Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called on NATO to increase naval patrols in the Aegean Sea on Thursday (10 October) after a threat by Turkey to open Europe’s doors to more than three million migrants.
“I asked the Secretary General and the Alliance, and member states to strengthen their presence…in the Aegean Sea with more ships,” Mitsotakis said in a press conference after talks with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg in Athens yesterday.
“We ask…for the mission to be expanded to the south Aegean so we can cover the full scope of our country’s maritime borders,” he said, adding that he would raise the issue at a NATO summit in December.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan earlier threatened that Ankara would allow millions of refugees to head to Europe if the bloc criticised Turkey’s ongoing military offensive in Syria.
This is not, by far, the first time Erdoğan makes such threats.
In 2016, Ankara agreed a €6 billion deal with Brussels to stem the influx of migrants to the EU, but since then relations have soured after Erdoğan unleashed a crackdown in the wake of a failed coup to overthrow him.
There are officially around 70,000 migrants and refugees in Greece and more continue to arrive daily, piling pressure on already overcrowded refugee camps located on the Greek islands.
NATO currently has six ships on patrol in the northern Aegean that track the movement of incoming migrant boats and alert the coastguards of Greece and Turkey, in addition to EU’s border force Frontex.
Speaking alongside Mitsotakis in Athens, Stoltenberg for his part has already called on NATO allies to “provide more ships”, but said the mandate of the NATO patrols was “to share information and its not our mandate to stop the boats” of migrants.
Any additional commitment or change to the mandate would require consensus of all 29 NATO members, including Turkey, the NATO chief added.
Additionally, asked by reporters about the situation surrounding Cyprus, Mitsotakis said he had informed Stoltenberg about “Turkey’s illegal actions in the Cypriot maritime zones”.
“Those movements grossly violate international law, create tension and undermine the UN’s guidelines for restarting Cyprus talks,” Mitsotakis told the news conference in Athens.
Turkey and Greece are allies in NATO but are at loggerheads over Cyprus, which has been ethnically split between Greek and Turkish Cypriots since 1974.
Last week, Mitsotakis urged the United States to use its influence to defuse tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, where Cyprus and Turkey are locked in a dispute over offshore oil drilling rights.
Stoltenberg responded to the same question that “NATO expects all states to respect international law” and that “it is not NATO’s role to take a stand on international issues,” adding that for Cyprus it important that the UN finds a solution, but stressed that even with the unresolved dispute, the migration issue has to be tackled together.
NATO urges Turkey to ‘show restraint’
After paying visits to Rome and Athens, Stoltenberg is set to travel to Turkey on Friday to meet with senior Turkish officials and also discuss the ongoing situation in northeast Syria with Erdoğan.
Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies attacked Kurdish militia in northeast Syria on Wednesday, pounding them with air strikes and artillery before starting a cross-border ground operation that could transform an eight-year-old war.
“I count on Turkey to show restraint and to ensure that their actions in northern Syria are measured and proportionate and avoid even more human suffering,” Stoltenberg told journalists after the Mitsotakis meeting.
“We have to remember that we need to continue to stand together in our common fight against the common enemy, which is ISIS,” he said, referring to Islamic State (ISIS).
Stoltenberg also said a global coalition had made ‘enormous progress’ in the fight against ISIS, with swathes of territory the size of the UK being liberated from the group.
“We must make sure we preserve those gains,” he added.
[Edited by Georgi Gotev and Samuel Stolton]