On the brink of conflict: The Aegean Sea

Thanos Davelis, Director of Public Affairs, HALC

The Eastern Mediterranean is a sea of tension and conflict. It is situated in the midst of the ongoing civil war in Syria, the European migration crisis, and important security operations against the Islamic State and around the North African coast. Additionally, the continued Turkish occupation of the northern part of Cyprus poses significant challenges. While attention naturally focuses on these major security and humanitarian issues, there is a part of the Eastern Mediterranean that is not making it into international headlines but could be the next flashpoint in the region. That is the Aegean Sea.

At first glance, one may wonder why a conflict would break out in the Aegean Sea, a region nestled between two NATO allies, Greece and Turkey. Taking a closer look at this region over the last decades, the answer becomes quite clear. Turkey’s aggressive policies and constant provocations in Greek airspace and waters pose a direct threat to the peace and stability of the region, not to mention the damage it can inflict on crucial alliances like NATO. Hardly the acts of a partner and “ally.”

This provocative behavior is nothing new. Turkey’s attempts to change the status quo in the Aegean began in the 1970s, with Turkey disputing established Greek borders and sovereignty. In 1996 tensions boiled over as Greece and Turkey came to the brink of war over the Greek islets of Imia. Ankara claimed Imia as Turkish, and landed troops on the islets. Tensions eventually de-escalated, but Turkey’s provocations did not cease, with Turkish violations of Greek airspace and waters continuing on a daily basis. It is only a result of Greece’s consistent and responsible response to these provocations that another international incident has been avoided.

The situation in the Aegean Sea changed dramatically in 2017. Today, Turkish aggression is at “unprecedented levels” according to expert Nikolas Katsimpras, a lecturer at Columbia University and a former Hellenic Navy Officer who has been monitoring the Aegean closely. Katsimpras demonstrated — in great detail — how dangerous the situation in the Aegean is in a recent interview. Airspace violations increased from a total of 1,620 in 2016 to 3,149 in 2017, while overflights in armed formations jumped from 86 to 246. There was an even bigger jump in violations at sea, which skyrocketed from 414 in 2016 to 1861 last year.

Katsimpras issued a stark warning saying that, “these numbers are proof that Turkey’s expansionist aspirations in the Aegean are escalating and becoming a new operational reality.”

As January of 2018 draws to a close, Turkish aggression continues unabated. It reached such a level that US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt expressed his concern about the possibility of an “accident” happening between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean. In an interview with Greece’s Skai TV, Pyatt points out the dangerous situation in the Aegean, where Greek and Turkish aircraft and vessels often come in very close proximity of each other. Watch the clip here:

His comments come a few weeks after a Turkish coast guard boat — in a highly dangerous and provocative maneuver — skimmed past a Greek gunboat, briefly making contact with it, off the coast of the Imia islets.

Turkey’s aggression was on full display again this past weekend, when three Turkish ships violated Greek territorial waters around Imia, and attempted, unsuccessfully, to prevent the approach of the Greek gunship “Nikiforos” carrying Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos. Kammenos was sailing to the area in order to cast a wreath into the sea in memory of the three Greek Navy officers who lost their lives during the Imia crisis of 1996.

Turkey’s policy of aggression in the Aegean is a stark reminder that its disregard for the rule of law and international treaties is a reoccurring theme, and, unfortunately, the norm in Erdogan’s Turkey. Its revisionist agenda — whether in the Aegean or on Cyprus — undermines the fundamental rules and norms established by the global community to safeguard and promote peace and stability.

This highly dangerous game Turkey is playing in the Aegean means the region is one mistake away from an accident that could spiral into a conflict. It only takes one accident for another Imia crisis to unfold. Should this happen in today’s climate, it would not only threaten Greece, but also the NATO alliance, the European Union, and the peace and stability of the Eastern Mediterranean.