No to a Greek-Turkish war in the eastern Mediterranean!

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No to a Greek-Turkish war in the eastern Mediterranean!

International Committee of the Fourth International
12 September 2020

Amid the escalation of threats and naval maneuvers between Turkey and Greece, Europe and the Middle East are teetering on the brink of war. This summer, Greek ships repeatedly collided with or threatened to exchange fire with Turkish vessels, their ostensible NATO allies, amid conflicts over maritime borders and access to undersea gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as the outcome of the decade-long war in Libya. The sharpest warnings must be made. Were fighting to break out in the Mediterranean, it would threaten to escalate into a global conflict.

The risks are admitted openly by leading officials. Last month, before traveling to Athens and Ankara, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas declared, “The tension is not just affecting the relationship between the EU and Turkey. A further escalation can damage all sides.” In Athens, he added, “The current situation in the eastern Mediterranean is equivalent to playing with fire. Every little spark can lead to catastrophe.”

Air force jets participate in a joined training drill with armed forces from Greece and the United Arab Emirates near the Greek island of Crete, September 4, 2020 [Credit: Greek Defense Ministry via AP]

A century ago, conflicts in the Balkans triggered by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 sparked the eruption of World War I in Europe, on August 4. Today, the imperialist powers are no more capable of halting the drive to a global conflagration than were their 20th century ancestors.

The revival of century-old Greek-Turkish territorial disputes is inseparably bound up with the collapse of US world hegemony, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the breakdown of the NATO alliance between America and Europe. It is, in particular, the fruit of the bloody wars NATO launched in Libya and Syria in 2011, in response to revolutionary uprisings of the working class in Egypt and Tunisia. The resulting scramble for profits and strategic advantage is tearing NATO and the region apart.

In 2013, in the initial stages of the Syrian war, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank described the maze of conflicts over eastern Mediterranean oil and gas reserves:

The oil and gas resources of the Eastern Mediterranean sit, however, at the heart of one of the most geopolitically complex regions of the world. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, tensions between Israel and Lebanon, the frozen conflict on Cyprus, and difficult relations among Turkey, the Republic of Cyprus, and Greece all complicate efforts to develop and sell energy from the Eastern Mediterranean. The Syrian civil war has injected a new source of economic and geopolitical uncertainty, and standing in the background is Russia, which is seeking to enter the Eastern Mediterranean energy bonanza, and to maintain its position as the major supplier of oil and gas for European markets.

These conflicts are far more explosive today even than in 2013. Athens feels emboldened to confront Ankara, even though Turkey has eight times Greece’s population and a larger army, by French support. Paris is furious at Turkish support for the Islamist Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya against France’s Libyan proxy, the Libyan National Army (LNA) of warlord Khalifa Haftar. It sees Turkey’s policy as an intolerable threat to its interests in its former African colonial empire. It has sought to weld Haftar’s other backers, especially Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), into a regional alliance with Greece against Turkey. Syria’s territorial stake in the eastern Mediterranean also inevitably involves its allies, Russia and Iran.

The debacle of the Middle East wars led by America over the 30 years, since the Stalinist dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 eliminated the main military-political counterweight to NATO, is rapidly leading towards a new global war. France’s policy against Turkey reflects the European Union (EU) powers’ oft-stated determination to formulate an independent foreign policy from Washington. This involves an assertion of European imperialist interests against Washington, which has imposed trade war tariffs and sanctions on trade with Iran targeting Europe.

Washington is undoubtedly also preparing new wars, though it has remained largely silent on the Greek-Turkish conflict amid growing social protests and strikes at home over police brutality and the pandemic, and explosive tensions in the presidential election. There can be no doubt, however, that Washington is monitoring EU policy in the Mediterranean and planning its own wars.

Last year, on June 20, Trump aborted large scale airstrikes on Iran only 10 minutes before they were to be launched. In a speech four months later, US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt stressed the global significance of the eastern Mediterranean. He declared: “In an era of renewed great power competition and the largest hydrocarbon discoveries of the past decade, this global crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa has returned to the forefront of American strategic thinking. After years of taking the Eastern Mediterranean for granted, the United States has stepped back to take a considered, whole-of-government look at how we advance US interests…”

History shows such conflicts cannot be peacefully resolved under capitalism, whether or not a temporary Greek-Turkish peace deal is somehow reached. The collapse of US hegemony and the shifting of the center of gravity of global industry to the east, towards countries like Turkey or China, brings to unprecedented intensity the contradictions of capitalism that the great Marxists of the 20th century identified as the causes of the outbreak of world war in 1914: between world economy and the nation-state system, and socialized production and private ownership of the means of production. The conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean is a warning of the advanced state of the imperialist drive to a new world war.

