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Greece and Turkey's tense rivalry swells over land and sea

Why We Wrote This

While diplomacy around Iran and North Korea has drawn most attention lately, relations between Greece and Turkey have been quietly deteriorating amid shows of military might and rhetoric from both sides. Watchers warn that a miscalculation could lead to serious conflict.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras delivers a speech from the small eastern Aegean island of Kastelorizo, Greece, April 17. Tsipras said that relations between his country and Turkey are experiencing a "period of instability," and stressed that Greece will not negotiate any part of its territory. Later that day, two Turkish fighter jets "harassed" Mr. Tsipras's helicopter in the air, one of several incidents between Turkey and Greece indicative of an escalation in tensions.
Andrea Bonetti /Greek Prime Minister's Office/AP
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Tensions between Turkey and Greece reach back to the 19th century Ottoman Empire, but the last time the neighbors were at risk of war was 22 years ago. Now, after a string of incidents that have been occurring for almost three months, observers see a new low. “None of the outstanding issues from 1996, such as disputes in the Aegean and the issue of Cyprus, have been resolved,” says Sinan Ülgen, from the think tank Carnegie Europe. Leaders on both sides use strong language warning the other. In Turkey, President Recep Tayip Erdoğan’s increasingly nationalistic and authoritarian stance adds another layer of friction. Mediation may be needed, but it appears to be in short supply. When the two countries last came to the brink of war, the US stepped in. But the geopolitical landscape has changed. “There’s a big difference now. Back then the US was the unipolar superpower,” says Angelos Chryssogelos, of Chatham House in London. “Today what we lack is a strong outside presence. NATO is weakened, America under [President] Trump is unpredictable, and the EU is largely irrelevant in this dispute.” 

Relations between Greece and Turkey have deteriorated markedly over a series of incidents in the Aegean Sea and on their land border just since March. Tensions are at their highest pitch since 1996, when the regional rivals nearly went to war over a pair of uninhabited islets. There are concerns that one false move could lead to a military confrontation, despite the two neighbors being members of NATO.

What is happening between Greece and Turkey?

Friction has increased since Turkey refused to release two Greek guards who strayed over the border – the Greeks say accidentally when they got lost in snowy weather – on March 2. They were arrested on suspicion of espionage.

After two exercises on land, sea, and air meant to test its military readiness, Greece announced April 4 that it would deploy an additional 7,000 troops to its borders with Turkey, with half of them heading for the islands.

On April 9, Greek soldiers fired warning shots at a Turkish helicopter when it approached the Greek island of Ro, a few miles off the Turkish coast.

Later that week, a Greek fighter pilot died when his Mirage 2000-5 jet crashed into the sea after engaging in a mock dogfight with Turkish fighters. Mock dogfights are a regular occurrence, as Turkish fighter planes probe what Greece considers its air space and Greek fighter jets race to intercept them.

A day later, three Greek men from the tiny island of Fourni planted the Greek flag on an uninhabited rocky island a few miles away. Turkey, which disputes ownership of around 18 islands and islets in the Aegean, claimed to have sent a Coast Guard vessel to rip down the flag. That claim was bluntly dismissed by the Greeks, who said the flag was still there.

“Fourni is 20 miles from the Turkish coast,” says Angelos Chryssogelos, an expert on Greece at Chatham House, a think tank in London. “By no definition could this ever be considered disputed territory and yet they [Turkey] dispute it. So there’s a dynamic of them increasing their demands. Over the last six months, [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s tone has changed. It has become much more aggressive.”

In another incident, Turkish fighter aircraft intimidated a Greek military helicopter that was flying Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras over the Aegean Sea on April 17. Then on May 4, a Greek warship and a Turkish cargo ship collided in waters southeast of Lesbos.

It is not just in the Aegean that tensions are high. Athens has refused to extradite eight Turkish servicemen who fled to Greece after the attempted coup against Mr. Erdoğan’s government in 2016. Turkey’s detention of the two Greek border guards arrested in March is seen as tit-for-tat.

