Mar 29 2018

Intra-NATO war between Greece and Turkey possible – analysis

Conflict between NATO members and Aegean Sea neighbours Greece and Turkey is increasingly possible as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan flexes his regional muscle, writes John Psaropoulos for the Weekly Standard.

The combination of upcoming elections in Turkey, Erdogan’s concerns about his popularity and an inexperienced Turkish military - many of its senior officers were replaced after a coup attempt in July 2016 - make war more likely than at any time since the two sides exchanged blows over a disputed islet in the Aegean in the 1990s, Psaropoulos said.

The United States and European Union also have less leverage over Turkey than they had two decades ago. Erdogan is embroiled in a political spat with Washington over U.S. policy in Syria while the EU has its hands tied by a refugee agreement that gives Erdogan much leverage over Brussels, Psaropoulos said.

“What I worry about is the risk of an unintentional confrontation,” said U.S. ambassador to Athens Geoffrey Pyatt, according to Psaropoulos.

Upgrades to weapons systems over the past few decades mean the Aegean hosts one of the world’s highest concentrations of high-tech arms, including 67 surface ships, two dozen submarines and 448 fighter jets armed with smart bombs and guided missiles, all in and over water the same size as Lake Superior, he said.

Recent political tensions, including the ramming of a Greek coastguard ship in February and the arrest of two Greek soldiers who wandered across the border with Turkey mean ninety-two percent of Greeks now believe Turkey constitutes Greece’s biggest threat, Psaropoulos said.

Some observers see Turkey’s hardening stance toward Greece as an attempt to counter Erdogan’s slippage in the polls. “He is very insecure right now,” said one Turkey-based expert. “It seems that there is a big qualitative decline in Turkish public opinion [towards him]. People discern fatigue. They no longer believe he is the leader who will solve Turkey’s problems.”

Turkey’s defence capabilities have grown with its economy, while Greece’s have suffered as a result of its eight-year depression.

Last year Turkey spent $15.8 billion on defence; Greece could manage only $5.4 billion, and almost none of that was investment in new weapons, Psaropoulos said.

David Phillips, a former diplomat who runs Columbia University’s Program on Peace Building and Rights, believes an accident or miscalculation is more likely today for yet another reason: Washington is less likely to umpire. “The last thing the U.S. wants is to intervene between Turkey and Greece where military action is involved. So Erdogan may just think he can pull a fast one and get away with it. He might unleash forces he can’t control,” he said.