What Erdogan aims to gain from the Greek-Turkish dialogue?

What Erdogan aims to gain from the Greek-Turkish dialogue?
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Political interests drive rapprochement despite lingering tensions.

By Sotiris Roussos*

The meeting between the Greek Prime Minister and the Turkish President in New York cannot be assessed without considering the international and regional context in which it takes place. Turkey has merged its position as a mediating power between the warring factions in Ukraine, gaining great room for diplomatic maneuvering and exploiting Russian money and energy without fear of sanctions from the West. Especially after the meeting between Erdogan and Netanyahu, Ankara and Tel Aviv are on a path of normalization and close cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Ankara's relations with Cairo have also followed the same path, facilitating Turkish interests in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. Concurrently, Erdogan has re-engaged the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, resulting in generous foreign exchange and investment support at a critical time for the Turkish economy. In the Balkans, Ankara has recently increased its influence in Albania, Bulgaria, and even Northern Macedonia.

Turkey faces severe problems with its presence in Syria as pressure from Russia, Iran, and Assad to withdraw from Syrian territory increases. Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria proves more resilient than Ankara expected. However, the major problem for Ankara is its relationship with the United States and the Western alliance. Two significant trends are emerging in Washington regarding Turkey. One is the Biden administration, especially the State Department, which wants to keep Turkey in the alliance at all costs. The other, especially in Congress, wants a more "punitive" line, forcing Turkey to follow the correct "allied" path by withdrawing essential weapons systems.

Greece is one of the most reliable and, therefore, entirely predictable allies of the U.S., granting critical military facilities (Alexandroupolis, etc.) and taking part in the war in Ukraine by sending military material. It has also formed an alliance with France against threats in the Aegean. However, the various strategic triangles with Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt, on which many illusions about deterring Turkish aggression were based, are being weakened. Athens has a creeping tendency to downplay the Cyprus problem's impact on Greek-Turkish relations. If this tendency prevails, Cyprus will more likely be part of a Turkish-Israeli deal in the Eastern Mediterranean in the future balance of power.

According to the above analysis, Erdogan wants to provide supporters of Turkey's immediate return to alliance normalcy in the Biden administration regarding the arguments to overcome obstacles posed by Congress. Political dialogue with Greece, with high-level meetings and joint statements on calming waters and de-escalating tensions, is the best argument to refute the charge by the "punitive" line that Turkey is pursuing an aggressive policy toward its neighbor and ally. Political dialogue gives Erdogan the argument he desperately needs, with no quid pro quo, since there are no preconditions, conditions, or provisions for the desired outcome (e.g., recourse to The Hague for Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf delimitation). So, if Erdogan gets the F-16s through political dialogue, he can make another volte-face by returning to threats, while Greece will be unprepared for allied understanding as "babies in arms."

* Sotiris Roussos is a professor at the University of Peloponnese and head of the Centre for Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, www.cemmis.edu.gr. This analysis was published on 25 September 2023 in the Greek newspaper Avgi.