Tensions continued to mount in the eastern Mediterranean this week, after the Turkish Foreign Ministry formally called in the Greek and French ambassadors for talks on Monday over a Franco-Greek naval excursion into waters claimed by Turkey. The incident points to mounting tensions among NATO member states in the eastern Mediterranean and across the Middle East and Africa, as French imperialism backs Greece against Turkey.
On April 15, Greece had provocatively posted a three-day NAVTEX announcement that the French oil exploration vessel L’Atalante would conduct research south of Crete and Rhodes. These waters in the eastern Mediterranean are claimed by both Turkey and Greece, whose claims have French backing. Athens provocatively timed the announcement to fall as Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias met his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu for what were billed as “confidence-building” talks in Athens.
Ankara replied with its own NAVTEX declaring that the area in question is in Turkey’s continental shelf, and that it did not recognize Greece’s authority to issue such an announcement. Ultimately, L’Atalante and the Greek frigate Elli entered the region despite the Turkish warning, on April 17, though they left the area after being intercepted by two Turkish frigates.
On Monday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned Greek Ambassador to Turkey Michael-Christos Diamessis and French Ambassador Hervé Magro in protest. Remarkably, this summoning of ambassadors—a step reserved for serious diplomatic incidents—did not receive significant coverage or comment in French and international media, though it was widely reported in Turkish and Greek media.
Nonetheless, the Turkish Defense Ministry extended an offer on the same day to Athens to resume talks with Greek military officials on new “confidence-building measures.”
Athens rejected the olive branch offered by Ankara, however. On Tuesday, a Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed that the L’Atalante had been operating in a zone that Athens claims as its territorial waters under the terms of a Greek agreement with Egypt. The spokesman reported that the NAVTEX station at Iraklio, on Crete, had issued an announcement formally reiterating this position. The Greek embassy in Ankara also issued a formal protest to the Turkish authorities.
The Dendias-Çavuşoğlu talks during which Athens launched the naval provocation themselves blew up, after reportedly cordial discussions, when Dendias surprised Çavuşoğlu by publicly denouncing Turkey in the concluding press conference.
In fascistic language, Dendias denounced Turkey, alleging that it had failed to respect its reactionary deal with the European Union (EU) to prevent Middle Eastern refugees from fleeing via Turkey to Europe, by instead encouraging refugees to “storm” the Greek border. He said, “Concerning migration, I honestly believe that after last year’s incidents, Turkey should not try to teach Greece on anything about migration. … I believe the storming of our border was not the right thing to do.”
Dendias continued by rejecting Turkish proposals for demilitarization of the Greek islands off the Turkish Mediterranean and Aegean coasts, through which refugees have arrived via Turkey to Greece. “We have the army stationed on our islands because there is a threat,” Dendias declared, continuing: “Can anybody say there is no threat of landing units near our islands? If there is no such thing, please notify us.”
Dendias also reiterated that Athens rejects the agreement on territorial jurisdiction in the Mediterranean signed between Turkey and NATO’s Libyan puppet regime in Tripoli. Athens advances instead an alternative agreement on Mediterranean waters that it signed with the Egyptian military dictatorship of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Çavuşoğlu replied that Ankara wants to “continue this dialogue without preconditions and we want to develop our relations with Greece in every field, as two neighbors and allies,” adding: “We wanted this first meeting to continue in a more positive atmosphere, but in his remarks, Nikos Dendias, unfortunately, made extremely unacceptable accusations against my country. … Turkey is capable of protecting its rights, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, and the rights of Turkish Cypriots.”
Greek media hailed Dendias’ provocative statements for having surprised and humiliated the Turkish government. The Greek City Times gloated that “Çavuşoğlu was so taken aback by Dendias’ response that he could only mutter out that the Greek foreign minister withdrew from a ‘positive’ dialogue.”
The provocative role played by Athens, supported by Paris, reflects mounting divisions inside NATO inflamed by three decades of imperialist war in the Balkans and the Middle East since the Stalinist dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The region has been set aflame by NATO wars launched in Libya and Syria in 2011, after the revolutionary workers uprising in Egypt, and the 2014 NATO-backed putsch in Ukraine. Disputed eastern Mediterranean waters are not only coveted for their oil, but their strategic value for conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and Africa’s Sahel region.
France and Turkey have backed rival militias in the Libyan civil war between rival Islamist militias NATO had used to topple Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011. This embroiled the eastern Mediterranean in far-flung conflicts between shifting rival alliances of imperialist and regional Middle Eastern powers. As these conflicts mounted, French and Greek warships nearly clashed with Turkish warships last summer in the eastern Mediterranean.
Paris has stoked these conflicts as it faced the debacles of the NATO war for regime change in Syria and its wars in Libya and Mali. Its support is critical in encouraging far smaller Greece, (population 10.72 million, gross domestic product $194 billion), to provoke Turkey (population 82 million, GDP $649 billion).
This policy exposes the reactionary and politically criminal role of European imperialism. Billions of euros are being spent on conflicts and border provocations that threaten to unleash a bloody military escalation—even as France, Greece and Turkey see a new wave of COVID-19 infections and insist on “herd immunity” policies, claiming there is no money for lockdowns.
This week, reports broke that Greece plans to purchase six more French-made Rafale fighter jets, after negotiating a multi-billion-euro deal to purchase 18 Rafale jets last year. Greece also signed a record $1.65 billion contract with Israel for training Greek pilots last week, as well as an agreement on Patriot missiles and unspecified “regional issues” with the Saudi monarchy when Dendias visited Riyadh on Wednesday.
Last week, Ankara announced it would hold talks with the Sisi junta in Cairo, which has close ties with Paris and has defended Khalifa Haftar’s militia in Libya against the Tripoli regime. This was reportedly prepared by talks between Turkish and Egyptian intelligence. Çavuşoğlu said, “A Turkish delegation led by the deputy foreign minister will visit Cairo at the beginning of May, and after this visit, I will meet Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry. Egypt is an important country for the region, and we hope to take our relations to another level.”
This doubtless intensified anger against Turkey in ruling circles in Paris, which is reeling after one of its key allies in its war in Mali and the Sahel, Chadian President Idriss Déby, was killed in fighting with a Chadian “rebel” militia based in Libya.