In Fight Between Two NATO Allies, Greece and Turkey Appeal to US as Conflict Intensifies

The energy-fueled feud between Greece and Turkey, both members of the U.S.-led NATO military alliance, has intensified in the Eastern Mediterranean, threatening to destabilize the coalition's southern flank if tensions go unabated. Newsweek spoke to officials from both countries as they seek to win over the United States' position in its position on the dispute.

With no clear path to resolution, Athens seeks intervention, Ankara seeks Washington neutrality, and both blame one another for aggravating a historic feud.

"For anyone who follows the tensions that Turkey has been building up for several months, first along its land border with Greece, then in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, it would be almost impossible to guess that the two countries are allies and have been such for the last 68 years," the Greek embassy in Washington told Newsweek in a statement.

The latest round of escalations erupted over the weekend after Turkey sent in the Oruç Reis seismic research survey vessel to explore for oil and gas reserves in waters also claimed by Greece and its close island state partner, Cyprus, whose northern half is led by a Turkey-backed government.

The ship has previously entered these waters in August, resulting in rival military drills before both sides agreed last month to de-escalate. A NATO deconfliction mechanism was established earlier this month, just as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Greece, but diverging views between Athens and Ankara gave way to the ship's return.

The State Department weighed in Tuesday with a statement in which spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said the U.S. "deplores" Turkey's decision to resume operations in Greece-claimed waters.

"Turkey's announcement unilaterally raises tensions in the region and deliberately complicates the resumption of crucial exploratory talks between our NATO Allies Greece and Turkey," Ortagus said.

She accused Ankara of deliberately aggravating an already precarious situation.

"Coercion, threats, intimidation, and military activity will not resolve tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean," she said. "We urge Turkey to end this calculated provocation and immediately begin exploratory talks with Greece. Unilateral actions cannot build trust and will not produce enduring solutions."

greece, turkey, military, dispute, mediterranean
Greek army bibs patrols off the tiny Greek tiny of Kastellorizo, officially Megisti, while the Turkish resort of Kas is seen in background two kilometers away on August 28, 2020, in the Dodecanese, the furthest southeastern Greek Island, in the Mediterranean Sea. The region is at the center of a dispute over maritime jurisdiction and rights to explore energy reserves at sea. LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

The Greek embassy told Newsweek that Athens has appreciated Washington's efforts to mediate the situation, but now it wants the U.S. to increase the pressure on Turkey.

"The U.S. along with all partners and NATO allies need to stress to Turkey that a necessary condition for our co-existence and cooperation, within and outside NATO, is sharing our common values and principles," the statement said. "Whoever insists on rejecting them deliberately needs to be held accountable."

The Turkish embassy, however, blamed Greece and Cyprus for instigating the ongoing row.

"It is not Turkey that unilaterally raises tensions in the region, but Greece and the Greek Cypriots," Ankara's embassy in Washington told Newsweek.

And rather than urging for a more hands-on role for the U.S., Turkey has called for the matter to remain a bilateral one to be solved through direct talks with Greece.

"It is imperative for regional peace and stability that the U.S. maintains its active neutrality and avoids resorting to the discourse voiced by Greece and the Greek Cypriots," the Turkish embassy said. "Promoting one side at the expense of the other could never help resolve the existing issues and will not serve American interests in the region."

The issue is rooted in differing interpretations of the limits of Turkey, Greece and Cyprus' exclusive economic zones and to which continental shelf the waters in question lie within. Turkey has argued that Greece's claims cannot extend to its southeasternmost island of Kastellorizo, located just over a mile from the Turkish mainland.

The long legacies of the lands that constitute Greece and Turkey have been intertwined for thousands of years, with past empires there having both ruled one another at different times. The two have fought several wars against each other since Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830 and, despite both joining NATO in 1952, hostilities erupted over unrest in Cyprus in 1972, and the two became embroiled in a 1996 military crisis over an uninhabited island in the Aegean Sea.

