth attempt to drill in Cyprus’ maritime zones, along with the violation of Greek airspace and the weaponising of migrants, represents “a clear violation of international law” as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Despite the showing of solidarity, Greece is concerned that rising tensions in the region may spook travellers right when the country hopes to re-open for the summer tourist season. To that end, Greece, Israel, and Cyprus hope to work together to create a “corona corridor” for summer travel, allowing tourists access to the islands of the Aegean and Mediterranean seas by early July. These potential cross-border tourism cooperation deals are a portion of a larger Greek initiative to build relationships across the eastern Mediterranean in an effort to curb Turkey’s ambitions.
Greece has also sent its ambassador back to Syria, albeit as a special envoy. While not an official resumption of political ties with the Assad regime, the move does indicate Greek intentions to help forge a long-lasting political solution to the violence in Syria. Unlike many other EU nations, the only time Greece has publicly issued statements against the Assad regime was in 2012, when former Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos released a statement in which he called for the expulsion of Assad from Syria. This quiet support is part of a larger regional chess game, as France is also getting involved in the region. Last week, France held talks with Kurdish parties in northeastern Syria as part of a larger effort to unify Syrian Kurds in preparation for a potential peace settlement – a move also likely to infuriate Ankara thanks to escalating tensions with France and the EU over Libya and Syria.
These moves come at a time when Russia, Turkey, and Iran are mulling over removing Assad from power to push through a ceasefire agreement, which would lead to the formation of a transitional government that includes representatives from the opposition, the regime, and the Syrian Democratic Forces.