The dangers must not be underestimated. There is no enthusiasm among workers in Greece, Turkey, France or other EU countries for a war, let alone one that could escalate into a global conflict. There is explosive opposition to war in the American working class and growing support for socialism. As capitalist governments around the world face growing social opposition and intractable international economic and geopolitical contradictions for which they have no solutions, the danger that they could launch such a war, and escalate it into a catastrophic global conflict, is very real.

The last two years have also witnessed, however, a historic global eruption of class struggle. Strikes and protests erupted among US teachers and auto workers, with worldwide protests against police violence in America, and movements across Europe with the Polish national teachers strike, the Portuguese nurses strike and the French “yellow vests.” Anti-government protests erupted across Latin America, in India and particularly in countries surrounding the Mediterranean, with protests in Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan and Algeria. Back-to-work and back-to-school orders imposed as part of a brutal “herd immunity” strategy amid the pandemic sharpen class tensions in every country.

What stopped World War I after it erupted in the Balkans a century ago was the taking of power by the Russian working class, led by Bolshevik Party of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky in the October 1917 revolution, and the formation of the Communist International to lead the working class in a revolutionary struggle against capitalism and imperialist war. The defenders of this strategic perspective today are the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), the world Trotskyist movement. Only an independent, international political mobilization of the working class against capitalism, to take state power and build socialism can halt the drive to war.

Against war, the turn is to the developing movement in the international working class, and the struggle to arm it with Marxist consciousness of the necessity to build an international anti-war and anti-imperialist movement in the working class.

Historical and political roots of the Greek-Turkish drilling rights dispute

The conflicts between Greece and Turkey over maritime borders and resources are rooted in unresolved problems of the 20th century. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne established land borders between Greece and Turkey. This event and the subsequent conflicts in the region underscore the invariably reactionary character of attempts to divide up the Balkans and the Middle East along arbitrary national-state borders dictated by imperialism.

The 1919–1922 Turkish war of independence, fought by the Turkish National Movement of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, defeated attempts by British and French imperialism to divide up the Anatolian territory of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat alongside Germany and Austria in World War I. In the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement—exposed before the world by the Soviet government in November 1917—London and Paris had agreed to carve out and create Iraq and Syria. They then attacked the present-day territory of Turkey, joined by Greece in 1919, to divide up the remains of the empire.

Against the imperialist-led colonial occupation in Turkey, the Soviet Russia correctly supported the Turkish national resistance, which had strong support among workers and peasants, providing weapons and support to the Ankara government. Urgent military necessity also dictated Soviet policy: London and Paris, together with Berlin, Prague, Tokyo and Washington had all invaded the Soviet Union, supporting the counterrevolutionary Whites in the Russian Civil War, in an attempt to crush the nascent workers state and restore a neo-colonial, anti-Semitic White regime in Russia. The Greek communists fought to mobilize opposition to the Greek occupation of portions of Anatolia among Greek soldiers.

This did not imply, however, that workers should support either the Turkish bourgeois state, which sought to exterminate the Turkish communists and trampled the cultural and political rights of Kurdish people, or the borders it agreed with imperialism. Enforcing these borders entailed horrific forced deportations of 1.6 million people in 1923, in an attempt to establish ethnically-pure Greek and Turkish states. Before its Stalinist degeneration, the Soviet government still based its policy on the perspective of an international socialist revolution that would lay the ground for the withering away of national borders inside a world socialist federation.

The Turkish-Greek maritime borders were never settled, however, even after both countries joined the US-led, anti-Soviet NATO alliance after World War II. Greece retained islands dotted across the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, often a few miles off the Turkish coast, making the tracing of a sea boundary contentious and impossible in practice.

A lasting dispute also emerged over Cyprus, the island strategically located off the coasts of Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria. Conflict exploded in 1974, when a coup by the CIA-backed Greek junta of the colonels put in power a far-right Greek Cypriot politician, Nikos Sampson, infamous for his attacks on Turkish Cypriots. The Turkish army invaded Cyprus, leading to the lasting division of the island and to the downfall of the Greek junta. Washington and the EU powers backed the Greek junta, however, and do not recognize the Turkish Cypriot enclave.

