Turkey's military provocations in the eastern Mediterranean have the potential to augment the political bond between Greece and its Western allies as well as force the EU to shift from threatening to sanction Turkey to actually sanctioning Turkey. ...
Erdoğan has ideological, diplomatic, and pragmatic reasons to escalate. Ideologically, his dogmatic Islamism is inherently anti-Western. He loves to portray any dispute through the lens of an unsophisticated parochialism that can be summed up in the phrase "We are good Muslims who oppose the infidels." He will try to keep tensions high enough to show a heroic front to his Islamist/nationalist party fans, but not so high as to spark EU sanctions at a time when Turkey's economy is sputtering. On the pragmatic level, Erdoğan knows any foreign confrontation will boost his approval rating at home.
Ankara has ways to further antagonize Greece, including weaponizing the Turkish Straits.
The 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Turkish Straits established the Bosporus as an international shipping lane, but gave Turkey the right to restrict ships from non-Black Sea nations. About 3 million barrels of crude and 20 million tons of petroleum products cross the Bosporus every year, and these numbers will likely increase in the near future. More than 40,000 vessels passed through these waters in 2019 while transporting almost 650 million tons of cargo. This level of traffic reaffirmed the Turkish Straits as one of the most important maritime trade corridors in the world.
The Turkish Straits are one of the most important maritime trade corridors in the world.
In 2019, Greek-owned ships represented nearly 21% of the global merchant fleet's capacity and 53% of the EU's, with 4,936 ships over 1,000 gross tons and a total capacity of 389.7 million deadweight tons. Greek-owned ships account for 32% of total tanker capacity, 23% of dry-goods ships, and 15% of chemicals and petroleum products capacity. In 2018, shipping money into the Greek economy was 16.6 billion euros. These numbers make Greek shipowners the largest group by nationality. It would thus be a serious blow to the Greek economy if Turkey were to restrict Greek shipping traffic through the Turkish Straits.
"Turkey has a right to close its straits to shipping traffic citing security threats in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas," said Lt. Col. (r.) Mithat Işık. "Turkey can consider closing the Straits if [tensions with Greece] continue like this." He cited Article 20 of the Montreux Convention: "In time of war, Turkey being belligerent, the provisions of Articles 10 to 18 shall not be applicable; the passage of warships shall be left entirely to the discretion of the Turkish Government."
According to retired admiral Cihat Yaycı, "If the EU imposes sanctions on Turkey, Ankara can force all commercial shipping traffic into day time, declare guide boats obligatory, determine shipping routes ... Turkey can slow down the passage of Greek and Greek Cypriot ships ... it can even close the Straits."
Is this true? Not really. Turkey can use articles of the Montreux Convention as a pretext to re-regulate shipping traffic through the Turkish Straits only during wartime.
Erdoğan wants enough tension to keep Turks united behind him, but without provoking Western retaliation.
"Like all multinational conventions the principle of bona fide applies to the Montreux Convention. Signatories are expected to act in good faith when they interpret and implement the convention," said one senior Turkish diplomat. "It won't bring any good to Turkey if Ankara went for restrictions on shipping traffic just because 'these days we dislike our Aegean neighbors.'"
That sums it up. It seems Turkey will try to sustain an optimal level of tension over the Aegean: hot enough to keep Turks united behind their leader, but not so hot as to provoke heavy-handed Western retaliation.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.