When: Wednesday, 10 March 2021
This panel discussion on Turkish-Greek relations explored, answered, and raised further questions regarding the escalating tensions between the two NATO allies that have reached an unprecedented height in 2020. It was moderated by Dr Zeynep Kaya and featured the expert opinions and critiques of three distinguished scholars who have researched and covered the matter extensively: Dr Soner Cagaptay, Dr Nicholas Danforth, Dr Ilke Toygur. The talk was divided into three ten-minute sessions that allowed each of the speakers time to present their opinions on the state of the relations between Turkey and Greece today and how the Biden administration is shifting and influencing the roles that each country has in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Dr Soner Cagaptay, the Turkish Research Program director at The Washington Institute, began the talk, speaking from his scholarly research in U.S.-Turkish relations, Turkish domestic politics, and Turkish nationalism. Following praise for CEFTUS’s organization of the meeting, Cagaptay briefly relayed his thoughts on today’s new environment in the Eastern Mediterranean to the audience. Without siding with Greece nor Turkey, Cagaptay presented what the Eastern Mediterranean landscape is like at the moment from both the vantage point of Turkey and that of the United States. Turkey’s foreign and domestic policies that have been manifested in the last ten years amongst the Arab uprisings that we refer to as the Arab Spring, to Cagaptay, has led to Turkey being an isolated and solitary country within the Eastern Mediterranean. Much of this is explained through President Erdogan’s politics related to the Arab Uprising and his support of The Muslim Brotherhood. The Turkish leader has lost a long-time alliance with Israel, experienced a rupturing of ties with Egypt following the country’s military takeover, and has seen a growing instability concerning Syria that can be explained through today’s influx of Syrian refugees in Turkey. From all of this, what has resulted in a dismantling of a security environment in the Eastern Mediterranean where Turkey stands alone and is left out of several talks and negotiations with foreign powers.
The civil war in Libya, according to Cagaptay, is a vital element to this equation of the tense environment in the region at the moment. According to the government in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, a win in the current Libyan civil war equates to freedom and release from the isolation that Turkey’s old and new adversaries have caused in the Eastern Mediterranean. Another part of Turkey’s strategy to break its isolation in this area is to go after what Cagaptay referred to as the “weakest link” of a four-country constellation: Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and Israel, which is Cyprus and to undermine powers around the Mediterranean from alienating Turkey any further. What has resulted is an excellent breeding ground for some controversial policies bred by Turkey. Cagaptay added that Turkey’s encirclement along the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean Sea became more intense because of Greece’s desire for increasingly large economic zones that has caused Turkey to have limited access to the Aegean Sea, and now particularly the Mediterranean.
Cagaptay concluded on this point that Turkey’s historical perception that it is persistently alienated along the seas could only be ended through a win in the civil war in Libya that would lead to Libya becoming Turkey’s maritime neighbour. Cagaptay further broke down this concept by imagining a map of the Eastern Mediterranean that would mean North-West, South-East access that would run from Greece, Cyprus, Egypt to Israel. Turkey desires to sever this chain with its own North-East, South-West access through a new alliance with Libya.
Within all this mayhem in the Eastern Mediterranean, the US’s role is a slow, gradual shifting from Turkey to Greece that is still in the pivoting process that will take a very long time to reach ultimately. In terms of security architecture, the US is confident in Greece but no longer in Turkey due to Turkey’s lack of favorability in Washington today. Cagaptay predicted a delinking by Biden of Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean that would spoil Turkey’s strategy. Biden’s possible solution to the civil war in Libya may, in fact, according to Cagaptay, decrease the number of the Greek-Turkish tensions.