What sparked today’s military tensions between Greece and Turkey in the Mediterranean are international conflicts bound up with the bloody NATO wars in Libya and Syria. Facing revolutionary uprisings of the working class in January and February 2011 that toppled Tunisian President Zine El Abedine Bin Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, France, Britain and the United States launched an Islamist proxy war in Libya against the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after briefly protesting against the wars, turned to support them.

These wars had far-reaching and unintended consequences. Arming Islamist and tribal militias in Libya and bombing the country to provide air support, the NATO powers destroyed the Libyan government in six months. As Libya dissolved into civil war between rival militias, many Islamist fighters also went to fight for regime change in Syria, mainly via Turkey. Despite billions of dollars in support from the CIA and the Persian Gulf oil sheikdoms, however, these small, unpopular Sunni Islamist militias could not topple the larger, better-armed Syrian regime. By 2015, after the intervention of first Iranian and then Russian forces to back the Syrian regime, NATO’s Islamist proxies were facing defeat.

The shift by Washington, Paris and other NATO powers to using Kurdish militias as proxies in Syria ultimately led to a breakdown in Turkey’s relations with the imperialist powers. Ankara, in line with its traditional hostility to Kurdish nationalist sentiment inside Turkey, increasingly opposed US and European policy in Syria. After shooting down a Russian jet over Syria in November 2015, nearly provoking a war, it then sought better relations with Moscow. Washington and Berlin retaliated with a July 2016 coup attempt to murder Erdoğan; it failed, however, leaving Erdoğan in power and disillusioned with his nominal NATO allies.

NATO’s reliance on Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood (MB) forces after the Egyptian revolution also led to bitter conflicts across the region. Amid mass protests by the working class in Egypt, the military regime re-established itself via a 2013 coup led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi against Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, and a massacre of MB supporters. Like the Persian Gulf oil sheikdoms of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who do not tolerate the MB or any dissident Islamic group inside their borders, the Egyptian junta was deeply hostile to the Libyan Islamist GNA. Their hostility extends to the Islamist AKP in Turkey, which is an ally of the MB and denounced the al-Sisi regime in Egypt.

The imperialist powers pursued the Libyan war not only eastward to Syria, but also southwards into sub-Saharan Africa. Rampaging across its former colonial empire, French imperialism intervened in Ivory Coast to topple President Laurent Gbagbo, deployed troops to the Central African Republic, and launched in 2013 a war in Mali against Islamist militias in the north of the country. On this basis—and to prosecute the interests of its oil company, Total, against the Libyan GNA and the rival Italian energy corporation ENI—Paris also backed Haftar in Libya.

In this explosive international context, the final stages of negotiations of an Israel-Cyprus-Greece EastMed pipeline to transport gas to Europe via Greece and Italy last year provoked a bitter reaction from Turkey. In August, Erdoğan publicized a “blue homeland” map claiming large portions of the Aegean Sea. In November, after a bilateral maritime and military agreement with the Libyan GNA, Turkey claimed joint exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean and, in December, began these explorations. Athens responded by expelling the GNA’s ambassador to Greece, and France and Italy announced they would send warships to Cyprus and the Greek island of Crete to defend them against Turkey.

The signing of the Israel-Cyprus-Greece pipeline deal on January 2 led to a new escalation of conflict across the region. Turkey retaliated by announcing it would deploy troops to support the GNA against Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli. This drew condemnation from the French and Egyptian governments. On the sidelines of the Berlin conference on Libya that month, which voted for an EU military mission to Libya, France and Greece announced a formal military alliance.

In April, Turkish forces in Libya intervened to crush the LNA’s advance on Tripoli and forced them to abandon much of the west of Libya, and in May Turkey announced plans to drill for oil directly off the Greek islands of Crete, Karpathos and Rhodes.

The situation escalated rapidly this summer. In June, when the French frigate Courbet tried to stop Turkish ships carrying cargo to Libya, Turkish warships briefly illuminated it with their targeting radar, indicating they were ready to open fire. The Egyptian junta then declared it was preparing plans for a full-scale invasion of Libya, which were adopted in July. In early July, unidentified warplanes rumored to be French or UAE Rafale fighters bombed the Watiya airbase in Libya, destroying key radars and wounding Turkish intelligence officials.

Greece also began negotiating Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) deals on maritime borders with Italy and Egypt, a prelude to Athens demanding such talks with Ankara. Turkish officials have however rejected such talks, as the UN Convention on Laws of the Sea, which Turkey does not recognize, would allow Greece to demand a 12-mile zone around each of its islands studded across the Aegean. This would turn virtually the entire Aegean into Greek territorial waters, letting Athens blockade trade bound for Istanbul and Turkey’s major northern cities.

After Turkey’s July 21 announcement that it would dispatch the Oruç Reis exploration vessel escorted by 12 warships to waters off the Greek island of Kastellorizo, Athens placed the Greek military on full alert. Fake text messages in Greece purporting to be from the Defense Ministry and calling on the population to “mobilize” for a “military incident” caused panic. Ultimately, a clash was reportedly only averted by a call to Ankara from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, after which the Turkish ships turned away from the disputed area.

In August, as Greek and Turkish warships stepped up patrols—in one case, a Greek ship opened fire on a Turkish boat, wounding three people—Paris stepped up its campaign. It held joint naval exercises with Egypt and then with Greece; France and the UAE also both sent fighter jets to Greece. French President Emmanuel Macron announced he would draw “red lines” against Turkey, threatening it with war. Now, at the urging of Paris, the EU has agreed to prepare economic sanctions to try to strangle Turkey.

The working class cannot support any of the capitalist governments leading this dangerous escalation.

Paris, while it drapes its policy in rhetoric on international law, is defending its imperialist interests and its oil profits in its former colonial sphere. It continues the leading role Paris played in pushing for war in Libya, which ended in the devastation of the country and the building of EU detention camps where human rights groups have documented that refugees are enslaved, raped and murdered. These events, and not the speeches of Macron, a former investment banker, reveal the political content of imperialist rhetoric on law and human rights.

A key force driving Macron’s policy is fear and anger at the ongoing international resurgence of the class struggle—a fear now intensified by mounting working class anger over the pandemic. Having brutally cracked down on protests at home, like the “yellow vest” movement and this year’s transit strike, Macron is also violently hostile to the movement developing among workers in former French colonies oppressed by imperialism.

The past year saw million-strong anti-government protests in Lebanon and Algeria, mass protests against Gbagbo’s ouster in Ivory Coast, and strikes and protests in Mali against the French war. Erdoğan’s verbal criticisms of Paris for its imperialist arrogance infuriate French officials. Macron, who on his visit to Lebanon last month after the port explosion spoke with those he met about the country’s former French colonial overlord, General Henri Gouraud, is determined to legitimize French colonialism and continue the imperialist plunder of Africa and the Middle East.

The right-wing government of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was elected by default, last year, as voters threw out the Syriza (“Coalition of the Radical Left”) government. Syriza, a middle class party based on a fusion of Stalinism and identity politics, had carried out a stunning political betrayal: elected based on promises to end EU austerity, it trampled repeated votes by the Greek public against austerity. It imposed the largest single package of social cuts in Greek history, while building a network of squalid EU detention camps for refugees.

To outflank Syriza’s right-wing record on its right while continuing its austerity policy, Mitsotakis has relied on police-state policies, anti-immigrant measures, and anti-Turkish nationalism. Greek security forces worked with fascist Golden Dawn members to beat and shoot Middle East refugees crossing the Greek-Turkish border. Mitsotakis has included many well-known sympathizers of the Greek junta, including Development Minister Adonis Georgiadis and Agriculture Minister Makis Voridis, into his cabinet. From this inevitably flows a militarist, anti-Turkish policy.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is seeking with its aggressive drilling policy to assert the interests of the Turkish bourgeoisie, which depends on imported oil and gas, and counteract its collapse in the polls. Workers anger is mounting over the brutal back-to-work policy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, falling purchasing power and continuing wars in the Middle East. Within certain limits, Erdoğan welcomes EU criticisms, which let him pose as an anti-imperialist, stoke Turkish nationalism and try to smother rising class conflict in Turkey.

The Erdoğan government’s record confirms Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution: in countries of belated capitalist development, the bourgeoisie is incapable of establishing democratic rights or opposing imperialism. A reactionary bourgeois regime maneuvering between various great powers, the Erdoğan government’s policies have led only to disaster. It has adapted to the imperialist wars in Libya and Syria while continuing the oppression of the Kurdish people inside Turkey and adopting a murderous “herd immunity” strategy on COVID-19. The struggle against war and to defend the lives, livelihood and democratic rights of workers and oppressed sections of the middle class depends on the international unification of the struggles of the working class, drawing behind them the other oppressed classes, in a revolutionary struggle for socialism.

