Adding conflict to conflict

Turkey’s involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh war must irk NATO the most among the conflicts in the mix it has to deal with. This is because it has to do with its very original task of dealing with “the Russian threat.”

There was one unlikely winner of the Turkey-Greece conflict: NATO. The negotiator behind the scenes that diffused the tensions between Athens and Ankara is always referred to as Germany — but in fact, NATO seems to have played its part. 

Referred to as “brain-dead” by French President Emmanuel Macron barely 10 months ago, NATO seems to have been made relevant by the Greek-Turkish dispute. 

The North Atlantic Treaty was not conceptualized to tackle conflicts between its allies — but if it is working, why not?

However, NATO may be encountering icebergs, making the end of this story more like the Titanic’s than a glorious finale.

Now, NATO may have found three conflicts on its lap beyond the Turkish-Greek dispute that it was originally dealing with: namely, the Cyprus question, the Nagorno-Karabakh war and the northern Syria conflict — which is itself a harbinger for the Kurdish question as well.

NATO’s honeymoon times 

NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was on a shuttle diplomacy mission on Oct. 5 and 6, visiting Ankara first and then Athens. This visit was planned about a month ago when the Turkish and Greek military envoys began their “exploratory talks.” NATO’s involvement in the conflict was publicized back on September 7 when Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar met NATO’s Military Committee Chairman Stuart Peach in Ankara.

The seventh round of these talks would have taken place at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on October 5, but they were delayed due to “technical reasons.” Stoltenberg’s visit to the capitals involved in the conflict seems to have been the “technical reason,” as military envoys need their “green lights” to proceed further. Stoltenberg better have used all his charm at the Presidential Palace visit as he met President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

So far, whatever may be attained militarily seems to have been achieved, while further de-escalation steps will require political will and concessions. 

NATO announced itself on October 1 that:

“Following a series of technical meetings between the Military Representatives of Greece and Turkey at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, a bilateral military de-confliction mechanism was established on Thursday (1 October 2020). The mechanism is designed to reduce the risk of incidents and accidents in the Eastern Mediterranean. It includes the creation of a hotline between Greece and Turkey, to facilitate de-confliction at sea or in the air.”

So far, so good. The steely cool and “matter of fact”-toned announcement by NATO signals that there will not be any sudden military flare-ups in the Aegean. The hotline means that the Greek and Turkish militaries will communicate on a regular basis so that nobody steps on each other’s toes. 

Somehow, I am reminded of the motto of the Habsburg Empire’s ruling dynasty:

“Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube – ‘Let others wage war: thou, happy Austria, marry’”.

It is not exactly “marriage of love” between Turkey and Greece’s armies, but “a pact of mutual understanding and convention of like minds for the common good of all parties involved” — under the guarantee of an omnipotent official body. That does sound like marriage.

According to Stoltenberg’s words in Ankara, the hotline between Greece and Turkey militaries is 24/7. In other words, communication is constant and guaranteed at all times — and that’s even better than marriage. 

The EU’s recurring mistake 

So, the military sides of the Greece-Turkey conflict decided to calm things down among themselves and let the political sphere wage the war.

The European Union Commission and Council have soused Turkey-Cyprus issues into the already complicated Turkey-EU dialogue in the “Special Meeting” on October 1. 

Both Cyprus-Turkey and Turkey-EU relations had already become far too intertwined with the Turkey-Greece conflict, anyway. Moreover, adding conflict to the conflict equation does sound like adding fuel to the fire. But it saves the day for the EU: the Cyprus siege against the EU on foreign policy issues such as condemning and sanctioning Belarus is over, for the time being.

Already, the soft breeze of détente that was blowing ahead of the EU Council Special Meeting has withered away, giving way to a dull and stifling stillness. The chess of moving vessels and issuing NAVTEXs in and around the Aegean and Mediterranean have started once again, with each move indicating the “mood” in the Greek and Turkish capitals.

On September 12, the Oruç Reis research vessel was moved out of the disputed zone in the Aegean Sea, signaling that Turkey was readying for talks with Greece. Subsequently, Turkey also had the drilling vessel Yavuz take its anchor off the Cypriot coast, raising hopes that like the Oruç Reis, the Yavuz was also bound for domestic shores. 

As a reminder, the Yavuz has been wandering around Cyprus’ coast since summer 2019 alongside Turkey’s other drilling ship, the Fatih. This summer, the Fatih was moved to the Black Sea region and continued to drill around the Tuna-1 base in the Sakarya Gas Field, which is located off the western side of the Black Sea shores of Turkey. The Tuna-1 base is home to Turkey’s recently discovered gas deposits, which were announced with much fanfare by President Erdoğan at the end of August.

Speculation that the Yavuz would stop drilling around Cyprus as a sign of détente seems to have fallen flat for the time being. Turkish media reported that the Yavuz is headed to the southern shores of Cyprus (yes, the highly-disputed areas) and will carry on drilling activities there. The Oruç Reis is adding spice to the mix, as it has been reported that it will start touring around the Aegean for research activities as well. 

The more the merrier

Meanwhile, Ankara joined the bandwagon of putting conflicts on top of conflicts: President Erdoğan announced that “Turkey will wipe out terror zones in Syria if promises given to the country are not kept.” He added that “either the terror zones that still exist in Syria are cleared like it was promised to us or we’ll go and do that ourselves.” The “promises” referenced here are those given about creating a “safe zone” in northern Syria, and that message is to the EU. 

When Turkey and the EU struck the “refugee deal,” the “EU-Turkey Statement and Action Plan,” dated March 18, 2016, called for the creation of a zone inside Syria for the “return of the Syrian refugees.” The EU’s utterance of “taking the 2016 deal as the basis for the progress of Turkey-EU relations” at the Special Meeting immediately rekindled Ankara’s ambitions to carve out that safe zone. 

And there is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict turning into a full-fledged war: NATO Chief Stoltenberg stressed the need for an immediate ceasefire while in Ankara. That is unlikely to say the least. 

Turkey’s involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh war must irk NATO the most among the conflicts in the mix it has to deal with. This is because it has to do with its very original task of dealing with “the Russian threat.”

September 29, 2021 A post-Merkel Turkey