Following Cagaptay’s brief yet concise opinion of the Greek-Turkish relations in the Eastern Mediterranean, Dr Ilke Toygür, an analyst of European Affairs at Elcano Royal Institute and CATS Fellow in German Institute for International and Security Studies (SWP), introduced the EU perspective into the debate of the layered tensions unravelling in the Eastern Mediterranean and followed by opinions on what Biden’s role is in such transatlantic relations, especially relating to Turkey-EU relations. According to Toygür, the clash of interests between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus’ territory is evident and perhaps the most central. Because both Greece and Cyprus are members of the European Union and Turkey is still a candidate for admission, there is an apparent power symmetry. The EU has inevitably gained a significant role in this conflict, as always whenever there are escalating tensions between Turkey and Greece due to a certain level of solidarity.
Following this starting point, Toygür pointed out two crucial objectives that have rendered Turkish-Greek relations directly related to Turkey-EU relations. The first is summarized by Toygür on the management of irregular migration, as can be seen through the influx of Syrian refugees crossing the border into Turkey. The second part of the agenda is the historic rivalry between Turkey and Greece that has only escalated after the recent discovery of hydrocarbon areas in the region. Because of these two issues, Turkey has suffered several repercussions that have directly hindered its relations with the EU and have made relations more transactional, leading to foreign policy’s growing importance. Following an analysis of this first point, Toygür moved to observe that the tensions between the EU and Turkey have affected the foreign policy agenda of both countries in new and interesting ways. Toygür additionally noted the striking similarities of Greece and Turkey: both use the same kinds of arguments to highlight their importance to the EU, such as the historical connections to Western civilization, their geographic location on the map, being a crucial part of Europe, as well as shielding European nations throughout the migration crisis.
To Toygür, the Biden administration’s possible impact means a strengthening of powers and influence from the EU for the soothing of strains in the Eastern Mediterranean. Toygür agreed with Cagaptay in the pivot that has begun with a newfound confidence in Greece towards an amelioration within the Greece-Turkey conflict with relation to Cyprus. Toygür saw the United States as mainly interested in Greece because of the US’s perception that Greece could indeed ultimately replace Turkey as a frontline state in the region. This view has become a dominant belief in the US because Washington is slowly concluding that few chances for reconciliation with Turkey in a way that could make things better. Another reason why the US is eyeing Greece is due to Greece’s close relationship with China. Greece’s general conflicts with the European Union in the past, especially with Germany, has also sparked the US’s interest. The last point that Toygür pointed out on the US’s role in the debate is Biden’s increasing attention to the Mediterranean region, with his understanding that Greece could be the overwhelming deciding factor in the possible stabilization of the area in the future.
The last speaker of the panel discussion was Dr Nicholas Danforth. He is currently a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) and a visiting scholar at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. His research interests have mainly covered U.S.-Turkish relations. Just like the previous two scholars, Danforth began by thanking CEFTUS for the opportunity to join and welcomes questions and further commentary following the discussion. Danforth followed up from Cagaptay’s metaphor of the turn towards Greece by the US as a slow, tanker-like pivot. He traced the Greece-Turkey tensions as far back as 1952 in American Congress. Since then, the US’s role is the mediator of Greek-Turkish tensions, with the blunt goal of dissolving them, that has unravelled with various degrees of effectiveness and ineffectiveness. Following this point, Danforth agreed with Cagaptay and Toygür about changing the US’s current behaviour in the conflict. This, to all three speakers, is the approach that Washington takes. Danforth pointed out that history has demonstrated that the US was more focused on ending tensions by placing pressure on both sides. Now, however, the way the Biden administration has chosen to prevent Greek-Turkish strains from getting worse is through the containment of Turkey, having observed the nation-state’s challenging, if not disturbing behaviour in the past, and therefore supporting a strengthening of other regions.
Furthermore, for Danforth, Greece has played an essential role in the pivot of the US’s support towards the country by outlining how they have facilitated this, such as by Greece’s will to entertain the US’s administrations as well as their encouragement of the US to expand militarily. The regional dynamic that has resulted from this has ultimately led to a coming together of all of America’s partners and allies in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East and posing them against Turkey, therefore cancelling out any possibility of neutrality in these relations. Danforth went on to point out the sort of defence that Turkey has gone on, making promises to facilitate its relationship with its neighbours that Danforth criticized at the level of credibility. Danforth does not, similar to other scholars, expect the peace talks between Turkey and Greece to reach any point of agreement in the foreseeable future.
