When traditional Aegean rivals, Turkey and Greece, agreed to launch "exploratory talks" to resolve their disputes, Iraq's president was Saddam Hussein, U.S. President George W. Bush called for a regime change in Iraq, 9/11 was only months in the past, the euro had just become the official currency of 12 of the European Union's members, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the Mars Odyssey had found signs of water ice deposits on Mars.
Ankara and Athens, starting in 2002, held 60 rounds of talks before their exploratory efforts came to a halt in 2016. After a five-year-long pause, the rivals agreed to resume talks on January 25, starting the 61st round. Rounds 61 and onward will probably be the most fragile of all peace talks for a number of reasons.
The talks had a bumpy start. According to Bloomberg, Turkey and Greece disagreed on the scope of January 25 talks. The Turkish government wants to discuss a range of outstanding issues with its fellow NATO member, but Athens has repeatedly said that it will only discuss maritime border delineation. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu accused Greece of raising obstacles to exploratory talks and trying to undermine the process for a thaw between the two countries. "It is not right to say that we are holding exploratory talks by narrowing the subjects to one issue," Çavuşoğlu said at a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Ankara.
That was not a good start. As opposed to Athens' one-issue-only agenda, Ankara wants to bring several issues to the table, such as the continental shelf, airspace, territorial waters, demilitarization of Greek islands and islets, air traffic centers, and exclusive economic zones (EEZ), in addition to the broader territorial disputes around Cyprus.
After a three-hour first meeting in Istanbul, Turkey and Greece agreed to "explore more." The next round of exploratory talks will be held in Athens. In a tweet after the meeting, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalın said: "It is possible to solve all problems, including the Aegean." That looks like premature optimism.
According to Nikos Filis, director of Research Programs of the International Affairs Institute, Ankara's turn to the West is nothing but a tactical move not altogether to disrupt [shaky] relations with the West.
After the EU leaders gave Turkey an unambiguous warning in October, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan chose to escalate tensions, bringing what otherwise would have been mere diplomatic issues to the level of a mini-clash of civilizations. In response, at a summit on December 10-11, EU leaders agreedto impose sanctions on an unspecified number of Turkish officials and entities involved in gas drilling in Cypriot-claimed waters -- but they deferred the bigger decisions such as trade tariffs until they consult with the new U.S. administration of President Joe Biden. At the December summit, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell was tasked to prepare proposals on a broader approach to Turkey by March, giving the EU time to consult with Biden's national security team.
That window gave Erdogan a short, temporary relief. But in March, he will face a less patient EU leadership. Initial signs from Washington are not encouraging for Erdogan either.
Antony Blinken, Biden's choice for secretary of state, on January 20 accused NATO member Turkey of failing to act like an ally. Addressing legislators during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing, Blinken said: "The idea that a strategic — so-called strategic — partner of ours would actually be in line with one of our biggest strategic competitors in Russia is not acceptable." Blinken also said Washington would consider whether further sanctions on Turkey would be implemented over its controversial purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system.
"The EU and the United States should sanction the Turkish individuals most involved in dismantling the rule of law and interfering with the domestic politics of Western countries. This would be consistent with Turkey's commitments under the NATO and Council of Europe charters," wrote co-authors Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and Francesco Siccardi, a senior program manager at Carnegie Europe.
Turkey's efforts to augment its navy do not promise quieter waters in 2021 than the Aegean and Mediterranean seas were in most of 2020.
At a high-profile ceremony on January 23, Turkey launched its first locally-built frigate, the I-class TCG Istanbul. The TCG Istanbul will enter the Turkish Navy's inventory in 2023. It is the first of four frigates planned under the MILGEM program that will finally involve four corvettes and four frigates, all built indigenously. Speaking at the ceremony, Erdoğan said that Turkey had to keep its military deterrence at a maximum. "To be militarily, economically and diplomatically strong is not a choice for us, it is a must," he said.
Meanwhile, several other major naval programs are scheduled to reach critical milestones in 2021. For instance, Turkey's first indigenous Landing Helicopter Dock, the TCG Anadolu, the intelligence ship Ufuk and replenishment tanker Güngör Durmuş will be commissioned in 2021. The TCG Anadolu, an amphibious assault ship and a $1 billion naval ambition, is being built in Turkey under license from Spanish shipyards Navantia. In 2021, Turkey is also planning to launch Reis-class submarines, the Piri Reis, a Type-214TN platform that will be Turkey's first air-independent propulsion capable submarine.
"Turkey has adopted a strongly militaristic approach, making efforts toward conflict resolution increasingly unlikely," wrote Dimitris Tsarouhas, a professor of international relations, a Scientific Council member of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies in Brussels, and a World Bank consultant.
Now at their 61st round, there is good reason to believe that the Turks and Greeks will have to hold several dozen more exploratory talks before sustainable peace across the Aegean becomes a genuine possibility.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.