How bad is it?

Relations between Turkey and Greece are now at their lowest ebb in more than two decades.

“None of the outstanding issues from 1996, such as disputes in the Aegean and the issue of Cyprus, have been resolved,” says Sinan Ülgen, a visiting scholar at the Brussels-based think tank Carnegie Europe. “You have in Greece a defense minister from the extreme right who is open to provocative methods. And in Turkey you have a government that has become increasingly nationalistic. With an election approaching in Turkey, the political atmosphere in Turkey is more vulnerable now to possible provocations.”

What are the two sides saying?

In Turkey, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has accused the Greeks of behaving like “pirates.” The nationalist posturing from Ankara is only likely to increase as the country heads toward a snap election on June 24.

There is no shortage of fiery rhetoric on the Greek side, particularly from Defense Minister Panos Kammenos. He has described Erdoğan as a “mad man” who behaves like a sultan and “has gone completely crazy.” Mr. Kammenos, leader of the right-wing Independent Greeks party, a junior partner in the governing coalition, in March threatened to “crush” any Turkish incursion.

Greece’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Nikos Kotzias said recently that Turkey had come close to “stepping across red lines” with its behavior, referring to an incident in February when a Turkish Coast Guard vessel rammed into a Greek Coast Guard patrol boat off the very islet where the two sides came close to war in 1996. “If we didn’t have a calm and composed approach from the Greek side, no one can say where this could have led,” Mr. Kotzias told SKAI TV, a Greek television network.

How did we get here?

The strain between Turkey and Greece ultimately reaches back to the 19th century Ottoman Empire, when Greece won independence. But in recent decades, Cyprus has remained split between the Greeks and Turks, since the north of the island was invaded by Turkey in 1974 in response to a military coup backed by Athens.

Turkey’s position has become increasingly provocative as Erdoğan becomes ever more authoritarian, moving from being prime minister for 11 years to becoming the country’s first directly elected president in 2014. Since then he has silenced critics and detained tens of thousands of journalists, academics, lawyers, and military personnel. While banging the nationalist drum appeals to some voters, the bilateral conflict is also a distraction when the Turkish economy is stuttering, inflation is high, and the Turkish lira has dropped to record lows. Erdoğan has suggested that the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which established borders between the two countries, should be revised – a call that is seen as an outrageous provocation in Athens.

There are also strategic factors involved. Rich oil and gas deposits have been found around Cyprus, and Turkey has tried to block prospecting in offshore areas that it claims to own.

What are the stakes?

There are fears that a single miscalculation or overreaction could lead to a military confrontation.

“What if the other Greek planes thought the fighter had been shot down? They would have shot down the Turkish planes. That’s all it takes,” says Yiannis Baboulias, an analyst and journalist based in Athens. “Nobody would have wanted that, but it would have happened in a few minutes,” referring to the mock dogfight in which the Greek pilot died. “There’s a lot of concern in Greece that we may be heading for war in spite of everything.”

What can be done to ease the tensions?

Outside mediation may be needed, but it appears to be in short supply.

When the two countries came to the brink of war in 1996 over the disputed pair of islets – called Imia in Greek and Kardak in Turkish – the US stepped in to mediate.

Two decades on, the geopolitical landscape has changed, increasing the chance of an accidental conflict. “There’s a big difference now. Back then the US was the unipolar superpower. Today what we lack is a strong outside presence,” says Dr. Chryssogelos. “NATO is weakened, America under [President] Trump is unpredictable, and the EU is largely irrelevant in this dispute.”

The EU has less leverage over Ankara because Turkey no longer believes its accession to the bloc is likely. “The stabilizing effect of the prospect of Turkey joining the EU has vanished,” says Mr. Ülgen. “The issue no longer enters the calculus of Turkish policy makers and the EU has lost all leverage over Turkey.”

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