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Greece Is Making a Comeback in the Eastern Mediterranean

Sensing the tide turning against Turkey, Athens is reviving itself as a diplomatic force.

By , a journalist specializing in European and Middle Eastern affairs.
Cypriot Foreign Affairs Minister Nikos Christodoulides, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, and Emirati Presidential Advisor Anwar Gargash hold a press conference after meeting in the western Cypriot city of Paphos, on April 16.
Cypriot Foreign Affairs Minister Nikos Christodoulides, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, and Emirati Presidential Advisor Anwar Gargash hold a press conference after meeting in the western Cypriot city of Paphos, on April 16. Iakovos Hatzistavros/AFP via Getty Images

With Greece’s foreign minister recently returned from a peace mission to Israel and Palestine and its prime minister having roved North Africa from Tripoli to Cairo, Greece is making a major diplomatic comeback around the Eastern Mediterranean.

Indeed, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias’s May 18 visit to Israel and Palestine—a trip that also included stops in Jordan and Egypt—is just the latest foreign venture in a frantic diplomatic year for Athens. In April, for example, Greece loaned missiles to Saudi Arabia while Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis flew to Tripoli to restore diplomatic relations with Libya. Dendias and other Greek officials have also held countless conversations with Egypt, Jordan, Cyprus, and the United Arab Emirates.

Relations with fellow European states have also been good, with France in particular becoming a key security partner as it agreed to supply Athens with warplanes in January and offered warships in March. And in May, Greek Defense Minister Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos described relations with the United States as at an “all-time high.” But the clear focus of Greece’s diplomatic energy has been in the Mediterranean.

“There’s definitely a new appetite in Athens for engagement around the region,” said Ioannis N. Grigoriadis, head of the Turkey program at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy in Athens. “Greece is reclaiming its influence in an area it has neglected for years.” Behind this new-found activism is a particularly old concern: Turkey.

Heightened tensions with Ankara on a range of different issues made last year “a wake-up call for Greek diplomacy,” said Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, director of the Center for International and European Studies at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. “On both the diplomatic and security fronts, Greece realized it was time for a major strategic rethink.”

Although Greek-Turkish rivalry and suspicion has a lengthy pedigree, go back two decades and relations were surprisingly sunny. After Athens and Istanbul both suffered terrible earthquakes in 1999, both countries seized the opportunity for some earthquake diplomacy. A period of rapprochement began, with trade increasing and Greece supporting Turkey in its ambition to join the European Union.

Athens and Ankara also agreed to hold exploratory talks on all the issues between them. Yet, these talks—which began in 2002—produced few results. Indeed, even from the outset there were disagreements about what issues should be on the agenda. Possible topics stretched from the delimitation of sea and air boundaries in the Aegean Sea to the treatment of the ethnic-Turkish minority in Greek Thrace and the Greek community in Istanbul.

After staggering on for years, in 2016, talks were finally suspended. That was after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly questioned the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, the international agreement that set the boundaries of modern Turkey. His questioning also set the tone for what was to follow as Ankara began challenging maritime boundaries claimed by Greece and Athens’s close ally, Cyprus.

In 2017, Ankara began sending seismic research vessels and then a drill ship—under naval escort—to waters claimed by Nicosia. In late 2019, Ankara signed a security and maritime accord with the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord in Libya, which gave a swathe of the Eastern Mediterranean to Turkey and cut across Greek claims. Turkey then sent a seismic research vessel under naval escort to this zone, provoking rival naval deployments and heightened rhetoric from both Ankara and Athens.

The final nail in the coffin of any surviving Greek-Turkish rapprochement then came in February 2020. Faced with what it saw as European intransigence in the face of Syrian refugees, Turkey opened its land border with Greece, actively transporting Syrian and other refugees and migrants to the Evros River, which separates Greece from Turkey, and encouraging them to cross. “This really backfired for Ankara,” Triantaphyllou said. “It created the perception in Greece, even amongst more moderate Greeks, that Turkey was trying to storm the border.”

Mitsotakis’s government, in power since July 2019, was quick to read this new consensus in Greek public opinion and respond.

Athens began building and developing relationships with regional powers also concerned with Turkish policy. One outcome was the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, which pulled together Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian National Authority. The EU and United States were observers, and the UAE was a candidate member.

Although the forum—officially launched in September 2020—is chiefly concerned with the exploitation of Eastern Mediterranean natural gas, it has sent a message to Ankara that Greece (and Cyprus) are far from alone.

In early April too, Mitsotakis visited Tripoli and restored diplomatic relations with Libya. While there, he also opened a discussion with the interim Libyan government about the controversial Turkish 2019 maritime deal. They agreed to hold further talks on the issue, but those haven’t happened yet.

Athens has also been working on developing its relationship with Paris, which has come to see Turkey as a threat to regional stability—and to peace at home since France is concerned about Turkey inflaming sentiments among France’s Muslims. In 2020, France agreed to sell Greece Rafale fighter jets and naval frigates and has since taken part in several joint military exercises.

“In the case of the EU,” said Athanasios Manis, a research fellow at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens’s political science and public administration department, “Greece has successfully managed to convince all EU member states to formulate a dual EU policy of sticks and carrots connected directly to Turkey’s behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean.” In December 2020, for example, Turkey withdrew its seismic research ship, the Oruc Reis, from the Mediterranean Sea after the EU threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey. With the ship safely back in port, the EU then took a more liberal line, postponing sanction considerations until a later meeting while stressing in its Dec. 11 European Council conclusions that a “positive EU-Turkey agenda remains on the table” regarding the economy and trade.

Meanwhile, the election of Joe Biden as U.S. president has given relations between Greece and the United States a boost since the new president is expected to be sterner toward Turkey. For example, after the election, Biden didn’t even call Erdogan until April 23, and only then to tell the Turkish leader he was about to recognize the Armenian genocide. A new bilateral military cooperation agreement is due to be signed between Athens and Washington this summer, with the U.S. base at Souda Bay on the Greek island Crete likely to be expanded in consequence. “All this has buoyed Athens and given a message that the EU and U.S. nowadays see Greece as very much a full member of the club,” said Ian Lesser, vice president of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.

Greece has really only been able to make these moves “because of the failures of Turkish foreign policy,” Grigoriadis said. “Years ago, it would have been much more difficult for Egypt or Israel to join up with Greece for fear of alienating Turkey.

At the same time though, Turkish alienation is also a major concern for Athens. “Athens realizes that it is always going to be more comfortable with a Western-oriented Turkey than one that is hostile to the West,” Grigoriadis added.

As a result, “Greece will continue to underline the need for dialogue with Turkey while at the same time preparing diplomatically and militarily for any incident,” Manis noted. Athens is thus also continuing to build on the now-restarted exploratory talks while there is hope Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu may soon visit Athens.

“I think the ball is very much in Turkey’s court now,” Manis said. Many around the Eastern Mediterranean will therefore be closely watching Turkey to see just how Ankara returns that serve.

Jonathan Gorvett is a journalist specializing in European and Middle Eastern affairs, currently based in Cyprus.