Turkey, Greece speak of ‘war’ in latest escalation of tensions

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar on Wednesday used the word “war” in his response to recent statements by Greek government officials, further escalating the already-heightened tension between the two neighbours.

“I do not think Greece would want to go to war with Turkey,” Akar said in a televised interview, after his Greek counterpart Nikos Panagiotopoulos last week called Turkey aggressive and said military confrontation was possible.

“I believe that the only way for Greece to deal with this behaviour is on the one hand to exhaust all its diplomatic weapons and on the other hand to ensure an increase in the deterrent power of the armed forces,” Panagiotopoulos said, as reported by Greek City Times.

Since last year, Turkey and Greece have fallen out over an increasing number of issues, starting with Turkey’s efforts to explore hydrocarbons off the coast of Cyprus, followed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threat to open the country’s western borders to allow some four million Syrian refugees to freely attempt crossings into Europe through Greece.

Over the winter the dispute deepened as Turkey signed a memorandum of understanding with Libya to redefine the country’s maritime borders and increase its territorial waters, which overlap with internationally-recognised waters of Cyprus and several Greek islands.

Relations deteriorated further in February after migrants and refugees flocked to attempt to cross the border into Greece,with Turkey accusing Greece of treating people stranded at the border inhumanely and Greece responding that Turkey had purposefully transported them to the border and had attempted to help them to cross.

Arguments have also flared up recently over Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, one of the city’s most important monuments constructed in the 6th century as a Greek Orthodox cathedral, with the Turkish government organising a Quran recital in the cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum on May 29 to mark anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul and Greek officials denouncing the recital as offensive to Christians.

Meanwhile, a Greek frigate participating in a European Union naval mission off the coast of Africa was on Wednesday reported to be shadowing a Turkish vessel suspected of illegally carrying weapons to Libya.

The maritime deal at the root of the Mediterranean dispute was coupled with another where Turkey and Libya agreed on military cooperation. Following the military agreement, Turkey sent experts, advisers, drones and other military hardware and ammunitions to Libya, reportedly along with thousands of militiamen recruited from among Syrian fighters Turkey supports.

Turkey is backing the United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord under the leadership of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Libya in its conflict against the General Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army.

Turkey has also been accused of violating the U.N. arms embargo against Libya repeatedly, together with Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

Greek Frigate HS Spetsai was participating in the EU’s Operation IRINI to enforce the arms embargo when it detected the Turkish vessel, accompanied by two Turkish frigates, and sent out a signal. A Greek navy helicopter requested to inspect the Turkish vessel’s cargo, but its request was denied, according to the Greek Reporter.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.