German and Greek government spokespeople report that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone conversations with Greek and Turkish leaders on Tuesday evening prevented war over Turkey’s prospecting for gas off the Greek Aegean island of Kastellorizo, which lies roughly two kilometres off the south coast of Turkey.
War planes and navy ships of both countries were thought to be ready for confrontation, with both sides claiming to be in the right.
Merkel spoke on the phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis “at the last minute”, according to Bild, the largest-selling German daily, read by millions.
Greece has denied the report, however a German government spokesman said shortly after the conversation with Erdogan 18 Turkish warships heading for the Kastellorizo area turned back.
Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said a major advantage is that Chancellor Merkel can talk to both states, “so it’s not surprising that the chancellor intervened, as she was asked to do”.
None of the media I accessed had any detail on just what was discussed in the two conversations.
No conflict in Europe is as knotty as the issues in dispute between Greece and Turkey and nowhere on the continent is the risk of military conflict greater than in the Aegean, commented the business daily Handelsblatt.
Both countries claim ownership of this part of the Aegean Sea and neither is likely to give way in the conflict over oil and large gas deposits under it, commentators suggest, arguing that the only way out of the conflict is adjudication by the International Court of Justice in The Hague (Netherlands). It’s up to Merkel, the European Union and NATO to persuade their members and partners to go to the court, one commentator urged.
The Turkish warships were reported to have left from the Aksaz naval base in Marmaris and the Greek military was put on high alert. The Hellas Journal also reports “great mobility of the Greek armed forces” in Evros, northeastern Greece, on Tuesday afternoon, stating that they are lined up along the Evros river, which forms part of the land border, “while at least so far no movement has been observed on the Turkish side”.
Turkey is already drilling off Cyprus against that EU country’s will, causing the EU to draw up a legal framework for sanctions against Turkey.
An expert on Turkey at a Berlin think tank, Günter Seufert, told Deutsche Welle TV, Erdogan is out to build “a great Turkey” along Ottoman empire lines. Erdogan sees Turkey as the new power in the region, filling the power vacuum left by the withdrawal of the USA and the weakness of the EU, Seufert comments. Erdogan casts Turkey as representing the interests of Sunni Moslems in the Middle East.
Practical consequences of this policy are upscaling the Turkish military and militarisation of foreign policy in the eastern Mediterranean, Seufert suggests. “This policy also has large symbolic dimensions, such as the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.”
Germany, Greece, Turkey and France are members of the 30-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Article 5 of the alliance’s charter states that an attack on one member is an attack on all of its members. It’s been invoked only once, in response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September, 2001 in New York.
Turkey has for years been trying to join the European Union as well. Relations between Paris and Ankara are tense over Turkey’s involvement in the Libyan civil war.
Erdogan has powerful leverage over Germany by holding in camps thousands of refugees trying to get into Germany. He has threatened several times to let them go over several disagreements with Berlin.
Turkey has 368,000 active military personnel and a population of 82 million. Greece has 108,000 active military personnel and 11 million population.