Turkish and Greek relations into uncharted waters

In a televised interview a few days after calling snap elections, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appealed for peace with Greece.

It would sound odd to call for peace with an ally and a neighbour Turkey is not at war with, but on the contrary, Erdoğan’s call was welcomed as a signal of detente. 

After a Greek court refused to extradite fugitive Turkish soldiers who fled there after the failed 2016 attempted coup, Ankara stepped up a war of words against its neighbour, while more Turkish citizens escaped across the Aegean from the purges and emergency rule.

Erdoğan’s visit to Greece in December, the first by a Turkish president in decades, was supposed to defuse tensions but it was instead had the opposite effect, with the Greek president and prime minister rebuffing Erdoğan’s calls to revise the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. 

His calls to “improve” the treaty, which defines the borders of the two nations, were followed by an escalation of border incidents. The most serious was the detention and possible indictment of two Greek soldiers who strayed over the land border with Turkey, but the escalating tensions include countless airspace violations and maritime confrontations that have led to casualties and accidents.

The focal point is the group of uninhabited islets of Imia/Kardak, over which Greece and Turkey almost went to war in 1996. But Greece has dozens of far more important islands very close to the Turkish coast and all of them could become hot spots in a confrontation with Turkey.

“After the last incident on the islet Mikros Anthropofas, where a group of local residents raising the Greek flag provoked angry reactions in Turkey, I think that Imia is no longer the problem,” said professor Kostas Grivas, associate professor of geopolitics at the Hellenic Military Academy. “Turkey seems to question literally hundreds of rocks, islets and islands, even inhabited, in the archipelago. Anthropofas is about 22 nautical miles from the coast of Turkey. I wonder where exactly Turkey puts the limit where Greeks can raise their flag. In a sense, Imia was the crack in the integrity of the status quo in the Aegean Sea.”

The status quo is defined in that Treaty of Lausanne that Erdoğan called into question. It acknowledged the 1923 repulse of the Greek invasion of Anatolia. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s pursuit of Greek forces all the way from Polatli, a mere 80 km from Ankara, to the Mediterranean is a foundation myth of the Turkish Republic that every Turk feels happened just yesterday.

Only the lack of a navy prevented the Turks from capturing the islands surrounding Anatolia. It was not until 1932 that the Turkish Republic could afford to buy four destroyers from Italy, but meanwhile the maritime borders with Greece had been agreed upon, with some Greek inhabited islands so close to the coast that cockerels can be heard from Turkey.

“For Turkey this issue has always been delicate because of this historical trauma,” explained Professor Toni Alaranta, senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “However, in many respects the tense situation originates from the evolution of the Law of the Sea. In September 1936 Greece extended its territorial waters, which thus cover 43.5 percent of the Aegean Sea while Turkish territorial waters represent only 7.5 percent. Turkey has always looked at this as a security issue.”

A security issue that has become compelling since the 2016 failed coup is the scores of alleged followers of Fethullah Gülen, blamed for the failed putsch, who have fled over the Aegean to request asylum.

Erdoğan has openly tied the fate of the two detained Greek soldiers to that of Turkish military personnel who escaped to Greece after the failed coup. “The so-called hostage diplomacy can bring short-term advantages but it is clear it will poison relations in longer term. This does not seem to bother Erdoğan too much,” Alaranta said.

Indeed there are growing signs that Turkey is perceived in Greece as an unpredictable and dangerous neighbour. Panos Kammenos, the flamboyant Greek minister of defence and leader of the nationalist Independent Greeks party, a junior partner in the ruling coalition, called Erdoğan “completely crazy,” leading to angry reactions from Ankara and a rebuke from the Greek prime minister.

At the same time, the Turkish opposition is even more aggressive than the president. The leader of the main opposition party, rather than calling for de-escalation and dialogue, attacked Erdoğan for not reclaiming what he called “the 18 occupied islands” from Greece. Nationalist opposition leader Meral Akşener, in an ominous tweet, hinted at war for the islands that she called “invaded homelands”.

“The traditional nationalism is very much part of all Turkish mainstream parties: to be tough with Greece and about the Cyprus issue is the rule,” said Alaranta. 

But there are deeper reasons for Turkey to increase pressure on Greece.

“Under Erdoğan, Turkey is undergoing a geopolitical transformation into an independent and very ambitious geopolitical actor, trying to be among the dominant Eurasian Powers in the nascent multi-polar global system,” Grivas said.

“Greece symbolises the West to Erdoğan and his Islamic-conservative core constituency and he has been increasingly willing to conduct anti-Western foreign policy,” Alaranta said. “The incumbent AKP’s narrative uses slogans of ‘New Turkey’ as ‘Great Turkey’ – this needs to have some foreign policy extension in order to be inherently credible. So Turkey has to be everywhere.”

Escalation in the Aegean would thus be part of Turkey’s global reach, including the offensive in Syria’s Afrin, deals with Sudan and Somalia, and military bases in Qatar and Iraq.

This take is not necessarily reassuring to Greece, according to Grivas. “Turkey is developing a very sophisticated military industry in cooperation with EU countries like Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, while buying advanced military equipment from the U.S., Russia and others. This effort threatens the current military balance with Greece, which could react with its own military purchases. It also reinforces the Greek perception that Turkey is a threat to Greece and Cyprus.”

But while brinkmanship in the Aegean is a well-rehearsed game, new factors are driving it into uncharted waters.

For decades, the United States and NATO have worked behind the scenes to rein in the two rival allies. Now, regardless of decreasing U.S. influence and NATO coolness, Turkey and Greece are different.

“I think Erdoğan wants to show that the EU and U.S. are not in a position to restrain him,” said Alaranta. “But that does not mean that Turkey would let things escalate to a full-blown military conflict with Greece.”

Grivas is less optimistic and pointed out at other factors. “After the collapse of the Greek economy and the placement of Greece under control of the EU and IMF, the Greek people lived a ‘decade of humiliation’ which a large segment of society perceives as an occupation of foreign and malevolent powers, trying to destroy Greece to achieve obscure geopolitical gains.” 

The fact that a large number of Turkish NATO trained officers has been purged raises the chance of inexperienced local commanders triggering an unintended casus belli.

“The feelings of humiliation in the Hellenic public would provoke an explosion of anger and the government, any government, would have no other choice, for its political survival, than press the button” Grivas said.