Turkey is likely to make strong concessions in the Eastern Mediterranean Crisis

Tensions remain high between Turkey and Greece due to their conflicting Eastern Mediterranean Sea border claims. It is uncertain how the two rivals will settle on a resolution. Turkey pursues its “Blue Homeland” doctrine which declares ownership over 124,202 square miles of naval territoryin the Black, Marmara, Aegean, and Eastern Mediterranean Seas. [1]. Greece on the other hand disagrees with a significant portion of this area based on the UN’s UNCLOS treaty, which was not signed by Turkey. Greek claims significantly reduce Turkey’s maritime economic zone whereas the Turkish claims threaten the security of many Greek Islands as well as Cyprus.

The most recent crisis between Turkey and Greece started in July 2020 when Turks dispatched Oruc Reis, a drilling ship accompanied by military naval vessels in search for natural gas reserves off the southwest coast of Cyprus Island.[2] Greeks strongly opposed this action and claimed that Turks’ vessels were operating in a maritime zone that did not belong to them. Subsequently, both sides threatened each other with possible field training military exercises in the Mediterranean Sea.[3]

On September 13, 2020 Oruc Reis sailed back to the southern Anatolian city of Antalya and did not extend its Navtex in the disputed naval zone.[4] The Greek Foreign Ministry welcomed this gesture as a sincere step towards negotiations.[5] Yet, the Turkish President Erdogan claimed that the ship returned for a due maintenance requirement, and that it would sail back to its previous location. Amidst the hostilities, another good news was that the Turkish and Greek delegations agreed to meet in Istanbul. This would be the first meeting of the rivals about the Eastern Mediterranean conflict since 2016.[6] Nonetheless, the talks were delayed, and then Turks created a new Navtex around the Limnos Island, arguing that Greece’s militarization of this zone was illegal.[7]

Currently, both countries seem to favor negotiations over war. Yet, they do not shy away from threatening with deadly force should their resolve is tested. These circumstances beg the question of how long either side will continue to prioritize negotiations over war. More importantly, when, and how will we see a resolution? In this piece, I argue that the most likely resolution will be the one in which Turkey will make the most concessions. However, Greece will achieve it by exploiting Turkey’s dire economic problems and negative image before the international investors.

War versus Coercive Diplomacy

Current circumstances suggest that Turkey and Greece pursue coercive diplomacy against each other. While coercive diplomacy may seem like a reckless pursuit of tension, it essentially is a bargaining tactic.[8] Both Turks and Greeks use the shadow of war to conduct their diplomacy of coercion. The Greek side highlighted its willingness to pursue negotiations but warns that its navy is ready for war in case of any accidental clash.[9] At the same time, Erdogan claimed that Turkey is never an invasive force, but that it has all the capabilities to thwart bullying countries.[10] The message behind these threats is almost clear. They both want to negotiate without making any significant concessions. To prove it, they communicate their readiness (but not willingness) to fight.

Those who are familiar with the works of Robert Jervis[11] and Alexander George[12] know it quite well that there is always a risk of coercive diplomacy going wrong and resulting in war. Luckily, such risk is low in the current Turkish-Greek case. One important reason is that neither side pressures the other to get significant concessions in an unreasonably limited amount of time. Generally, imposing time constraints make diplomatic exchanges more difficult, and increase the viability of war for opponents. Using such a risky strategy is potentially indicative of one’s willingness to fight a war. The US’ coercive diplomacy backfired and resulted in war both in Vietnam and Iraq for this reason.[13] We do not observe this problem in the current Greek-Turkish conflict.

Despite the trivial risk of war, neither side has incentives to make significant concessions any time soon. There are two main reasons. First, Greece has little reason to believe that Turkey will be a dangerous loose cannon in negotiations. In the last two years, Turkey left the impression that it could back down when the circumstances are not feasible to escalate a conflict further. The 2018 Pastor Brunson Crisis[14], the Summer 2019 S-400 Crisis[15], or the recent Idlib Campaign[16] are several instances when Turkey backed down from its original claims in response to dire circumstances.

