What might renewed Greece-Syria ties mean for Turkey?
In a move that could affect Turkey’s strategic goals in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, Greece recently began to restore diplomatic relations with Syria.
In May, Greece appointed Tasia Athanassiou as its Special Envoy to Syria. Athanassiou was the last Greek ambassador to Syria before Athens severed diplomatic ties with Damascus in 2012 early in that country’s civil war.
A desire to undermine Turkey’s goals in the wider region may well have motivated Greece to begin restoring relations with Syria.
In the past, Greece attempted to forge broad alliances with a variety of countries in opposition to Turkey.
In 1996, for example, then-Greek Defence Minister Yerasimos Arsenis announced that Greece had signed a military-cooperation agreement with Syria, clearly with Turkey as its main rival in mind.
At the same time, Arsenis also called for the formation of an anti-Turkish alliance that he suggested could include Iran, Iraq and Armenia, among others, however that proposal never got off the ground.
Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North Africa analyst for Stratfor, the leading geopolitical intelligence unit of Risk Assistant Network + Exchange, or RANE, described Greece’s intention to open channels with Syria as a “symbolic move for now”.
“Greece is unable, as both a NATO country and a U.S. ally, to do much more than symbolically attempt to bring Syria back into the international community,” Bohl told Ahval.
If Greece was to engage in any military or even economic moves, it would face sanctions by the United States under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act and other sanctions imposed by European countries.
“So, for now, Greece can only signal support for Syria to a very limited extent,” Bohl said.
He sees some “clearly anti-Turkish moves” being attempted by Greece in its outreach to Syria.
“They are very limited, but they are trying to help Greece put together even a symbolic and shallow coalition against Turkey to signal to Ankara that its aggressive moves throughout the Eastern Mediterranean are creating a long-standing coalition against it,” Bohl said.
“It has no teeth for now, but Athens wants Turkey to think it might eventually.”
Bohl also pointed out that Turkey’s moves in the wider region in recent years have inspired a “soft power coalition” against it, with various states which otherwise have little in common uniting through their opposition to Ankara’s policies.
“So far, however, key players like the U.S., Germany, France, or the U.K. have not taken meaningful steps to really impose penalties on Turkey for its behaviour,” he said. “Until a major player does so, these steps will remain symbolic.”
George Tzogopoulos, a senior fellow at the Centre International de Formation Européenne and research associate at the Begin Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies (BESA), also doesn’t believe that the appointment of Athanassiou to Damascus is “very ambitious from a foreign policy perspective”.
“Conditions are now different in comparison to the years Gerasimos Arsenis was Defence Minister - for example, Greek-Israeli relations are excellent whereas Turkish-Israeli relations remain problematic,” he told Ahval News.
Furthermore, Turkey’s present relations with Iraq and Iran are constructive. Therefore, Tzogopoulos “doesn’t see how the theoretical idea of Arsenis can be practically applied in 2020”.
“By contrast, relations between Greece and Iran were challenged at the beginning of the year when the Greek government decided to send Patriot missiles to Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Greece sent Patriot air defence missile systems to help bolster the Saudi kingdom’s air defences after combined missile and drone strikes widely believed to have been carried out by Iran crippled Saudi oil facilities in September 2019.
Tzogopoulos believed Greece’s decision to appoint Athanassiou to Damascus was correct.
That appointment, he said, “shows the country closely follows developments and is interested in becoming more diplomatically active in the Mediterranean following the setback of last November when Ankara and Tripoli signed a memorandum of understanding on maritime zones”.
He was referring to a November accord signed by Turkey and the U.N.-recognised Government of National Accord in Libya that seeks to create an exclusive economic zone connecting Turkey’s southern Mediterranean shore to Libya’s northeast coast. The agreement completely ignores, among other things, the existence of the Greek island of Crete.
“Even before this appointment, Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias had publicly supported the U.N. efforts to support a political solution in Syria,” Tzogopoulos said.
“Certainly, the lack of Greek representation in Libya made Athens careful on avoiding similar mistakes and at least endeavour to play a role in Syria.”
He also noted that Athens would need to consider how an improvement in relations with Damascus will impact its relations with Russia.
“I consider it a good opportunity for Greek-Russian relations to be improved,” he said. “The excellent status of Greek-American ties does not mean Greece and Russia should not cooperate.”
Economically, Tzogopoulos suggested that Greek companies can play a role in Syria’s reconstruction in an endeavour “that will certainly be guided by Russia”.
He doesn’t believe that Greek-Turkish relations will be “substantially affected” by a rapprochement between Athens and Damascus. However, for Turkey to see Greece present in Syria after almost a decade of inactivity might be a cause for some diplomatic concern.
“We have to wait and see it Greece will also reopen its embassy in Damascus,” Tzogopoulos said.
“We are not there yet.”