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Turkish-Greek Flare Up in the Midst of War in Ukraine

Turkish-Greek Flare Up in the Midst of War in Ukraine

Monday, 5 September, 2022 - 06:30

As problematic as the West Balkans may be, the East Balkans is also marred by problems.

On August 30, Türkiye celebrated the 100 anniversary of the crushing victory of the Turkish army against the invading Greek army. The Greeks regard this episode of their history as “the Asia Minor disaster”.

Today, the two neighboring countries, which joined NATO in 1952, form the eastern flank of the Alliance. Even though they are allies, tension has never been absent in their relations.

The two countries face each other along their border line, extending from their land border in the north down to the Aegean Sea and on to the Mediterranean.

Claims and counterclaims, skirmishes, push backs (of refugees by Greece) are frequent.

The most recent incident was during a NATO exercise at the end of August when Greek jets (once again) locked on to Turkish jets multiple times.

And on 24 August, Greece’s S-300 air defense systems located on the island of Crete locked on to Turkish fighter jets. “Lock on” is the last step before pressing the fire button.

Back in the 1990s, Cyprus (Greek Cypriots) had bought an S-300 battery from Russia. Under pressure from Türkiye, the US and the UK at the time, Cyprus gave up the system and transferred it to Greece. Part of the deal was that the system would be kept in the base on the Greek island of Crete and in its box (inactive).

As the latest incident revealed, the system is active and even used in a NATO exercise. It is also worth noting that Crete hosts a major NATO base and also an American base.

Türkiye has filed an official complaint with NATO, informing the Secretary General and relevant bodies of the Organization, about the incident at the NATO exercise.

The Aegean Sea where the incident took place is a peculiar geographic formation. There are hundreds of islands and islets. The islands on the eastern part of the sea, majority of which belong to Greece, are located just in front of Türkiye and are much closer in distance to the Turkish mainland than they are to the Greek mainland. They are a source of tension between Türkiye and Greece for a number of reasons.

For example, if Greece’s position on the territorial waters and airspace of these islands were to be accepted, the Aegean Sea would turn into an internal Greek Sea. Türkiye would not be able to move any of its sea vessels along its Aegean coastline from one Turkish city to another without permission from Greece.

The issue of air space in the Aegean is as peculiar. Greece claims 10 miles of national airspace over its territorial waters of 6 miles. That approach is unique and out of normal, as the normal implementation is whatever miles a country has in the sea, it has the same in the airspace above. It is this peculiarity which forms the basis of Greek claims to violations of its airspace by Turkish jets. Türkiye does not recognize the extra 4 miles as Greek national airspace and Greeks claim violation every time Turkish jets fly in this space.

Greece argues that the only problematic issue in the Aegean is the delimitation of the continental shelf and it could be solved in the International Court of Justice.

Türkiye on the other hand, does not rule out any peaceful settlement method including going to the International Court of Justice. But it points out that there are multiple problems in the Aegean and not only one problem as Greece claims.

During the first quarter of this year, there was hope for better relations between the two countries.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited Istanbul on March 13, 2022. This was not an official state visit on the invitation of Türkiye but he came to İstanbul to attend the religious service at Fener Orthodox Patriarchate.

In Istanbul, Mitsotakis also had a working lunch with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Various after-the-meeting statements from both sides led to an impression that the two leaders had agreed to work to solve their differences in good neighborly spirits as should be the case for two NATO allies.

This optimism lasted only until the official visit of Mitsotakis to Washington in May. The Greek Prime Minister delivered a speech at the US Congress and asked the US lawmakers not to give their approval to the F-16 fighter jet sales to Türkiye. He cited “Turkish threats and airspace violations.”

One NATO ally asking another NATO ally not to approve weapons sales to another NATO ally is very strange. This is especially so when it becomes a routine or rather a mission as it has become for Greece. On a similar move, Greece also asked Germany not to sell submarines to Türkiye.

The Turkish President said that what Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis did was contrary to what they had agreed (reconciliation and cooperation) at their meeting in Istanbul. He went on saying that his trust was betrayed and he was no longer going to deal with Mitsotakis.

In recent years, Türkiye’s various problems in its international relations inspired Greece to try to make the best of this situation.

Within this vein, Greece developed its bilateral relations with various countries in and around the region. It went on enriching its military inventory by buying Rafale fighter jets from France and seeking to buy F-35 jets. Greece is also said to be processing a deal with Israel to build its version of Iron Dome air protection system. Welcoming new or expanded American bases on Greek soil are also part of this policy.

All these moves are to a large extent aimed to gain a strategic edge over Türkiye. Greece is working hard to position itself as a strategically and militarily important, even indispensable country. The other aspect of its policy is to push Türkiye to react so that it can make its case as the victim of aggression. By this way, it thinks that it will be in a stronger position to pursue its national policies in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Relations with Türkiye have traditionally and routinely been part of domestic policy in Greece, it is hereditary. In Türkiye, this has been the case only in recent years and still to a much lesser extent than in Greece.

Both countries will have elections next year and I think neither side will be in the mood for any move which could be considered as “weakness and giving in” by the domestic audience.

One could expect NATO to allocate some of its time and energy to try to make sure that there is not an internal crisis in its eastern flank in the midst of a war in Ukraine.

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