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F - 120 : Two Hostile NATO Members

Sailling along the Greek – Turkish border is an experience of an extra kind. You can feel the hostility between the two countries - even though both are NATO members and signed up to defend each other. Article 5 of the NATO charter clearly obliges them. Wonder how these two countries ended up in this “partnership”.

One of the first Meetings of the NATO Council in 1950


NATO has its root in the 1947 French – English Defense Alliance in the event of an attack by the Soviet Union. A year later, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg joined. When US President Truman declared in 1947 that the expansion of the Soviet Union had to be halted (Truman Doctrine), the door opened for a Trans – Atlantic Defense Alliance. Stalin’s attempt to blockade Berlin into surrender in 1948 accelerated the formation of a wide alliance. By 1949, the United States, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Iceland and Portugal had signed up as well. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was born. The outbreak of the Korean war in June 1950 lead to the formation of a permanent military NATO structure. By summer 1951, NATO had a Supreme Headquarter Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE).


Red = Areas under Communist DSA Control


Both Turkey and Greece were highly interested in joining NATO. Both for different motives though. Greece was still in the middle of its civil war with the communist Democratic Army of Greece (DSA) dominating the countryside (see my blog on Greece’s civil war). Turkey felt threatened by territorial claims the Soviet Union put forward at the Potsdam Conference in 1945. The latter is worth having a closer look.


Since 1936, the Montreux Convention regulates the use of the Bosporus. It gave Turkey full control over the straights but stipulated that it had to close them for warships of nations at war. We have seen this a few weeks ago when Turkey notified Russia that its naval vessels could not pass any longer unless they were on their way home. A few Russian warships from the Baltic Fleet were denied passage and had to return.


The Soviet Union never liked the Montreux Convention but accepted its restrictions at a time when it had few friends. By 1945 the strategic situation had changed. Nazi Germany was defeated, the Soviet Union was now the dominant land power in Europe. The Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov did not only ask for lifting all naval restrictions in the Bosporus but also wanted Turkey to return the territories it had gained in the First World War. The Soviet Republics of Armenia and Georgia asked for even bigger territorial concessions.

US President Harry Truman signing the NATO Treaty


Had it not been for America, the Turkish government may have been forced to accept the Soviet Union’s ultimatum. But US President Harry Truman understood the strategic value of the Kars Plateau in eastern Turkey and the Bosporus restrictions. He would have none of it. Soon after the NATO treaty was signed, negotiations with Turkey started. Turkey did not only ask for help. It also showed commitment. It sent 4 Infantry Brigades with over 21’000 men to Korea to help the United Nations. They fought valiantly. By summer 1952, Turkey and Greece both signed the North Atlantic Treaty and became members in early 1953.

NATO Development from 1949 to today - Greece and Turkey joined in 1952


Greece applied for different reasons. The country could not have won the civil war without military and financial assistance from the United Kingdom and the United States. Both the US and the UK thus wanted Greece being part of NATO to secure NaATO's southern flank and to keep its communist northern neighbours (Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Albania) at bay. By accepting both countries simultaneously, the NATO countries also hoped that the treaty membership would calm down the simmering tensions between Greece and Turkey. The tragedy of the “population exchange” was only 25 years in the past and not forgotten.

English Royal Marines patrolling Nicosia, the Capital of Cyprus


It was not supposed to be. In 1955, the Nationalist Organization of Cypriot Fighters (EOKA), a nationalist underground movement in Cyprus, launched their insurgency against the British Colonial Powers. The EOKA’s declared aim was to merge Cyprus with Greece, despite the significant Turkish minority living on the island. Of course, Turkey objected. Pogroms against the Greek minority living in Turkey followed (see my blog on cosmopolitan Istanbul). Whilst the British Authorities succeeded in suppressing the EOKA, it became clear that merging Cyprus with Greece would be a casus belli for Turkey. With the London-Zurich Agreement from 1959, the Republic of Cyprus, a non-partitioned independent state was formed. Nobody was happy but a compromise was found.


Makarios III, Arch-Bishop and President of Cyprus (1960 - 1977)


The relationship between Greece and Turkey never normalized after 1959. Both looked at each other with suspicion. Kept in NATO to counter the Soviet threat, they had not much else in common. The 1973 crises made it even worse. The EOKA deposed the Cypriot president Makarios. Within weeks, the Turkey Army occupied the northern half of Cyprus. The Greek Junta mobilized the Army.

Turkey invaded Cyprus with 2 Mechanised Divisions and conquered the north within weeks


Had it not been for NATO, the two countries would have gone to war. I was actually on a camping place in Thessaloniki in 1973 where air defense missiles were installed. All trains were suspended. Military Police manned road blocks. Thanks to the BBC World Service we had at least an idea of what was going on. Most Greeks were in the dark. They listened anxiously with us to the news on our small Sony transistor radio. Going to war over Cyprus was deeply unpopular. After a week of frenetic negotiations, the Greece’s military Junta was kicked out. Peace was restored.

The unresolved Status of Cyprus is one major Obstacle in the EU - Turkey Relationship


But trust still has to return. It is visible in the dispute over the gas and oil fields recently discovered. Each party claims overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones in the Mediterranean. The language of their arguments is often foul and full of threats.


The overlapping EEZ Claims of Turkey and Greece


Neither Greece nor Turkey signed the NATO treaty to defend freedom or democracy. They did so to protect their territorial integrity. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, the old quarrels resumed.

That such Tables are even compiled is worrisome by itself


The war in the Ukraine brought them together again. Neither wants the old Soviet Union back. It was too powerful a neighbor. But if Putin loses in the Ukraine, the squabbles will re-emerge. The key reason to stay within NATO was its nuclear umbrella and the sophisticated weapons it can provide. I would call Turkey’s and Greece’s NATO membership tactical. If circumstance change, one or both may leave. We got a pre-taste with the dispute surrounding the US F-35 fighters for Turkey which were eventually denied.

The beautiful Aegean deserves Peace - it is time that Greece and Turkey start to put their Nationalist Ambitions aside and start to cooperate



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