Currently, the circumstances are seemingly in Greece’s favor, which can increase its optimism to pressure Turkey into making concessions. Above all, Greece cherishes a considerable level of international support from countries like France, the EU, the US, Egypt, Syria, the Palestinian Authority, and the United Arab Emirates in addition to many other countries. Even Qatar refrains from supporting Turkey’s cause albeit being a major investor in Turkish economy.[17] Therefore, Erdogan administration’s current troubles in finding partners increases Greece’s optimism that it can pressure Turkey into making solid concessions. Yet, this will remain to be the case as long as Greece maintains its support coalition.

Second, Turkey – and the Erdogan Administration have great incentives to not give in to pressures from Greece. Acquiescence to Greece means significant reduction in Turkey’s ability to use both Aegean and the Mediterranean Seas for commercial and military purposes. Such an outcome would be undesirable for the Erdogan Administration which seeks to produce and then export its own natural gas. Relinquishing maritime routes to Greece almost completely jeopardizes the pursuit of this goal.[18]

For President Erdogan, not only concessions to Greece can be a negative shock to his foreign policy agenda, but also hazardous to his tenure. Turkey has been suffering from dire economic problems. This is reflected in Moody’s most recent credit rating of Turkey which is negative.[19] In addition, diversionary tactics such as the recent Syria or Libya campaigns seem to have failed to prevent Erdogan’s job approval rate from declining.[20] Thus, Erdogan needs an economic recovery. One way this is possible is by not conceding maritime routes to Greece both in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean Seas.

The question is what it will take for both sides to reach a settlement. Theoretically, this is possible when both Turkey and Greece agree on the circumstances that each other face and then when they accordingly gear their negotiating positions. Otherwise, they will continue to make demands that both will keep rejecting.

We can think of three possible future successful settlement scenarios. First, the Erdogan administration stalls the negotiations until it finds greater international support, and then breaks Greece’s optimism about getting strong concessions from Turkey. Second, Erdogan completely gives up. Third, Greece employs issue linkage strategy to convince Erdogan into making strong concessions.

The first scenario has a low likelihood of transpiring. Erdogan’s chances of creating a strong alliance portfolio against Greece is very slim. It is true that he even considers talks with Egypt’s El Sisi government.[21] However, Turkey’s partnership with Qatar and support for Ikhwan[22] (i.e. Muslim Brotherhood) presents a major threat to El Sisi’s tenure. There is no solid reason to anticipate that El Sisi will have a change of mind unless Turkey cuts all its ties with Qatar all across the Middle East and North Africa. This is hardly possible in the near future, given the large volume of Qatari investments in the Turkish economy and the military.[23]

In general, Greece has majority of the West backing its cause, and Erdogan has little chance to revert this however hard he tries to find new allies. Unless the US suddenly becomes a strong supporter of Turkey, the Erdogan administration will practically remain lonely in the negotiations. Thus, chances are low that the first scenario will transpire.

The second scenario has even a lower likelihood than the first one. It is true that Erdogan has incentives to not lose significant maritime routes in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Yet he has the military capabilities to prevent this disastrous outcome from happening. This is mainly because of Turkey’s military drone capabilities, and ability to use Sunni militants in various geographies. Turkish drones’ performance in Syria[24], Libya and most recently in the Armenian-held Karabakh[25] were notable. In addition, Turkey’s private security company ASAT has been training Sunni militants to fight in Libya, Syria[26] and according to rumors in Armenia.[27] Stated differently, Turkey has the capabilities to prevent the worst possible outcome for itself by war. So, it will not simply acquiesce in the table to Greece without a fight.

The third scenario is the most likely one to happen – should Greek diplomats consider employing the issue linkage tactic. In doing so, Greece can bring another issue to the table as a side payment to Turkey, so that Turkey makes significant concessions in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Generally, when countries fail to settle on a dispute, one of them can link another issue to the same negotiations. If the other cares more about this issue than the originally disputed one, then negotiations can finally be concluded with a settlement.[28] In fact, in 2010, Turkey and Greece signed a treaty that reduced their dog fights[29] over the Aegean Sea through Turkey’s issue linkage initiatives.[30]

Turkey’s poor economic performance and credit rating in the eyes of the international investors is a venue that Greece can exploit in the bargaining table as an issue linkage tactic. Currently, Turkey’s central bank reserves are devoid of dollars, and international investors are unlikely to help with this issue. Reconciliation with Greece and indirectly with the Western world may potentially help Turkey attracting global investors. Thus, there is room for a successful issue linkage tactic for Greece to employ – should it choose to do so.

