A guide on the banks of the Dardanelles in Çanakkale (Gallipoli), some 300 km west of the Turkish metropolis of Istanbul, tells excited visitors that they are on an ancient route connecting Asia and Africa with Europe. The Dardanelles, a water channel connecting the Sea of Marmara with the Aegean Sea in the Mediterranean, is known as the gateway to Asia, and Alexander the Great had parked his ships there to march to India. He crossed the waterway with five million horsemen and 13,000 infantry and won his first battle 50 km east of Dardanelles on the banks of the Biga river in 334 BCE. Successive victories against the Persian Empire paved his way to India, where he fought the last battle of his life, with King Porus of Punjab on the banks of the Jhelum river in 326 BCE.
Thousands of kilometres from India, a corridor that is supposed to connect Alexander’s Greece with Porus’ India in the 21st century is causing tension between two major Mediterranean powers—Greece and Türkiye. The India-Middle East-Europe-Economic Corridor (IMEC) was announced on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in New Delhi when a memorandum of understanding was signed between the European Union and seven countries, namely India, the US, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), France, Germany, and Italy.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had already finalised the agreement with his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis on August 25 to secure the ports for this project. He was visiting Athens on his way back from a summit of the BRICS bloc of emerging economies in South Africa.
According to the information, the corridor will include a shipping route connecting Mumbai and Mundra (Gujarat) with the UAE, and a rail network connecting the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan with the Israeli port of Haifa to reach the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Haifa will then be connected by sea to the port of Piraeus in Greece to eventually be connected to Europe.
While this project has sparked euphoria in Greece, which has expressed a desire to be “India’s gateway to Europe”, there is concern in Türkiye. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself took the lead in opposing the project. “We say there is no corridor without Türkiye,” he said. “We are an important production and trade centre. The most convenient route for traffic from East to West must go through Türkiye.”
A senior Turkish official, who wished to remain anonymous, told Frontline that it was not only the feeling of being bypassed, but also that the sea route for this corridor between Haifa and Piraeus passes through disputed waters. The Greek and Turkish navies frequently clash in these waters as they are yet to demarcate the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and maritime boundaries. He recalled that India had raised similar concerns about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which passes through disputed land in the Kashmir region.
The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which Türkiye and Greece signed after a four-year war, did not specify maritime boundaries and the status of islands in the Aegean Sea.
Citing the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Greece claims sovereignty over large parts of the Mediterranean. Under UNCLOS, a sovereign state has special rights with respect to the exploration and exploitation of marine resources, including hydro and wind energy, up to 200 nautical miles from its coast.
However, the Law of the Sea Convention requires states to designate a main island from which the distance can be measured, rather than smaller islands. Moreover, overlapping claims, irregular coastlines, and different islands make it impossible to apply this general principle of an EEZ to the Mediterranean Sea, which is bordered by 26 countries.
Greece has insisted on mapping its maritime borders and EEZ from the islands it occupies. Applying this formula, 71.5 per cent of the Aegean Sea in the Mediterranean would be under Greek sovereignty and only 8.7 per cent under Turkish sovereignty.
All of the islands belong to Greece, except for two—Gokceada and Bozcaada—near Çanakkale on the Dardanelles Channel, where the Ottoman Empire fought the legendary battle led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk at the end of the First World War.
About 700 km from the Dardanelles, in the coastal town of Kaş in southwestern Türkiye, guide Mehmet Umut points to an island visible from the coast. It is Meis (Kastellorizo), a Greek island just 2 km off the southern coast of Türkiye, but 570 km from mainland Greece. “We are so close to Europe and Greece from this coast,” he said, while pointing to a Greek ship in the distance and some naval boats patrolling the area.
There are fears in Türkiye that the IMEC is aimed at encircling the country, which is one of the biggest military powers in the region. “No one can encircle Turkey, which has the longest coastline in the Mediterranean. We are determined to defend the maritime rights of our citizens and the people of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,” a Turkish government official said.
