WASHINGTON -- Less than two weeks ago, warclouds hung over the Aegean Sea, with Turkey and Greece on military alert, talking and acting as if they were ready to start shooting at each other.
It would have been war between two NATO partners, American allies. If the shooting had started, the shots would have been heard around the world and certainly would have affected the U.S. ability to operate politically and militarily in Southern Europe and the Middle East.
Then, as suddenly as a rain-squall passing, the tension broke March 27 and the atmosphere between the two historic enemies cleared and they have begun to talk about negotiating an end to their traditional rivalry.
The Aegean war that didn't happen was a complex exercise in multilateral diplomacy, luck and brinksmanship, involving the United States at almost every stage.
Like everything that occurs in the Balkans, the crisis is rooted in history and compounded by modern complications.
When present-day Greece and Turkey were defined by the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, Greece was given the hundreds of islands sprinkled through the Aegean sea, while Turkey was given the bulk of the contested mainland on the eastern and northern shore.
That was a barely workable solution that became increasingly difficult with the discovery of oil in the Aegean Sea. What had been an exercise in abstract sovereignty became a contest over the possibility of great wealth, a competition between two historic enemies who had other continuing grudges, including the one over Cyprus.
The two countries agreed in 1976, in a secret meeting in Bern, Switzerland, on a formula to deal with disputes arising over the Aegean, but Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papendreou renounced that agreement, using an international legal loop-hole known as 'force majeure.' Essentially, the term means that an earlier contract or treaty has been rendered invalid by outside conditions not foreseen at the time the treaty was signed.
Pressed by domestic political opponents, and a faltering Greek economy, Papendreou permitted Greek oil exploration ships to go out into the Aegean this year, in waters that the International Court of Justice had identified as 'disputed.'
His timing was determined by a business consideration.
The North Aegean Petroleum Corp., a large international consortium operating in Greece, has a 'use it or lose it' contract. If the exploration had not taken place by early March, the oil contract would have been broken, and the Greek government would have to start the oil exploration process all over again with a different firm.
Turkey, believing that Greece was illegally infringing on disputed international territory, made plans to send its own oil exploration ship, Sismik I, into the Aegean. Greece said it would fire on the Turkish ship if it entered waters claimed by Greece. Turkey said it would send warships along with Sismik. There was a rapid escalation of angry insults from both sides.
Both countries declared military alerts and Greece threatened to expel American bases from Greek territory. The stage was set for war.
But the war didn't happen. Why not? What went right in a part of the world where things have a way of going historically wrong?
One American closely involved with the events believes that the crisis occurred because of a mistaken assessment by the Turkish government, which had an overwhelming military advantage in the area, that the Greeks would not respond.
The American official says, 'What happened is that the Turks dramatically upped the ante. They thought they had the law on their side.'
'The Turks also believed that they had to get the Greeks' attention because Papendreou had broken the earlier agreement and hadn't wanted to talk about the situation for the last five years.'
The official believes that the Greeks were also involved in a deception, pretending -- for domestic reasons -- that they were going to drill for oil, but in fact just going through the motions to save the 'use it or lose it' contract.
'The Greeks didn't really want to drill for oil now, but they couldn't say that in public,' the official said. The Greek Embassy in Washington quietly passed that word to U.S. Undersecretary of State Michael Armacost, who relayed it to the Turks.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government, the British government and Lord Carrington, the Secretary-General of NATO, were quietly urging both countries to act with restraint, carefully refraining from taking either side, publicly or privately.
As a result of those continuing warnings, the American official said, 'both sides were aware that there was a real danger of a clash.'