NATO’s primary raison d’être has always been the deterrence of Russia. Therefore, it is ironic that the Alliance’s moral death may not come in the plains of Poland, but rather in the waters of the Mediterranean.
During the past months, the decades-long tensions between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean have been building up. Turkey has been sending an exploratory vessel, Oruç Reis, accompanied by warships, to conduct energy research in waters over which Greece claims jurisdiction. Greece has been sending its warships to observe the Turkish flotilla. In August, the ongoing tension culminated in a collision between a Greek and Turkish frigate, which considerably damaged the Turkish ship.
The recent showdown between the two countries has been largely portrayed as one over energy resources. Yet, this is a facile reading. Although energy does play a role, it is but an epiphenomenal one. At its core, the confrontation is over geopolitics’ central concept: space. And space is much harder to negotiate over than energy.
Turkey feels constrained by the regional geography: Asia Minor, Turkey’s Asiatic landmass, protrudes like a thumb from the Middle East and the Caucasus. It makes up the whole southern coast of the Black Sea and a significant part of the eastern Mediterranean coast. Yet, on its western edge, Asia Minor is hemmed in by a multitude of Greek islands, some as populated and large as Rhodes, others mere uninhabited islets. De jure, this excludes Turkey from most of the Aegean and limits its rights over the eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey cannot abide by that. With a population of 83 million, an area covering over 300,000 square miles, and the world’s 13th highest GDP, Turkey wants to enjoy the power that it believes its numbers entitle it to. Adding to that potent mix is the country’s Ottoman past, which Turkish President Erdogan’s Islamism, a mainstream current in Turkey, espouses. All these create aspirations of regional hegemony.
The latest geostrategic and ideological vehicle for these aspirations is the concept of Mavi Vatan — Blue Homeland — a permutation of neo-Ottomanism, an irridentist and imperialist ideology. Mavi Vatan’s main tenet is Turkey’s control of its surrounding maritime space: the southern Black Sea; the waters between Crete and the Republic of Cyprus (which Turkey does not recognize); and most worryingly, the Greek islands and waters of the eastern Aegean. Mavi Vatan has been enunciated multiple times by President Erdogan and Turkish Defense Minister Akar. Turkey’s military support for the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), its legally suspect agreement with GNA over delimitation of maritime rights, its expressed interest over the use of the Misrata naval base and the al-Watiya airbase, and its dispatch of units to Libya should accordingly be viewed under the prism of neo-Ottomanism.
Yet, despite the military standoff between Turkey and Greece, both countries proclaim their desire to resolve their differences diplomatically. Crucially, they disagree as to what should be negotiated. Greece only wants to negotiate a delimitation of the two countries’ Continental Shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone. On the other hand, Turkey wants to negotiate a swathe of additional topics, most tellingly the demilitarization of a number of Greek islands in the eastern Aegean. Greece will never accept such relinquishment of its security. Importantly, Turkey’s Fourth Army, which has a strong offensive amphibious element, is stationed at Ismir (Smyrna) just across these Greek islands.
A few NATO members are concretely standing by Greece, most importantly France, which has been participating in joint military exercises with Greece and other nations in the eastern Mediterranean. Additionally, the two countries have decided to deepen their strategic and defense partnership, with Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis announcing the purchase of 18 Rafale aircraft. The jets are scheduled to be delivered to Greece soon.
Furthermore, Paris’s relationship with Ankara has been worsening in the past few years over Turkey’s offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria and conflicting geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean and west Africa. The relationship reached a boiling point in June following an incident wherein a French frigate was radar-targeted by Turkish warships while participating in NATO’s Libyan embargo enforcement mission. (Radar-targeting is the step preceding striking.) At this point, Ankara’s animosity towards Paris is at feverish heights, with President Erdogan calling the Muslim world to ban French products.
Why is the above relevant to NATO? All three countries are NATO members and therefore ostensibly allies. Yet, on a technical level, NATO’s Article 1 binds the members to peacefully solve any disputes with other states and not engage in violence or the threat of violence.
In the case of the Mediterranean dispute, Turkey has trampled on Article 1 multiple times. The most blatant violation came in June 1995, when the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (the country’s parliament) passed a resolution authorizing the Turkish government to declare war on Greece should Greece extend its territorial waters in the Aegean to 12 nautical miles from its coastline — such an extension is a right and prerogative given to every country by the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Turkey has been in clear violation of the North Atlantic Treaty, NATO’s charter. Nevertheless, NATO’s framework does not provide for a way to effectively address intra-organizational disputes or charter violations. Additionally, under NATO’s Article 5, an attack against one member is an attack against all. What will happen if the attack originates from one member of the Alliance against another? Again, the Treaty is silent.
Article 12 does provide for a method to review the North Atlantic Treaty, something which could theoretically rectify these legal shortcomings. Yet, Article 12’s implementation requires the unanimous consent of the North Atlantic Council in which each NATO member participates. Thus, reaching an agreement on the Treaty’s review will be nigh impossible given the situation.
The shortsightedness of the Treaty’s drafters is reflected in the fumbling and anemic reaction of Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary-General, in trying to resolve the dispute. Demonstrating his frustration with NATO, Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis, decried the Alliance’s equidistant attitude.
Some of NATO’s members have been attempting to diffuse the situation: Germany has been trying to mediate, but it lacks the experience to do so and its credibility in Greece is tarnished over Germany’s appeasing attitude towards Turkey and its close trade relationship with it. Turkey is one of the main buyers of German armaments and is scheduled to receive six Type 214 attack submarines. If the delivery materializes the naval balance in the Aegean will shift.
Complicating the situation further is Turkey’s strained relationship with the U.S. Besides attacking America’s Kurdish allies in Syria, Turkey infamously purchased the S-400 missile defense system from Russia; this led to its expulsion from the F-35 program. Furthermore, Turkey’s ties with Hamas, a designated terrorist organization, are being strengthened: President Erdogan even hosted a Hamas delegation that included Hamas’s deputy chief Saleh al-Arouri, a wanted terrorist. Currently, there is significant anti-American sentiment in Turkey.
In his final NATO meeting as U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, harshly rebuked Turkey and called it out for undermining NATO’s stability. The American legislature also appears to have had enough. NDAA 2021 will make sanctions on Turkey over its purchase of the Russian S-400 mandatory as per the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The sanctions are to be imposed within 30 days of the Act’s signing.
Yet make no mistake: The fractures in NATO’s southern flank are not of a legal or political nature; thus they cannot only be addressed as such. Rather, they are geopolitical. Resultantly, they affect the core of the transatlantic alliance. An armed conflict between NATO members would extinguish any semblance of credibility, which NATO might still have, by irreparably fracturing the alliance from within. This will only benefit outside actors, primarily Russia.
The Alliance was created in a period of bipolarity, during which the individual geopolitical interests of the Western allies were thought to be subsumed under the overarching interest of countering the Soviet Union. This is no longer the case — if it ever were.
NATO should adapt and evolve to reflect that. Unfortunately, given its sclerotic organizational setup, this is unlikely to happen. Therefore, it will always fall on the Alliance’s more powerful members to be dealing with recalcitrant allies and trying to calm tensions. But political acrobatics can only go so far.
Thus, instances of persistent violation of the spirit and letter of the North Atlantic Treaty by Turkey should not be left unanswered. The longer they are, the longer French President Macron’s comment about NATO being brain-dead will ring true.
Stoltenberg had said that, “We are concerned about the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean. What we need is de-escalation, is dialogue.” Yet, NATO needs to be able to offer more than a dialogue avenue if it is to solve the existential schisms that plague it.