Atıf Ozbey, editor-in-chief and founder of the Turkish online newspaper haberdeger.com, said Türkiye could not be expected to ignore this project (IMEC) as it passes through disputed waters (to Greece). “It is unthinkable that Türkiye turns a blind eye to this cruel occupation,” he told Frontline. “Interestingly, at the same time, the European Parliament decided to suspend Türkiye’s EU negotiation process. This cannot be a coincidence. Israel and the imperialist lobbies are using Greece and the southern Greek Cypriots in the Eastern Mediterranean as tools against Türkiye.”
Besides Meis (Kastellorizo), there are other Greek islands scattered throughout the Aegean Sea towards the Turkish coast, such as Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Rhodes, and Samos. Their existence prevents Türkiye from extending its zones of influence beyond a few nautical miles off its coast. Türkiye’s position is that islands cannot have a full EEZ of 200 nautical miles. It believes that islands should be granted either a reduced zone of 12 nautical miles or no zone at all if they are part of a larger area far from the mainland.
Sencer Imer, chief advisor to the Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies, a Turkish think tank, said Greece was trying to take away Türkiye’s rights in the eastern Mediterranean. “They [Greece and its allies] are both strategically trying to prevent our access to the Mediterranean and seize the wealth underneath. This is piracy and Turkey is not in a position to accept this,” he said.
No success with bypassing Türkiye
Dr Gueray Alpar, a former military officer who now heads the Ankara-based think tank Stratejik Düşünce Enstitüsü, said such projects, bypassing Türkiye had not materialised in the past. He referred to the EU project to transport Israeli and possibly Cypriot gas to Europe bypassing Türkiye. However, the pipeline project has since failed to take off due to commercial and environmental concerns. “They have realised that viable projects are only possible with Türkiye,” Alpar said, claiming that the authors of this corridor will also realise this soon.
Three proposed projects—the Persian Pipeline, the Trans-Caspian Pipeline, the Qatar-Türkiye Pipeline—and the existing Southern Gas Corridor pass through Türkiye. Ankara also supports the Iraq Development Road Project, which aims to connect the Gulf region to Türkiye and Europe via ports in the UAE, Qatar, and Iraq through a railway line and a highway. The project envisages the construction of a 1,200-km highway and a high-speed railway line at a cost of $17 billion. It will cut transport time between East Asia and northern Europe by 15 days, and there are designs to allow energy exports from Gulf countries through pipelines that could be built under the initiative.
Alpar attributes the IMEC project to the rivalry between the major powers that want to use India to contain China in the region. “This project cannot be successful. In fact, any project that tries to bypass Türkiye in the region is dangerous. They (the big powers) are using the regional powers against each other. We have to understand this game,” he added.
According to Ahmed Aboudouh, Associate Fellow at the British think tank Chatham House, the US sees the project as a tool to normalise relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. “The Biden administration is pushing for an agreement [between the two countries] as part of a broader plan to contain Iran and check China’s growing influence in the Middle East,” he said. A Beijing-brokered deal to restore diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, announced in March, was a wake-up call for Washington.
Experts in the region also say there are already more than 200 trains carrying goods from China’s Inner Mongolia to Europe, independent of the BRI. According to them, since the Abraham Agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia is still in the works, the US created this project, most of which already exists except for some sea routes.
Murat Yeşiltaş, director of foreign policy studies at SETA, a government think tank in Ankara, said Ankara could still push to join the IMEC initiative, provided Turkish interests were taken into account.
Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had, shortly after their re-election in May and June respectively, agreed on a fresh start in bilateral relations after a thaw triggered by the deadly earthquake in Türkiye in February. Both agreed to build on the “positive momentum” that followed Greek aid for relief and rehabilitation after the earthquake. Erdogan had also normalised relations with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Turkish officials assume that these countries cannot afford to return to frosty relations by becoming part of a big game in the Mediterranean.
