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Factors affecting the escalation of tensions between Turkey and Greece

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Farzad Ramezani Bonesh

Senior Researcher and Analyst of International Affairs

Turkey and Greece have a history full of war and conflict over the past five or six centuries. Relations between the two countries have been strained for the past decades. The following article deals with the factors affecting any increase in tensions between Turkey and Greece.

Disputes over historical heritage

Despite Greece’s efforts to relating Hagia Sophia to Christianity, Turkey gave a green light to re-use the building as a mosque by revoking the 1934 decree. From Turkey’s point of view, the issue of using Hagia Sophia is a sovereign right of Turkey, and any criticism to it will be interpreted as a violation of the country’s independence.

On the other hand, Greece and many Western countries oppose the plan. In fact, Hagia Sophia was the center of the Orthodox Church for more than 900 years. So, Greece’s efforts to internationalize the issue of Hagia Sofia will have a more negative impact on Turkey’s relations with Greece, the European Union and the West.

Strengthening the military and modernizing the force

Turkey and Greece have very long maritime borders. Also, the differences between Turkey and Greece in strategic and important areas are still the reasons and motives for tensions and hostile competition. The two sides have conflicting views on previous border treaties, revisions of the Lausanne Treaty, the Aegean Islands, breaches of privacy, and so on.

In fact, the transition from the diplomatic sphere, military strengthening and modernization of the forces, and the increase of the army’s deterrence capacity can lead to an increase in possibility of tension and bilateral conflict.

Islands and maritime influence area

The Mediterranean is a relatively dangerous sea in terms of territorial waters determination and the continental shelf and the exclusive economic zone. The 200-mile border for the two countries’ monopoly-economic zone is virtually impractical and interferes with neighboring coasts.

Meanwhile, the escalation of the dispute between Turkey and Greece over the territorial sea and the continental shelf has reached an exclusive economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean.

In fact, the increasing of readiness of the two countries for military conflict, the differences between the two countries, their claims over the islands in the Aegean Sea, the militarization of the islands, the violation of airspace, etc., increase the scope of tension.

Anti-Turkish cooperation in the region

In fact, the three countries of Cyprus, Armenia and Greece have increased diplomatic pressure on Turkey and shifted their relations towards greater convergence.

Also, with increasing challenges in US-Turkish relations, the United States has included expanding security relations and military training with the Cyprus government in its 2020 program. In addition, Cyprus and Greece have for years played an important role in thwarting Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. It seems that Turkey has put emphasize on Greece’s roll in all those mentioned issues.

Anti-Turkish alliances in gas resources in the Mediterranean

Turkey has already reached a maritime border agreement in addition to signing a security cooperation treaty with the Libyan government of Al-Siraj. Greece, meanwhile, denies the validity of the agreements and considers them negative in its own interests.

In addition, Ankara is completely opposed to Greece’s Mediterranean approaches. In fact, on the one hand, Greece and Cyprus, which have maritime and territorial disputes with Turkey, consider the agreements between Turkey and Libya invalid.

Greece, Israel and Cyprus have also stepped up their efforts to reach an agreement on the formation of an energy triangle to build a pipeline in the eastern Mediterranean, along with the establishing of Eastern Mediterranean Gas Association.

In addition, Greece and Italy have agreed on bilateral maritime borders and an agreement has been signed between the two countries. This would erode the legitimacy of the agreement between Ankara and Tripoli.

On the other hand, the wider cooperation, the risk of more European and Western support for military cooperation between Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and Israel has increased Turkey’s concern. Meanwhile, in addition to paying more attention to the issue of the Turkish Republic of Cyprus, Turkey has also paid attention to the role of Greece in keeping away of Ankara from regional coalitions.

Ups and downs in Turkey’s relations with the West

Turkey’s relations with the European Union and the United States have had ups and downs in recent years. From one hand, increasing defense relations between the United States and Turkey’s rivals such as Israel and Greece have continued in the Mediterranean.

In addition, the risk of Greece using its diplomatic capacity in the European Union to put more pressure on Turkey and isolate it, and more direct and indirect support for Greece, seems has led to more Ankara’s dissatisfaction.

Dispute in Libya

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed two naval agreements and security and military cooperation with Fayez Al-Seraj, Prime Minister of the Libyan (GNA), in November 2019.

Meanwhile, the Turkish parliament issued a permit to send Turkish troops to Libya after the Libyan government requested military assistance. Also, the different view of Greece and Turkey on Libya has caused Greece to pay attention to Turkey’s rival players in the Libyan issue.

Immigrants and refugees

Turkey hosts more than a few million refugees and has repeatedly threatened to open its border gates to Europe. Athens, meanwhile, says Erdogan’s threat the refugees as a weapon to put pressure on Europe and Greece has dire consequences. The dispute between Greece and Turkey continues in this area is continuing and could escalate after the Corona crisis decreased.

Cyprus issue

Cyprus has been a major source of tension between Turkey and Greece since at least 1974. The Turkey’s approach to Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and extensive opposition of Greece to formal recognition of it in the face of supporting Cyprus, has kept the tension in Turkey-Greece relations high.


However, although Greek President Krias Mitsotakis and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have already agreed to keep bilateral channels open.

But developments such as the greater presence of refugees on the Turkish-Greek border, the violation of maritime and air borders, the possibility of Ankara’s drilling off the coast of Crete, etc. can heighten tensions between Ankara and Athens.

In addition, the low level of economic relations between the two countries, the growing support of the Greeks for the military response against Turkey, bolding of the security aspect of the refugee issue and the risk of Greek’s support from the anti-Turkish PKK group and the Gulen network ٬ The risk of Turkish support from the Turkish minority In Greece, and further propaganda by extremist nationalists against each other could increase the scope of the dispute.

In the meantime, it is unlikely that the two countries will declare war on each other, but the current trend will lead to continuing of the tense atmosphere between the two countries in the field of diplomacy, security-military and international coalitions.