It was the Greeks’ first military clash with their onetime colonial overlords, the Turks, since they had secured their independence from the Ottoman Empire half a century earlier.
For thirty days in 1897, the eastern Mediterranean rivals skirmished over the status of Crete, whose Greek majority population also wanted independence. The conflict came to be known as “the unfortunate war,” and drew in alarmed great Western powers, threatening a much wider conflict in a part of the world where nationalist aspirations, historical grievances and great-power rivalry sparked 17 years later the First World War.
Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, the Russians as well as the British sent warships to Crete in a bid to maintain peace. Although largely sympathetic to the Greeks — with the exception of the Germans — they warned the ill-prepared Greeks not to engage in hostilities. Their warnings fell on deaf ears — the Greeks got a drubbing.
Fast forward to now and replace Crete with Cyprus.
The Greeks and Turks are again locked in a quarrel about the territorial status of Mediterranean real estate and waters — and more importantly the oil and gas reserves beneath them. The energy potential of the eastern Mediterranean has raised the stakes. Neighboring powers in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East are being drawn into a standoff as the risks rise of open conflict between NATO allies.
If Ankara and Athens do clash, it could go down in history as a “most unfortunate war,” worry analysts. “Don’t rule out a conflagration in the Eastern Mediterranean, if only by accident,” warns Marc Pierini, an analyst at the think tank Carnegie Europe.
In 1897, the great powers were able to contain the fallout. A half-baked, face-saving solution was found: Crete got autonomy but under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire, with the Turks controlling the island’s foreign relations, and Prince George of Greece became the island’s high commissioner. In 1913 Greece formally annexed the island.
The Western powers are hoping they can hit on another short-term solution to stave off a clash and, as in 1897, have been dispatching warships as a warning to Istanbul, which they blame for fueling the increasingly risky maritime dispute. The US has sent a warship, too. The vessel, the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams, is an expeditionary sea base that the U.S. Navy says is in the Mediterranean on a previously scheduled mission primarily to support U.S. Africa Command operations, but is available if necessary.
US President Donald Trump has been on the phone to Greek and Turkish leaders. France has joined military exercises with Italy, Greece and Cyprus, which was divided in 1974 following a Turkish invasion triggered by a Greek-inspired coup.
The European Union is preparing to sanction Turkey. “We are clear and determined in defending European Union’s interests and solidarity with Greece and Cyprus,” said EU foreign policy Chief Josep Borell Friday. “We must walk a fine line between preserving a true space for dialogue and, at the same time, showing collective strength,” he added.
Neither Athens nor Ankara, though, shows any sign of backing down in a quarrel over drilling rights. Greece and the Western Europeans say maritime law is on the side of Athens and they accuse Turkey of brinkmanship and bullying. Both Greece and Turkey have cancelled military leave and mobilized their navies and air forces.
Turkey Monday accused Greece of “piracy” and warned it will stand up to Athens' alleged efforts to militarize islands near its coast. The Greeks denied claims that they are deploying troops on the island of Kastellorizo in violation of treaties. The island is just two kilometers from the Turkish coast. The spokesman of Turkey’s ruling party, Omer Celik, said, “Pointing guns toward Turkey's coasts is foolishness.”
Last week, Greece’s parliament ratified a maritime accord with Egypt, just hours after Turkey announced it was extending the work of a seismic survey vessel in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Turks will this week hold live-firing exercises off the north-east coast of Cyprus.
The Athens-Cairo agreement is seen as a response to a Turkish-Libyan deal signed in 2019 over the large underwater hydrocarbon deposits. Under their treaty, Egypt and Greece will seek maximum benefit from the natural resources available in an exclusive maritime zone. A similar agreement has been struck between Italy and Greece.
The dispute over Turkey’s maritime boundaries with Greece and Cyprus and drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean comes on top of other highly contentious disputes between Turkey and its NATO allies, including over Syrian refugees, Turkish military incursions in northern Syria and Libya, as well as over Turkey’s purchase of Russian ground-to-air missiles.
Last month, sailors on Turkish warships were called to battle stations when a French frigate tried to intercept a vessel suspected of transporting arms to Libya to Turkey’s allies in Libya. Suddenly the region appears to have been thrown back to the nineteenth century with geopolitical rivals determinedly thwarting each other and their proxies
While diversification from current energy dependence on Russian and Iranian gas would be beneficial to Turkey, analysts say the exploitation of the gas fields is not the primary driver behind Turkey’s agitation. “In fueling the current disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean, the leadership is using a narrative revolving around themes such as conquest —referring to the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, today’s Istanbul—battles and wars, a huge [and undefined] foreign conspiracy, and a return to glory,” according to Pierini, the analyst at Carnegie Europe.
He says the “domestic political objective is clear enough: making the leadership appear as an indispensable anchor of stability in a country besieged by hostile forces.” Some commentators hazard that Turkey’s hardline stance is a prelude to real negotiations.
Playing with fire
EU officials are banking on that, too. But a visit last week by German foreign minister Heiko Maas to Ankara — he also dropped by Athens —proved unproductive. Germany has called for naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean to stop. “For sure the parties will not sit down at the table when warships are facing each other in the eastern Mediterranean.” Maas added that the current situation in the eastern Mediterranean was akin to “playing with fire” where “every little spark can lead to catastrophe”.
Some question whether the mix of diplomacy and strong military signals will be enough to persuade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who last week warned Athens that if it “wants to pay the price, let it come and face us.” He added: “Turkey will take what is its right in the Mediterranean, in the Aegean and in the Black Sea.”
Pierini worries a “compromise solution on maritime boundaries would look like a defeat for the Turkish government after the extreme rhetoric used in recent weeks.”
Lessons of history
From the Crimean War, made infamous by the hubristic Charge of the Light Brigade and other dreadful British military blunders and blessed by the nursing of Florence Nightingale, to the shot in Sarajevo that felled Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, conflict in the eastern Mediterranean has had a nasty habit of setting in train shattering events that have reordered the map of Europe and the Middle East, rearranged alliances and reshaped countries.
There have been huge human costs. The Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922, fought during the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I, concluded with massacres and the forcible mass exchange of populations that saw the expulsions of Orthodox Christians from Turkey to Greece and of Muslims from Greece to Turkey. More than two million people were involved in what became known as the “the great uprooting” with refugees crossing back and forth across the Aegean Sea, which in recent years has been passaged by Syrians and Iraqis fleeing the serial conflicts and crises of the nearby Levant.