Omair Anas, an Indian professor who teaches international relations at the Yıldırım Beyazıt Üniversitesi in Ankara, said the corridor project did not aim to exclude any country, including Türkiye, West Asia’s only NATO member. He said Türkiye was also trying to expand transnational connectivity by road, rail, and sea. Therefore, there is no reason why Ankara should ignore the ambitious IMEC. “Given the trusting relations with most members of the India-Middle East-Europe corridor, Türkiye should seek to join it in the future. Erdogan has been actively seeking partnership with BRICS, SCO, ASEAN, and other Asian groups, which is a sign of his country’s growing interest in becoming part of Asian economies and their growth,” Anas said.
- Thousands of kilometres from India, the India-Middle East-Europe-Economic Corridor that is supposed to connect Alexander’s Greece with Porus’ India in the 21st century is causing tension between two major Mediterranean powers—Greece and Türkiye.
- Sencer Imer, chief advisor to the Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies, a Turkish think tank, said Greece was trying to take away Türkiye’s rights in the eastern Mediterranean.
- The launch of IMEC is a major milestone for India as its road access to the West was blocked due to frosty relations with Pakistan. Greek media reported that Adani was looking at taking over Greek ports to control the main gateway for Indian exports to Europe.
Joy over Hejaz railway revival
Opposition aside, there is also some jubilation in Türkiye as the IMEC means the revival of the Hejaz railway, which once connected Istanbul to the Saudi Arabian city of Medina via Damascus and had a branch line to Haifa on the Mediterranean. It was built in 1900 on the orders of Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II and came under fierce attack from Arab forces led by British officer T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. Several of these attacks are depicted in David Lean’s 1962 film of the same name.
Although the IMEC is seen as a competitor to China’s BRI, Chinese companies in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been working for many years to revive railway lines in the Arabian deserts, which will be used by this project. They have already built about 536 km of railway line. Of the distance of 2,915 km between UAE and Haifa in Israel, 820 km of railway line is either already in place or work is continuing at various stages.
The launch of IMEC is a major milestone for India as its road access to the West was blocked due to frosty relations with Pakistan. Even to reach Afghanistan, India had to take detours through Tajikistan and Iran. This corridor will perhaps spell the end of the proposed 7,200-km International North-South Transport Corridor between India, Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Central Asia, and Europe. That corridor relied on the Iranian port of Chabahar.
Taking over Greek ports
Significantly, Mundra port in Gujarat and Haifa port are managed by the multinational conglomerate, the Adani Group. The group acquired Haifa port for $1.2 billion earlier this year. According to Greek news portals, the group is also bidding for various Greek ports, in particular a logistics facility in the Port of Piraeus in Greece. Interestingly, the port of Piraeus as a whole is managed by a Chinese company. At the end of Modi’s visit to Athens, the Greek media reported that Adani was looking at taking over Greek ports to control the main gateway for Indian exports to Europe.
Three other ports that Adani is interested in, according to Greek news media, are Kavala in northern Greece, Volos, 330 km from Athens, and Alexandroupoli. Incidentally, Kavala port, in the province of Macedonia, is where Alexander began his military campaign to conquer Asia and reach India, where he eventually befriended King Porus after a bloody battle.
The emerging trade corridor between India and Greece has the potential to transform trade patterns in the Indian Ocean region, West Asia, and Europe. Over the past decade, India’s diplomatic relations with Greece have expanded significantly, reflecting growing interests that stretch from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean.
Professor Michael Tanchum of Spain’s University of Navarra aptly noted that this development could lead to a strategic and geopolitical reconfiguration and reshape India’s role within the Eurasian economic landscape. History seems to be repeating itself as the countries come together not only to boost trade and the economy, but also to participate in the great game in the Mediterranean. Will they succeed, by creating disquiet in Türkiye? Only time will tell.
Iftikhar Gilani is an Indian journalist based in Ankara.