Turkey and Greece are "valued allies" and NATO's role is to provide a platform to address differences between the two countries, the alliance's chief said Thursday.
Jens Stoltenberg, speaking at an online webinar hosted by U.K.-based think tank Chatham House, said disagreements can be overcome through "honest discussions."
"And that's exactly what we have done when it comes to, for instance, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean," the NATO secretary-general said according to Anadolu Agency (AA).
Stoltenberg said, therefore, we "have been able to establish at NATO what we call a deconfliction mechanism."
The two NATO allies have been at odds over a number of decades-old issues, including the extent of their continental shelves, overflights in the Aegean Sea and the ethnically split island of Cyprus. Turkey, which has the longest continental coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean, has rejected maritime boundary claims made by EU members Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration, stressing that these excessive claims violate the sovereign rights of both Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).
The two countries participated in deconfliction talks last year, initiated by Stoltenberg, which were designed to reduce the risk of incidents in the Eastern Mediterranean. The talks facilitated the establishment of a hotline between Athens and Ankara, allowing for conflict resolution at sea and in the air.
Stoltenberg said: "That's actually a military alliance of communications, a hotline, military-technical talks between the Greek and Turkish military and personnel here at NATO in Brussels."
"And by that, reducing the risks of incidents, accidents between ships, planes in the Eastern Med coming from Turkey and Greece," he added.
Stoltenberg also underlined that reducing tension is important as it would prevent accidents that would lead to casualties.
He argued that the deconfliction mechanism at NATO "has also helped to pave the way for Greece and Turkey to sit down and restart what they call exploratory talks on the underlying disagreements."
"So, yes, there are concerns, but I think the most important thing NATO can do is to try to find ways to step by step, not only complain about the concerns and express concerns but also find a positive approach, a way forward ... And over the last weeks or months, we have seen some important steps in the right direction, proving, proving that NATO has an important role to play also when allies disagree, as they do, for instance, in the Eastern Mediterranean," he added.
Last month, Turkey and Greece launched the first direct exploratory talks in nearly five years to address their disputes related to sovereignty rights in the Eastern Mediterranean. That meeting in Istanbul, the 61st round, lasted only a few hours but both sides said that they had agreed to meet again in Athens.
Turkish and Greek officials will likely meet again between the end of February and early March to revive efforts to resolve the maritime boundary dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Thursday.
Between 2002 and 2016, dozens of rounds of talks were held to try and lay the foundation for full negotiations over the delimitation of maritime zones. After a five-year hiatus, prolonged by a dispute over overlapping claims for energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean last year, the two resumed the exploratory talks on Jan. 25. The two countries had initiated the talks to discuss the issues in the Eastern Mediterranean on March 12, 2002, in an effort to find a fair, sustainable and inclusive solution. Talks were regularly held up until 2016, but there have been none since then due to political speculation and the Greek side's reluctance to sit down at the negotiating table. Bilateral discussions continued in the form of political consultations but did not return to the exploratory framework.
Turkish leaders have repeatedly stressed that Ankara is in favor of resolving outstanding problems in the region through international law, good neighborly relations, dialogue and negotiations. Instead of opting to solve problems with Ankara through dialogue, Athens has, on several occasions, refused to sit at the negotiation table and opted to rally Brussels to adopt a tougher stance against Turkey.