Analyst says the level of anti-Greek sentiment in Turkey right now is historically high. ‘We haven’t seen anything like it in some 30 years’
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly aggressive posturing and rhetoric against neighbours Greece in recent weeks has less to do with Greece itself than with domestic political considerations but also tradeoffs that Ankara seeks from its Nato partners, analysts tell the Sunday Mail.
And far from being a ‘madman’ – a descriptive frequently assigned to him in the Greek-speaking world whenever he appears to go off the rails – Erdogan is in fact acting quite rationally and has certain specific objectives in mind.
“The changing geopolitical landscape with the conflict in Ukraine presents an opportunity for Erdogan’s Turkey to reassert itself as the key player in the region…in a way, the Ukraine war is the gift that keeps on giving,” says international relations expert Harry Tzimitras.
The bombast of the past few weeks, lashing out at Greece primarily, culminated in a series of Tweets Erdogan posted on his personal account. In a thread, and posting in the Greek language no less, the Turkish president sought to put Athens in her place, as it were, threatening severe consequences otherwise.
Meanwhile on Thursday, in televised remarks made as he observed large-scale Turkish wargames near Izmir, Erdogan said:
“I warn Greece to avoid dreams, acts and statements that will result in regret. Come to your senses.
“Turkey will not renounce its rights in the Aegean and will not back down from using rights that are established by international agreements when it comes to arming islands.”
Turkey alleges Greece has been building a military presence on Aegean islands – many of which lie close to Turkey’s coast – in violation of treaties that determine they must remain unarmed. It argues the islands were ceded to Greece on the condition that they be kept demilitarised.
For its part, Greece claims Turkey has deliberately misinterpreted the treaties regarding armed forces on its eastern islands and says it has legal grounds to defend itself in the face of what it describes as “hostile actions” by Ankara.
Ankara and Athens have long been at odds over a host of issues including maritime boundaries, overlapping claims over continental shelves, airspace and Cyprus.
After a five-year hiatus, the two Nato members last year resumed exploratory talks to address bilateral matters and lay the groundwork for formal negotiations to begin. However, the talks have made little progress to date, with both countries frequently trading barbs.
Last week, Erdogan announced Turkey was halting the discussions, partly over a dispute with the Greek prime minister and what Ankara calls airspace violations.
But for Tzimitras, director of the Prio Cyprus Centre, Turkey’s strongman is turning up the heat on Greece as leverage on his Nato partners – primarily the United States.
As usual, more than one reason is at play. One factor relates to the apparent upgrading of Greece’s status in the Mediterranean following Greek Prime Minister Constantinos Mitsotakis’ visit to Washington and his address before the US Congress.
In his speech, interrupted by several standing ovations, Mitsotakis appealed to the US defence industry to rethink arming countries in the region who pose a threat to stability. Though never once naming names, it was an unmistakable allusion to Turkey.
Mitsotakis’ talks in the US capital also yielded pledges of deliveries of F-35 fighters to Greece.
This realignment of ties – enhancing Greece’s stature – did not go down well in Ankara.
And whereas the F-35 is off the table for Turkey, it wants next-generation F-16s from Washington to ‘assuage’ its frustration over warming US-Greek ties.
“Essentially Erdogan’s message to the United States is this: ‘Back off from Greece’. Turkey will not relinquish its place as Washington’s preferred partner in the region and, should that happen regardless, it will exact a heavy price,” offers Zenonas Tziarras, a geopolitical analyst.
Tzimitras agrees, but hastens to observe that on the international stage Greece probably overplayed the success of Mitsotakis’ visit – almost as if to taunt Turkey.
“Arguably, too, Athens went above and beyond in terms of its stance on the Ukraine issue – sending weapons to Kyiv and so forth. Greece is now a hardcore member of the anti-Russia alliance – certainly appreciated by the United States, but on the flipside the shifting dynamics have irritated Turkey.”
That said, both experts stress that one shouldn’t dismiss Turkey’s rhetoric against Greece as mere theatre – the jingoistic posturing plays well with Turkey’s nationalist circles, what with elections coming up in Turkey next year.
According to Tziarras, “the level of anti-Greek sentiment in Turkey right now is historically high – we haven’t seen anything like it in some 30 years.”
Weighs in Tzimitras: “Erdogan himself probably doesn’t care about Greece or Cyprus that much. But his political allies, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), do. And he needs their support if he’s to get re-elected next year.”
The declining Turkish economy, hammered by rampant inflation, is wreaking havoc on Erdogan’s numbers. Polls show the Turkish leader doesn’t stand a chance of holding onto power unless something dramatic happens – even if that something is just for the optics.
Which leads Hubert Faustmann, professor of history and political science at the University of Nicosia., to predict a “hot summer” in the eastern Mediterranean – Turkey launching a new round of gas exploration inside Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone and/or near Crete, and possible harassment of Cypriot offshore drilling operations.
Whether that will cause a military clash with Greece is hard to tell – Tzimitras thinks it very unlikely, though he can’t rule it out entirely as accidents at sea do happen and could spiral out of control unless cooler minds prevail.
Essentially, Turkey is ‘taking it out’ on Greece – even though Greece is hardly its main concern. But Ankara knows that even a whiff of a potential conflict between two Nato members in the Mediterranean is the last thing Washington wants or needs.
At the same time, Sweden’s and Finland’s bids to join Nato – a corollary of the Ukraine war – have handed Erdogan a golden opportunity to drive a hard bargain and save face.
Turkey’s objections to Sweden and Finland because they harbour PKK elements are likely a mere pretext. The real intended tradeoffs are different – and they bring us back to Ankara’s desire to get its preferred relation status with the United States back on track.
But there’s more to it, says Tzimitras – and it has to do with Erdogan’s plans in Syria.
“It seems he wants to resettle half to a million Syrian refugees, now living in Turkey, back into Syria. Many in Turkey see the four million Syrian refugees as a drain on resources, especially now when times are lean.”
Erdogan thinks that if he can get the resettlement done by the 2023 elections, it would give him a big boost in the polls and possibly turn the political tide in his favour.
This resettlement would presumably be executed within a 30km-wide zone in northern Syria, cutting inside territory controlled by the Kurds. But Washington would be extremely averse to such a move, as it would mean abandoning its Kurdish allies in Syria.
Hence Turkey’s pressure on Greece – a soft target. Erdogan may well be stoking tensions with Athens as leverage on the United States, both in terms of the Mediterranean balance of power as well as his designs for northern Syria.
“Erdogan doing brinkmanship. Is he a rational actor? You could say his behaviour borders on the rational and irrational, but certainly always an opportunist,” opines Tziarras.
Independent presidential candidate, Neo Kyma’s Constantinos Christofides said on Saturday that in view of his expected electoral defeat in the upcoming presidential poll, Erdogan was resorting to proposing “extreme revisionist claims” against Greece.
“His effort is obvious. To capitalise on the nationalist vote. The Turkish opposition has also joined this line of reasoning,” Christofides said.
“Developments may become uncontrollable if Turkey attempts to challenge Greek sovereignty over the Aegean islands”.
Christofides said Cyprus’ allies in the EU and Nato must make it clear to the Erdogan government that any aggressive action would be met with a coordinated response from the international community.
“The Cypriot political leadership must also be vigilant. It is obvious that Cyprus will not be unaffected by an extreme derailment of Greek-Turkish relations,” he said, adding that this was already manifesting itself to the detriment of Turkish Cypriots in the north of the island.