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Elections are coming up in the Republic of Turkey in mid-May. The elections will determine the fate of the nation, which is suffering from rising inflation, an unstable currency, human rights violations, and strained relations with its former closest allies.
Nonetheless, if current Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan were to lose his elections, the geopolitical standoff in the Mediterranean would very much continue. Pre-Erdogan, there have been several high-profile clashes, massacres, and heightened conflicts in the region due to successive Turkish governments reneging on their own Treaty of Lausanne.
The Aegean Isles have been recognized as Greece’s sovereignty territory since 1923. In the Treaty of Lausanne, written and backed by the victorious Kemalist government in the Greco-Turkish War, the Isles would be recognized as a sovereign part of the Hellenic Republic in return for Athens recognizing Ankara’s rule on Asia Minor.
Relations between Greece and Turkey would be stable for several decades until the Cyprus Emergency, when the Greek Cypriot paramilitary, EOKA, fought against British rule and sought to unite Cyprus under the Hellenic Republic. Not wanting to give up their ambitions over Cyprus, the Turkish government instigated The Istanbul pogroms and would all but in writing renege over the Lausanne Treaty.
A major breaking point in the Mediterranean has been Ankara’s ambitions over Greece’s Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) and the right to the sea. The United Nations Conventions on the Law and Sea (UNCLOS) recognizes Athens’ hegemony over the Aegean Isles—an international treaty Turkey has refused to sign.
Despite current President Erdogan’s growing warlike rhetoric over its neighbor and fellow NATO member, the conflict didn’t start under his AKP party. Before Erdogan’s rise to power, the traditional CHP, also known as the Kemalist party, have had tensions with Greece and Cyprus for the past several decades. Though they ideologically reject Erdogan’s pro-Islamist faction, they are near center on renewed aggression against their Mediterranean neighbors, a policy Erdogan’s opponents share.
America’s Stance in the Region
Since 1923, the US government has attempted to keep a delicate power balance in the region but at times, favored the Turkish government over Athens. The Greek military junta in the 70s had received financial support from Washington, and then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger would help plan the 1974 Turkish Invasion of Cyprus.
American and Turkish relations remained extremely close until Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism and the Syrian War. Due to the lack of cooperation against ISIS, the Pentagon decided to arm and train the Syrian Democratic Forces—primarily made up of Kurdish paramilitaries who historically fought against Turkey.
Despite NATO’s policies and the US embargo on modern Russian weapons for alliance members, Ankara would purchase the S400s with much condemnation. Then President Trump enacted sanctions on Turkey, and the Pentagon kicked Ankara out from the advanced F-35B program and replaced it with Greece instead.
Attempting to mitigate a potential war between both states, the Sixth Fleet has routinely patrolled the region, establishing several key bases in mainland Greece and Crete. President Biden has lifted the Cypriot arms embargo as their vast amounts of Soviet-era weapons could be transferred to Ukraine. The Turkish government reacted harshly to this and threatened to send more troops into the occupied areas of Cyprus.
On Cyprus and Eastern Mediterranean
Turkey currently has a long-standing forty-nine-year military occupation in Cyprus, which the moderate Kemalist and hardline pro-Erdogan Islamist factions support. Illegal offshore drilling had taken place by the Turkish navy in Cyprus’ EEZ, which the European Union has failed to mitigate. Turkey and the President of the occupied North, Ersin Tatar have threatened to formally annex the occupied areas in to the Republic, which would cause a major war. Even with a potential Erdogan election loss, the ongoing occupation of Cyprus will not end.
A major flashpoint and potential imperial ambition by Turkey has been the Dodecanese Isles. Formally part of the Italian Empire, Italy took the Isles in the 1912 war against the Ottomans. The Isles would have an overwhelmingly Greek ethnic majority and ultimately be transferred to Greece after WWII. Turkey has long sought to annex these isles.
Though stating they have a right to sea (which Turkey already does) and seemingly reneging on the Treaty of Lausanne, it is important to remember that the founder of the state, Mustafa Kemal helped write it. Articles 12 and 16 established the Aegean isles, minus Imbros and Tenedos as sovereign Greek land and any incursions would be seen as aggression.
The Republic of Turkey could potentially have a sigh of relief if Erdogan were to lose his elections but this will not be the same for their Mediterranean neighbors. The United States will have to play a major role as a mediator and express the territorial sovereignty of both Greece and Cyprus which the European Union and NATO have failed to do or face a potential scenario of renewed war in the region.
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