Argument

Greece and Turkey Are Inching Toward War

Populists in both countries are deepening a rare military crisis between NATO allies.

Greek Prime minister Alexis Tsipras and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Athens, on Dec. 7, 2017. (LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Greek Prime minister Alexis Tsipras and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Athens, on Dec. 7, 2017. (LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)

The relationship between Greece and Turkey has never been easy. The neighboring countries have been at war with each other several times in the 20th century and were close to military conflict over the Greek islet Imia in 1996, before the United States stepped in to avert disaster.

The NATO allies are now at the brink again, goaded by populists on both sides — and this time, Washington is nowhere to be found.

On Monday, a Greek-Turkish confrontation rekindled old memories. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, during an event in Ankara, claimed that the Turkish coast guard had removed a Greek flag from an islet near the island of Fournoi, after it was placed there earlier by three Greeks. The Hellenic National Defense General Staff responded that no Turkish boat had been seen in the area in the last 48 hours; the mayor of Fournoi then visited the islet and reported that the Greek flag was still there.

But Greece was obliged to respond to Yildirim’s claims with the utmost seriousness. Monday’s incident follows a tragic accident last week in which a Greek pilot was killed after his plane crashed while returning to base from a mission to intercept Turkish fighters about 10 miles north of Skyros island. This wasn’t an isolated incident, either: Turkish jets have violated Greek airspace more than 30 times in April alone. While Yildirim and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made swift diplomatic moves to send condolences to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Greek public opinion blames the death of the 34-year-old pilot squarely on Turkey. The arrest of two Greek army officers last month and their imprisonment in Turkey, where they might face charges of espionage, further feeds the anger among Greeks.

Meanwhile, the islet involved in this week’s dispute — called Anthropofagos (Greek for “cannibal”) — is part of what Turkey claims are “grey zones,” areas that are of disputed jurisdiction, in the Aegean Sea. Greece, on the other hand, recognizes no such “grey zones,” in accordance with the Treaty of Lausanne and international law. Turkey’s position was reiterated by Erdogan during his visit to Athens last year. He claimed that the Treaty of Lausanne needs to be reconsidered, evoking the Turkish-speaking minority of Thrace, a region of northern Greece, as justification. As if to underscore Erdogan’s intentions, Turkish warships recently stopped an Italian research boat from reaching its destination in Greek Cypriot waters.

Even amid this dangerous climate, both sides are indulging in reckless rhetoric. In Turkey, Erdogan and his party are embarking on ever more aggressive rhetoric toward Greece, and the largest opposition party is now headed by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a man who claims Turkey needs to reclaim 18 Turkish islands currently occupied by Greece.

Turkey’s behavior has provided perhaps the only point of agreement between the Greek government and the opposition, with Tsipras, of the far-left Syriza party, implying Erdogan is behaving like “a sultan,” and the center-right New Democracy’s Giorgos Koumoutsakos, shadow minister of international affairs, saying that Turkey is “a country of authoritarian rule that produces instability and tension in the region.”

Tsipras’s problem in dealing with Turkey centers, rather, on his own government — specifically, on his junior coalition partner, the Independent Greeks, whose leader, Panos Kammenos, is also minister of national defense.

The partnership between Syriza and the Independent Greeks has always been odd, but it’s now coming into especially sharp relief. The only thing the two parties ever had in common was their opposition to austerity. Where Syriza has its roots in the radical left, Kammenos was a minister from the nationalistic and populist wing of New Democracy before breaking off and forming his own party in 2012. Kammenosis is now alleged to have ties to both U.S. President Donald Trump via his former advisor George Papadopoulos, and to Russian President Vladimir Putin through Greek-Russian bussinesman and former Russian MP Ivan Savvidis. While he has helped Tsipras with his connections with and knowledge of the functions of the Greek state (and especially parts of what we would call the “deep state”), he has been a consistent headache in foreign policy.

Kammenos and his party have repeatedly put Tsipras in an awkward position by making belligerent and even aggressive statements toward Turkey, or simply by simply being confused about the government’s own policy. Kammenos, as defense minister, has repeatedly taunted the Turks, making statements along the lines of “let them come and get it.” Kammenos’s deputy in the Ministry of National Defense, the leftist Fotis Kouvelis, said on Monday night that Greece finds itself in “undeclared war in the Aegean.” And the deputy speaker of the Greek Parliament, an Independent Greeks member, managed to contradict himself within 10 days by saying both that Greece is being “too harsh on Erdogan” and that “we won’t let them go unchallenged.”

Such problems aren’t limited to Turkey; Kammenos has also been a problem for Tsipras in the negotiations over the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, where he sided with Greek protesters, and against his own coalition partner, by demanding that the name of the neighboring country not include the term “Macedonia,” despite the fact it’s long been in use. Ultimately, Kammenos was forced to backpedal and “agree to disagree” with Tsipras.

Still, for all Kammenos’s excesses, the real problem in the Aegean is Turkey’s strategy of provocation — a strategy that preceded Erdogan and will most likely continue after he’s gone. Erdogan has simply amplified this strategy in recent months, having seemingly decided that he has leverage over the European Union after agreeing to take responsibility for stemming the Syrian refugee crisis.

In the Greek public opinion, there is a very real fear that the country is sleepwalking toward a conflict it doesn’t want. The mood is reflected in the front pages of the daily press, and insinuating remarks by politicians across the spectrum. NATO seems unwilling to get involved in the war of words, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s statement that this is “not an issue for NATO” is indicative.

But it would be extremely careless to think that Turkey’s behavior in the Aegean will change. It hasn’t in the past, and it certainly won’t now that Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman dreams are in full gear. It will take very careful handling of the situation by all parties to prevent escalation. But we should also come to terms with the possibility that, eventually, confrontation might be inevitable.

Yiannis Baboulias is an investigative journalist, the writer of a forthcoming book on Golden Dawn, and a co-founder of the Precarious Europe project.

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