The event continued with Cagaptay, Toygür, and Danforth’s responses to some of the comments and questions posed by the moderator Kaya, along with the audience, therefore concluding the hour-long panel discussion.
Dr Soner Çağaptay is the Beyer Family fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute. He has written extensively on U.S.-Turkish relations, Turkish domestic politics, and Turkish nationalism, publishing in scholarly journals and major international print media, including the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, Foreign Affairs, and The Atlantic. He has been a regular columnist for Hürriyet Daily News, Turkey’s oldest and most influential English-language paper, and a contributor to CNN’s Global Public Square blog. He appears regularly on Fox News, CNN, NPR, BBC, and CNN-Turk. His latest book, Erdogan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East, was published in September 2019 by I.B. Tauris. His books have been translated into Turkish, Italian, Greek, and Croatian.
A historian by training, Dr. Cagaptay wrote his doctoral dissertation at Yale University (2003) on Turkish nationalism. Dr. Cagaptay has taught courses at Yale, Princeton University, Georgetown University, and Smith College on the Middle East, Mediterranean, and Eastern Europe. His spring 2003 course on modern Turkish history was the first offered by Yale in three decades. From 2006-2007, he was Ertegun Professor at Princeton University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies. Dr. Cagaptay is the recipient of numerous honors, grants, and chairs, among them the Smith-Richardson, Mellon, Rice, and Leylan fellowships, as well as the Ertegun chair at Princeton. He has also served on contract as chair of the Turkey Advanced Area Studies Program at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute. In 2012 he was named an American Turkish Society Young Society Leader.
Dr Nicholas Danforthis author of the forthcoming book The Remaking of Republican Turkey: Memory and Modernity since the Fall of the Ottoman Empire. He is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) and a visiting scholar at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Danforth has previously covered U.S.-Turkish relations for the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Bipartisan Policy Center. He received his M.A. from the School of Oriental and African Studies and his B.A. from Yale. Danforth completed his Ph.D. in history at Georgetown University in 2015 and has written widely about Turkey, U.S. foreign policy, and the Middle East for publications including The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, War on the Rocks, and The Washington Post.
Dr İlke Toygur is Analyst of European Affairs at Elcano Royal Institute and CATS Fellow in German Institute for International and Security Studies (SWP). Her main research areas include European integration, EU institutions, political parties and elections in Western Europe, EU’s foreign policy, transatlantic relations and Turkish politics. After completing her studies in Economics she worked for more than two years in Economic Development Foundation (IKV), a Turkish think-tank focusing on the European Union and Turkey-EU relations. In 2016, she completed her PhD degree in Political Science in the Department of Political Science and International Relations of the Autonomous University of Madrid. Right before completing her PhD, she was granted the prestigious Mercator-IPC Fellowship in Istanbul Policy Center, Sabancı University. Ilke has been a Visiting Researcher in European University Institute (EUI), University of Mannheim, and Brookings Institution. She is a Fellow of Transatlantic Relations Initiative of the IE University and serves as a Board Member of Trans European Policy Studies Association (TEPSA). Ilke is native in Turkish and also speaks fluent English and Spanish.
Dr Zeynep Kaya is a Lecturer in International Development, Department of Social and Policy Studies, University of Bath. Her research looks at the international politics of the Middle East with a focus on Kurdish politics, gender and conflict.
Her book Mapping Kurdistan: Territory, Self-Determination and Nationalism was published in 2020 by the Cambridge University Press and she has also published journal articles, research papers, reports and blogs on Kurdish politics, democracy in Turkey, gender politics in Iraq, Yezidis and displacement in the Middle East.
She is Co-editor of Kurdish Book Series at I.B Tauris, Visiting Fellow at the LSE Middle East Center and Academic Associate at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge.