Since last month’s horrific 7.8 magnitude earthquake along the Turkish-Syrian border, humanitarian support for Turkey has been coming in from around the world. Countries helping with relief efforts include Turkey’s close friends as well as some countries that have, at least until recently, had major problems with Ankara.
Neighboring Greece, which experienced enormous amounts of tension in relations with Turkey in 2022 and early 2023, immediately stepped in to help the Turks suffering from the disaster. A possible silver lining of this catastrophic event could be a significant improvement in Athens and Ankara’s bilateral relationship.
Despite their fraught relations, Greece was one of the first countries to send rescue teams to Turkey to help save victims. Within the European Union, Greece is playing a central role in terms of garnering resources to help Turkey. Turkey has been highly appreciative of these efforts. The gratitude has been on constant display in Turkish media since February 6 and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman and chief foreign policy adviser publicly thanked Greece for its assistance on February 10.
“Greece did what it had to do in the spirit of solidarity under extreme circumstances,” George Tzogopoulos, a senior fellow at the Centre International de Formation Européenne (CIFE), told us. “What I find particularly emotional is the interest of ordinary Greek citizens to send food and clothes to affected people in Turkey.”
“Earthquake diplomacy” is not new to Greek-Turkish relations. On August 17, 1999, the İzmit earthquake in Turkey’s Marmara region took roughly 20,000 lives and caused about 100,000 buildings to collapse. At that time, there were diplomatic tensions between Athens and Ankara over a number of issues—only three years earlier the two had almost gone to war over a pair of uninhabited islets that was only averted due to U.S. intervention. Yet, Greece stepped in to provide high levels of support. Tragically, the following month another earthquake 150 times more powerful took place in Athens, resulting in ninety-eight deaths and approximately 50,000 people becoming homeless. The Turks reciprocated and provided their neighbor with much assistance. What followed was roughly one decade of warm relations between the two countries.
Almost a quarter of a century later, “earthquake diplomacy” is in effect again, significantly brightening the prospects for a new era of warmer Greek-Turkish relations. “I hope that what happens this time in response to Turkey’s horrific earthquakes is similar in the diplomatic sphere as to what happened after the deadly 1999 earthquake in Turkey,” explained Matthew Bryza, who served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia from 2005 until 2009, in an interview with the authors.
These warming relations will likely assuage Greek fears of the Turkish head of state and his allies capitalizing on tensions between Ankara and Athens, and even a possible direct military confrontation between the two in the Aegean or Eastern Mediterranean, to rally nationalist support for Erdogan’s re-election campaign. Such concerns among the Greeks have been relieved last month.
“All that belligerent talk and any thoughts of armed conflict at all have gone away as everybody focuses together on taking care of those who have suffered so much from this earthquake, and then on rebuilding which will take years,” added Bryza.
Ronald Meinardus, the head of the Mediterranean Program at the Athens-based think tank Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, told us that “the massive earthquake opens the door to the de-escalation in the relations of the two countries.” Now “diplomacy has kicked in” with Greece’s Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias visiting southern Turkey, explained Meinardus. That visit constituted a “remarkable move which comes hand in hand with an outpour of solidarity” as officials in Athens and Ankara are now speaking of a “new page” opening in bilateral relations.
Relations between Ankara and Athens are, to some degree, already warming. So far, Greek assistance prompted Erdogan and Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to speak for the first time since March last year. In another surprising instance, Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu spoke at length about the prospects of a détente between the two neighbors and even submitted a six-point proposal to Greece with the aim of improving bilateral relations.
Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy
Tensions between Greece and Turkey have long contributed to division in the transatlantic alliance. Therefore, at a time when President Joe Biden’s administration is working hard to strengthen NATO’s unity, any improvement in Athens and Ankara’s relationship is good news for Washington.
The United States will be very pleased if the past few weeks of warmth between the two Mediterranean countries lead to more lasting closeness, cooperation, and solidarity between these two U.S. allies. While speaking in the Greek capital on February 21, U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken said, “It’s profoundly in our interest and I believe in the interest of both Greece and Turkey to find ways to resolve longstanding differences.”
Within the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both Turkey and Greece’s geostrategic roles have become more important in the eyes of the United States and the rest of NATO. Thus, the more that relations between Athens and Ankara can improve, the better off Washington will be in terms of its national security interests in this part of the Mediterranean. “We want our allies to be friendly with each other,” said Bryza. The former U.S. diplomat emphasized that both Greece and Turkey “offer quite important geographic space for the NATO alliance and significant military bases as well.”
Nonetheless, U.S. policymakers seeking to push Greece and Turkey’s relationship in a warmer direction will not necessarily have an easy task. Mindful of how much tension built up between Athens and Ankara in 2022 and early 2023, there are open questions about how easily any sharp turn-around in bilateral affairs could occur.
“It is too early to tell if any tangible outcome will emerge from the initial warming of ties between Greece and Turkey,” explained Dr. Serhat Süha Çubukçuoğlu, a senior researcher at TRENDS Research and Advisory, in an interview with us. “The history of the bilateral relationship is full of trials-and-failures and the United States is no longer as committed to intervene or act as a balanced mediator to settle some of the most pressing issues such as the ‘gray zones’ of islands and rocks in Aegean Sea.”
In a world continuing to move toward multipolarity, Turkey’s foreign policy becomes more independent, resulting in Washington having less sway over Ankara compared to previous points in history. In upcoming months, it will be important to monitor any potential shifts in Turkey’s foreign policy vis-à-vis its claims to parts of the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. If there are none, the root causes of much of the tension between Athens and Ankara will not be resolved, notwithstanding Greece’s solidarity with Turkey’s earthquake victims, and it will be more difficult for Biden’s administration to successfully bring Greece and Turkey closer together as NATO allies.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics and an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project.
Emily Milliken (Przyborowski) is the Senior Vice President and Lead Analyst at Askari Associates, LLC.
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