To this day, their maritime boundaries remain unresolved. Friction worsened substantially this year, as Turkey signed an agreement with the internationally-recognized government in Libya, and Greece struck deals with Italy and Egypt to help reinforce their opposing views.

greece, mike, pompeo, visit
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C) stands alongside Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (R) during their visit to the Naval Support Activity base at Souda, the foremost U.S. naval facility in the Eastern Mediterranean, on the Greek island of Crete. The visit came on the heels of a NATO agreement to establish bilateral talks between rival member states Greece and Turkey, but the negotiations fell through as Turkey sent an exploratory vessel ship. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

Washington, for its part, has not directly sided with either side.

The U.S. embassy in Ankara released a statement that dismissed an early 2000s European Union-commissioned report that termed Greek claims to the contested area as being without "any legal significance." The statement said the U.S. believed the EU did not view the document, known as the Seville Map, as "legally binding either."

"The United States as a matter of global policy does not take a position on other states' maritime disputes," the U.S. embassy said, calling on the involved states to instead settle their differences "on the basis of international law."

On the basis of that logic, Ankara's embassy told Newsweek that Turkish officials "believe it is seriously contradictory on the part of the U.S. to have criticized Turkey" in Ortgaus' recent statement regarding the Oruç Reis.

The EU has also repeatedly criticized Turkey's actions. On Wednesday, the recently appointed head of the EU's delegation to Turkey, Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, met with Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Önal to discuss ties between the two sides.

As tensions build, the Turkish embassy also commented on reports of heightened Greek military activity at Kastellorizo and other islands.

"Acts of provocation displayed by Greece so far include stationing naval assets in a contractually demilitarized Greek island just a mile off the Turkish coast," the embassy told Newsweek, "and also regularly violating the demilitarized status of the Eastern Aegean Islands by stationing military forces and/or conducting military exercises in their vicinity."

turkey, mevlut, cavusoglu, seville, map
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu displays a representation of the so-called Seville Map based on an EU-commission study that delineated maritime jurisdiction disputed in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Seas between Greece and Turkey, during an October 8 talk at the Globsec 2020 Bratislava Forum. Turkey disputes such Greek claims as "maximalist" and the U.S. too has dismissed the map as having no legal basis. Globsec 2020 Bratislava Forum

Greece disagreed.

Athens painted Ankara's latest moves as part of a broad campaign of increasingly assertive interventions across the greater region, extending through Libya, Syria and even the South Caucasus, where Turkey has offered support to Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia over the self-proclaimed separatist state of Nagorno-Karabakh.

"Turkey's rhetoric, mainly openly offensive, sows distrust and contempt, while also ignoring the expressed concerns of the international community," the Greek embassy told Newsweek. "In the MENA region, in Cyprus, in the Eastern Mediterranean and even in the Caucasus, Turkey has become a major destabilizing factor."

Still, the Greek embassy said the priority should be repairing relations with Turkey.

"For us Greeks, a vision of a modern, prosperous and truly democratic Turkey that values good relations with all its neighbors, rather than aspire to territorial conquests of bygone eras, is not too much to ask in the 21st century, and it is nothing short of what our neighbors, the Turkish people, deserve," the Greek embassy told Newsweek.

For the U.S., an uptick in tensions between Greece and Turkey represents another emerging geopolitical hotspot just weeks ahead of the U.S. election.

The State Department announced Wednesday that Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper was set to travel to Greece and Cyprus in the coming days to "hold consultations with senior civilian and military officials in Athens on efforts to promote peace and stability, from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Balkans."

Asked if tensions with Turkey would specifically be on the agenda, a State Department spokesperson said there was nothing to add to the previous statement made by Ortagus.

turkey, research, vessel, Oruc, reis
This picture taken on August 23, 2019 in Istanbul shows a view of Turkish General Directorate of Mineral research and Exploration's (MTA) Oruc Reis seismic research vessel docked at Haydarpasa port, which searches for hydrocarbon, oil, natural gas and coal reserves at sea. The vessel is searching for oil and gas reserves in waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus. OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

This article has been updated to reflect that lands that constitute modern day Greece and Turkey hosted empires that ruled one another at different times and that Greece achieved independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830.