Where are the new tensions in Greek-Turkish relations leading?

Kyriakos Halaris

There is now plenty of evidence that the current crisis in Greek-Turkish relations is not a passing storm. We have noted on several occasions that this new phase in relations between the two countries has taken the conflict to its highest level since 1974. Its intensity certainly exceeds the Imia/Kardak crisis of ’96, when the two fleets were facing off against each other, and it took the intervention of the then US president Clinton to prevent the incident from taking on uncontrolled dimensions. 

Since then, there have been several periods of high tensions, which were followed by periods of relative calm. There are elements in the current tension, however, that make it more intense and dangerous.

Firstly, it is the first time that this level of aggravation has lasted for more than two years, without any sign of de-escalation. Since the “Oruc Reis summer” in 2020, when the eponymous Turkish research vessel attempted to enter the still-disputed areas of the Eastern Mediterranean, the tension in relations between the two countries has remained unabated and there does not seem to be a willingness to scale it down from either side.

Secondly, Erdogan and other Turkish government officials are putting the issue of a warlike conflict on the table almost every day. “We will come at night” is not just a figure of speech; it is an official threat from the Turkish state, repeated again and again. This threat is accompanied by the narrative that “Greece is violating treaties” and is increasingly militarising the islands, thus breaking the law and putting its own sovereignty over the East Aegean islands in question. This narrative, although not new, takes on a new role in the new context of the Greek-Turkish competition that has emerged over the last two years. In fact, the intensity and repetition of such threats on a daily basis by the Turkish media and state officials is accompanied by an attempt to present Turkey as being on the defensive against Greek aggression, which includes, apart from the militarisation of the islands, the strengthening of the Greek state with war material and the alliances it is forming with western powers. 

What is the new framework defining Greek-Turkish relations?

The nature of the Greek-Turkish conflict is related to the competing interests of the two ruling classes in scrambling for resources and domination over the region. In the context of their inter-capitalist competition, neither of them can make serious concessions to the other. On the contrary, each of the two ruling classes is doing everything in its power to gain an advantage. 

It is this general framework that can explain the hereditary rivalry between the Greek and Turkish states and their successive conflicts over the years. Conflicts that may be exacerbated and blunted, but always remain in the foreground precisely because they concern real and material interests. 

The new, much more complex international reality of recent years is giving another dimension to the Greek-Turkish differences.  

Several years have passed since the period when relations between the two states were determined by their participation in NATO under the hegemony of the United States. Now the retreat of US imperialism, and hence NATO, and its dethronement from the position of a unipolar superpower has changed the landscape. Even before the war in Ukraine, which directly challenges the global balance of power under US and NATO hegemony, the US had withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. The US also proved unable to control regimes such as North Korea, Iran and Venezuela. 

Turkey’s ruling class is aiming to play an upgraded role and is trying to reposition itself geopolitically in a changing world. In a context of more general geopolitical upheavals, it is convinced about the broader role it can play in the region, without the constraints imposed by NATO, playing on the edge of alliances with the West as well as with Russia and China. 

It is no coincidence that despite maintaining channels of communication with the West and remaining a NATO member, it is attempting to play the role of an independent mediator in the war in Ukraine and recently negotiated gas imports with Russia on favourable terms. The time has passed when Turkey seemed to be bound by permanent alliances with Western imperialism as it has begun to claim a broader role in the region.

On the other hand, the Greek ruling class is watching Turkey taking its distance from the West and is choosing, in response, to act as an obedient servant to Western imperialism. It sees this as a guarantee of not only diplomatic but also financial support from the West, and even military assistance in an eventual military engagement with Turkey. 

However, military assistance from NATO in the event of a military incident is highly unlikely, if not entirely out of the question altogether. The attitude of the West, not only of the US but also of Britain and Germany, is determined by an attempt at compromise. After all, there have been many times in the past when the US and its European allies have sold out alliances and commitments when they did not serve their geopolitical interests. Let us only recall how they sold out the Kurds of Iraq and Syria to meet Erdogan’s demands. It is quite telling in this respect that NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, on a visit to Ankara, kept an equal distance from the conflict between the two sides. 

Will there be a Greek-Turkish war?

A war between Greece and Turkey is a complicated scenario, and cannot be an easy choice for the Turkish ruling class. Apart from the already disastrous consequences of a war, and its unpredictable outcome, which largely depends on the attitude of the various major imperialist formations (EU, NATO, etc.), Turkey would be isolated from the West and faced with huge economic consequences. 

However, if one tries to interpret Erdogan’s continuous threats only on the basis of the argument that he is trying to “externalise” Turkey’s internal problems of high inflation, economic crisis and the difficult election period he is facing, the assessment won’t be accurate. This is a partial approach. And if one sticks only to it, one ignores the reality of the Greek-Turkish rivalry, the ambitions of the Turkish ruling class and the new international landscape. 

Preparations for the next steps are unfolding at the moment on both sides of the Aegean. On the one hand, Turkey is preparing to invoke the Turkish-Libyan memorandum defining their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and to obtain a licence from Libya for hydrocarbon exploration in sea areas that Greece considers its own. This will force the Greek government, which considers this memorandum illegal, to react. On the other hand, in Greece, the discussion has been opened to extend the territorial waters to 12 miles, starting from southern Crete, in order to anticipate developments, which will not go unanswered by Turkey.

These are extremely dangerous moves on both sides.

Is there a way out? In theory, yes, and that is the history of the Greek-Turkish rivalry. Periods of tension are followed by periods of smoothened relations. But today, the intra-capitalist conflict has reached a “maturity” that did not exist in previous periods. The volatile international political scene, the ambitions of the Turkish ruling class, the hydrocarbon reserves in the Mediterranean and Turkey’s internal problems are creating a very dangerous mixture that may at some point explode. 

The only element able to put a brake on the war machines is the workers’ and popular movements of the two countries, who have nothing to gain from this competition, but will instead pay a heavy and bloody toll for it. Among other things, the two peoples can mobilise around the question of peace, connect, build links and, at the end of the day, put a break in warmongering on both sides. The Left in the two countries, as well as in Cyprus, must take initiatives of cooperation and joint actions against the choices of the ruling classes in all three countries, to militantly promote the struggle against nationalism and for the common interests of the three peoples. The goal is workers’ power and socialism, because in the long term, peace is impossible to guarantee on the basis of capitalism.

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