Overall, under current circumstances, the most likely scenario is Greece exploiting Turkey’s need for international investors as a bargaining tactic to get significant concessions. Absent this scenario, chances are low that we will see any resolution soon, unless the circumstances significantly change. One such potential change is the US switching sides. The Trump administration initially took implicit[31] and explicit[32] steps in support of the Greek side. If the US switches to neutrality or a pro-Turkish stance, this may eventually increase Turkey’s optimism to withstand pressures from Greece and stall the negotiations further. Stated differently, the US’ pro-Greek stance may likely lessen the time it takes for a resolution to be reached – albeit not in Turkey’s favor.

[1] https://warontherocks.com/2020/06/blue-homeland-the-heated-politics-behind-turkeys-new-maritime-strat egy/

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-50806877

[3] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-53497741

[4] https://cyprus-mail.com/2020/09/13/oruc-reis-leaves-the-area-returns-to-antalya/

[5] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-greece-turkey-pm-idUSKBN2640D4

[6] https://www.trtworld.com/turkey/turkey-and-greece-to-meet-in-istanbul-for-eastern-mediterranean-talks-39962

[7] https://greece.greekreporter.com/2019/10/17/turkey-issues-navtex-off-cyprus-and-limnos-island-in-greece/

[8] J. D. Fearon (1994) “Signaling versus the Balance of Power and Interests: An Empirical Test of a Crisis Bargaining Model” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 38(2): 236-269 and Reed, W. (2000). “A Unified Statistical Model of Conflict Onset and Escalation” American Journal of Political Science, 44(1): 84-93.

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/13/greek-military-put-on-high-alert-as-tensions-with-turkey-rise

[10] Ibid

[11] Robert Jervis (1976) Perceptions and Misperceptions in International Politics

[12] Alexander George (1991) Forceful persuasion: Coercive Diplomacy as an Alternative to War

[13] Ibid

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/12/andrew-brunson-release-turkish-court

[15] https://www.bakerinstitute.org/media/files/files/ccb6afd6/bi-brief-062819-cme-missiles.pdf

[16] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/3/6/erdogan-putin-announce-idlib-ceasefire-after-moscow-meeting

[17] Aykan Erdemir and Varsha Koduvayur (2019) “Brothers in Arms: The Consolidation of the Turkey-Qatar Axis” Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Web: https://www.fdd.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/fdd-report-brothers-in-arms-the-consolidation-of-the-turkey-qatar-axis.pdf 

[18] https://warontherocks.com/2020/08/pulling-back-the-curtain-on-turkeys-natural-gas-strategy/

[19] https://www.moodys.com/research/Moodys-downgrades-Turkeys-ratings-to-B2-and-maintains-negative-outlook–PR_431146

[20] MetroPOLL (2020) “Turkey’s Pulse, August 2020” web: https://twitter.com/metropoll/status/1300398452489293824

[21] https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/09/egypt-turkey-dialogue-libya-erdogan-sisi.html

[22] Aykan Erdemir and Varsha Koduvayur (2019)

[23] See https://www.tkbb.org.tr/news-details/another-7-billion-of-qatari-investments-to-flow-into-turkey

[24] https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/08/turkey-defense-pins-high-hope-on-new-drone-in-syria-libya.html

[25] https://www.forbes.com/sites/sebastienroblin/2020/09/28/turkish-drones-over-nagorno-karabakh-and-other-updates-from-a-day-old-war/#7caf9cfc70da

[26] https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/europe/tu-sadat.htm

[27] http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Turkey-sends-4,000-Syrian-ISIS-mercenaries-to-fight-against-the-Armenians-(VIDEO)-51151.html

[28] T. Clifton Morgan (1990) “Issue Linkages in International Crisis Bargaining” American Journal of Political Science 34(2): 311-333

[29] https://martenscentre.eu/blog/untold-war-dogfights-aegean

[30] UNHCR (2010) “Turkey Considers Cooperation with Greece on Illegal Immigration to Europe” https://www.refworld.org/docid/4cc933742.html

[31] https://cyprus-mail.com/2020/09/12/turkish-cypriot-side-angered-that-pompeo-not-meeting-akinci/

[32] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/09/02/us-partially-lifts-decades-old-arms-embargo-on-cyprus/?gb=true

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