Greece-Turkey tensions remain high as elections loom for Mitsotakis and Erdogan

Tensions between Greece and Turkey remain sky-high, after a series of military moves that some analysts fear could spill over into open conflict between the two longtime foes.

On Tuesday, in an apparent reprisal for Greece’s decision to position military equipment on the island of Samos, which lies less than a mile from the Turkish mainland, Turkey launched a test of its Tayfun short-range ballistic missile over the Black Sea, and Turkish media boasted that its military had the capability to strike anywhere inside Greece.

Last Friday, 92 migrants, mostly from Afghanistan and Syria, were encountered by Greek police close to the land border with Turkey, naked and without supplies. Notis Mitarachi, Greece’s minister for migration and asylum, tweeted that “Turkey’s behaviour towards 92 migrants whom we rescued at the borders today is a shame for civilisation.”

A spokesperson for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the accusations “groundless and unfounded.”

These events are just the most recent in a long list of rising disputes between the two NATO allies in recent months. A particular point of tension has been Greece’s placement of military equipment, including U.S.-donated tactical vehicles, on several of its islands in the Aegean Sea close to the Turkish mainland.

On Sept. 1, Erdogan raised the temperature of the long-simmering territorial dispute by accusing Greece of “occupying” the islands, which were ceded to Greece in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

“When the time comes, we will do what’s necessary,” he warned.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Oct. 13. (Sputnik/Vyacheslav Prokofyev/Pool via Reuters)

“We can come suddenly one night,” he added, a phrase that alludes to Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974, during which Turkey captured roughly one-third of the island, establishing the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Erdogan has also used the phrase in the recent past, for example before Turkey’s 2016 military campaign in Syria, as well as his warnings in 2017 to Iraqi Kurds against holding a referendum for an independent state.

In response to the recent threat, the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, insisted on Sept. 11 that war would never happen, but added that if Erdogan were to launch an attack, “Turkey would receive an absolutely devastating response.”

“There is no place for imperial visions in the 21st century, and would-be local bullies have no place,” Mitsotakis added.

Greece’s defense minister, Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos, called Greece’s actions on the islands “defensive” and warned against “revisionist and destabilizing behavior” from Turkey.

Air force standoffs between the two countries have also been frequent. In one encounter on Aug. 23, Greece allegedly maintained a radar lock on a Turkish aircraft with an S-300 missile system, an act of hostility under NATO rules of engagement — which Greece denies. Meanwhile, Greece has reported more than 7,000 violations of its airspace this year, according to Al Jazeera.

However, worries over more serious confrontation may be misplaced, according to Kemal Kirisci, a non-resident fellow of the Brookings Institution.

“‘Posturing’ is the word that most accurately captures what’s going on,” he told Yahoo News in a telephone interview. “I don’t see these crises escalating to a military confrontation.”

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 23. (Reuters/Caitlin Ochs)

Both Erdogan and Mitsotakis face elections in the summer of 2023, and the clashes between the two countries may serve to stoke domestic support for the two leaders, Kirisci said.

Erdogan’s popularity has waned in recent years amid continued economic hardship in Turkey. In September, inflation in the country hit a 24-year high of 80%. Mitsotakis, meanwhile, is mired in a domestic scandal after revelations that Greek national intelligence conducted surveillance of an opposition figure.

“Mounting tensions or even crises — real, imaginary or manufactured — especially vis-à-vis Greece, Turkey’s old foe, can be an easy way of deflecting attention from the very real economic and political problems Mr. Erdogan and his AKP party are facing as they are fighting for their political survival ahead of next year’s election,” Vassilis Ntousas, head of European operations with the public policy think tank German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Yahoo News.

Kirisci similarly identified domestic political concerns as a key motivation for the spike in animosity between the two nations.

“There is a long tradition between the two countries to abuse each other to mobilize especially nationalist voting bases in both countries, because more and more elections are settled on the basis of very small margins,” he said.

He added that while playing up tensions may motivate a small segment of the population, particularly on the far right, the majority of the population is unlikely to take much interest in it.

“Greece and Turkey have become much more integrated in the economic and social sense of the word. There is much more trade that flows in both directions, and there are many more people that flow in both directions,” Kirisci noted.

In particular, he highlighted the opening of a brand-new ferry line between the Greek city of Thessaloniki and the Turkish city of Izmir on Oct. 10 as evidence that such tensions remain in the realm of political rhetoric, not the lives of everyday Greeks or Turks.

Turkish Armed Forces hold a military exercise called “Fire at Will — 2022” in Ankara, Turkey, on Tuesday. (Dogukan Keskinkilic/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

For the U.S., the troubled relationship between the two countries is an unwelcome distraction at a time when President Biden has sought to maintain unity among NATO allies over the war in Ukraine.

On Tuesday, the American ambassador to Turkey, Jeff Flake, released a statement on Twitter stressing the United States’ commitment to impartiality in the disputes between the two states. The top priority for the U.S., he wrote, remains “peace, security, and stability throughout the region.”

Kirisci remains optimistic that the current tensions will subside.

“There is a whole history of such confrontations that have never escalated into a physical confrontation. It remains at the level of exchange of words or threats,” he said. “The media tends to cover the confrontation part and ignore the calls for dialogue.”

At a meeting of NATO defense ministers last week, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar invited his Greek counterpart, Panagiotopoulos, and his wife to visit Turkey to encourage continued positive relations. Akar told Hürriyet Daily News, “When we say dialogue, peace and brotherhood, some see this as weakness. There is no such thing.”

But Ntousas and other analysts worry that the current climate between the two countries remains hostile and uncertain.

“While few predict actual conflict or perhaps war, the risks linked to an accident are also on the rise,” he said, noting that the risk of a potential mishap or miscalculation makes continued dialogue all the more important.

Looking ahead, Ntousas also sees a long-term risk from escalating rhetoric, regardless of whether Erdogan wins in 2023. “Increasingly nationalist undertones and increasingly revisionist underpinnings regarding Greece may move the long-term operating window of how Ankara positions itself towards Athens in the future,” he said.

For the time being, the U.S. will be hoping that areas of cooperation and agreement will continue to outweigh areas of dispute.

Source: yahoo news

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