The unraveling of American imperialism’s world hegemony

The war danger in the eastern Mediterranean vindicates the warnings and analyses the ICFI has made over a period of decades. The ICFI long emphasized that the insoluble geopolitical contradictions of capitalist society in the era of globalization would again pose before billions of workers the alternative of world war or world socialist revolution. The Stalinist dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 had vindicated Trotsky’s warnings of the counterrevolutionary nature of Stalin’s nationalist theory of “socialism in one country.” It did not, however, resolve the contradictions of capitalism that had led to the outbreak of World War I and the Russian revolution, or put an end to the era of world socialist revolution opened in October 1917.

Analyzing the 1999 NATO war in Serbia and ongoing bombing of Iraq, WSWS Editorial Board chairman David North pointed to the significance of the explosive geopolitical conflicts unleashed by the Stalinist restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He wrote:

Just as the development of imperialism witnessed the efforts of the major powers to parcel out the world at the end of the last century, so the dismantling of the USSR has created a power vacuum in Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia that makes a new division of the world inevitable. The principal significance of Yugoslavia, at this critical juncture, is that it lies on the Western periphery of a massive swathe of territory into which the major world powers aim to expand. It is impossible for the US, Germany, Japan, France, Britain, and the other powers to simply look passively at the opening of this area. A struggle is unfolding for access to the region and control over its raw materials, labor and markets that will far outstrip the last century’s ‘scramble for Africa.’

Warning of “a series of wars to come,” North noted that “the potential for a conflict with Russia has actually increased,” and the impact of the disappearance of the Soviet Union as the common enemy uniting US and European imperialism: “The European bourgeoisie will not be content to forever accept a subordinate station to the US. Its position would be continually eroded as the US sought to press its advantage.”

North also drew attention to the implications of the Stalinist restoration of capitalism in China, and China’s industrial growth based on access to world markets and modern technology: “Open conflict between the US and China is inevitable. A historically oppressed country and not an imperialist power, China is well on its way to the restoration of capitalism: it aspires to be a major regional economic power. Such a development, as the present anti-Chinese hysteria in US newspapers reveals, is vehemently opposed by a substantial sections of the American ruling elite.”

The complex entanglement of wars and conflicts around the eastern Mediterranean dispute reflects the extremely advanced state of the crisis analyzed by the ICFI two decades ago. US imperialism’s attempt to counteract its economic and social decline by using military force—in a broad arc running from the Balkans and North Africa across the Middle East to Central Asia—has failed.

The imperialist wars launched in in Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), Libya and Syria (2011) ended in debacle. Fought for world domination but marketed to the public with lies—as a war on Islamist terror, a hunt for nonexistent “Iraqi weapons of mass destruction,” and as support for a democratic revolution in the Middle East—they have discredited the political establishment. Tens of millions of people participated in worldwide protests against the Iraq war in 2002-2003. These wars have since caused millions of deaths and forced tens of millions to flee their homes.

These wars have set the stage for a collapse of the NATO alliance and the drive towards a new world war. In Europe and in the Middle East, US imperialism faces significant great-power rivals. In Europe, Germany has announced the re-militarization of its foreign policy in 2014, for the first time since the fall of the Nazi regime at the end of World War II. Since 2016, when Brexit prevented London from vetoing their plans, Berlin and Paris have repeatedly pledged to design an EU military policy independent from Washington.

On the Mediterranean coast and across the Middle East, Washington now faces entrenched great-power opposition. Its wars have consolidated pro-Iranian regimes in Iraq and in Syria, which is also backed by Russia.

China, whom Washington has identified as its single greatest global rival, is also increasingly influential. As its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) develops energy, infrastructure and industrial projects across the Middle East, it has emerged as the largest trading partner for countries including Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In July, it reportedly offered Iran a treaty involving $400 billion in investment and assurances of mutual defense in case of US attack.

This represents a decisive setback for US imperialist foreign policy as its leading strategists formulated it in the 1990s. In 1997, former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski called Eurasia the “world’s axial super-continent” and asserted: “What happens with the distribution of power on the Eurasian landmass will be of decisive importance to America’s global primacy and historical legacy. … In a volatile Eurasia, the immediate task is to ensure that no state or combination of states gains the ability to expel the United States or even diminish its decisive role.”

As the NATO alliance now breaks apart in the eastern Mediterranean, US imperialism sees potential enemies and rivals scattered across the Eurasian landmass, including inside NATO itself.

These extraordinarily sharp conflicts preclude any peaceful, long-term resolution of the eastern Mediterranean crisis by NATO. When German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas addressed a meeting of French officials after his return from Athens and Ankara, he stated: “The United States looks at the rest of the world ever more directly through the lens of its rivalry with China. … American readiness to play the role of a global power ensuring stability has fallen.”