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16.01.2023 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Unrelenting Turkish-Greek tensions

Centuries change, epochs succeed one another … It seemed that antagonistic contradictions between peoples and states should be a thing of the past, that a historical decision should lead to the formation of civilized relations between former adversaries and enemies. However, not only does time have no power over collective memory, but sometimes we observe a return to the past.

Turkey, as the heir to the Ottoman Empire, still maintains a series of contradictions with almost all of its geographical neighbors, of which Turkish-Greek relations deserve special attention. From the fall of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, in May 1453 until the proclamation (recognition by the great powers) of Greek independence in February 1830 – that is, for almost four centuries – the Greeks lived under Ottoman rule.

After World War I, Greece was never able to consolidate Eastern Thrace and Smyrna (Izmir) on the Aegean coast. Greek defeat in the Asia Minor War of 1919-1922 was related to both external conflicts (especially the Anglo-German, Anglo-French, and those between Russia and Europe) and internal dissents (especially King Alexander’s opposing course in favor of England and the pro-German orientation of his father Constantine, who returned to the throne after his son’s death). In many ways, the successes of Ismet Pasha’s army at Inönü and Mustafa Kemal Pasha’s army at the Sakarya River, Istanbul and Smyrna were achieved thanks to the alliance between the governments of Soviet Russia and Kemalist Turkey. These wars were accompanied by atrocities against Greek and Turkish civilians.

However, the historical problems inherited by the two governments are not the only ones on the list of interstate relations. There are also the territorial contradictions concerning the ownership of some islands in the Aegean Sea, the definition of territorial waters in the maritime zone, and the resolution of the Cyprus issue.

After the 1923 Lausanne Peace Treaty, Turkish-Greek relations seemed to be gradually restored by the middle of the 20th century. However, the desire of Greek Cypriots for reunification with Hellas led to a renewed outbreak of Turkish-Greek confrontation (e.g., pogroms against Greeks in Istanbul). In July 1974, as is well known, there was a coup in Nicosia and a radical Greek government of the “Black Colonels” came to power. Some experts (e.g., M. Drusyetis, K. Artamonova) saw the events in Cyprus as a US reaction to the nonalignment policy in relation to NATO and the pro-Soviet aspirations of Archbishop Makarios.

In late 1973, Cyrus Vance, US Assistant Secretary of Defense and Special Envoy for Cyprus, said in Rome, “If the situation in the eastern Mediterranean deteriorates again, the United States will not prevent Turkey from invading Cyprus and sending troops.” America feared at the time that Cyprus would become a “red island.” As a result, the Turks used the controversy between Archbishop Makarios and the administration of US. President Nixon as a casus belli and carried out Operation Attila – the landing and occupation of the northern part of Cyprus with the proclamation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) – at lightning speed. Adding to the problem is the complex maritime boundary in the Aegean Sea, disputed approaches to ownership of a number of islands inherited by Greece from Italy, which had previously seized them from the Turks.

Territorial issues are often closely linked to the conflicts of economic interests between Turkey on the one hand and Greece and Cyprus on the other. Economic motives are often at the forefront of the next escalation of Turkish-Greek relations. In particular, Turkey, which is not rich in energy resources, claims parts of the Greek Aegean and Mediterranean shelves, where significant oil and gas reserves have been discovered. And only the system of military controls in the NATO bloc under the aegis of the United States won’t not let the next crisis in relations between Ankara and Athens slide into a military conflict.

Economic conflicts usually imply the entry into Greek territorial waters of Turkish research vessels that have received permission from their government to extract oil or gas. The international institutions (UN, the Court of Arbitration) cannot resolve the Turkish-Greek conflicts, and the slide into a “hot conflict” can be contained thanks to the intervention of NATO and the course of the United States.

Turkey and Greece are part of NATO and, in fact, formal military-political allies, even if there are clear contradictions between them. However, as has been shown over time, membership in the North Atlantic bloc does not reduce the extent of Turkish-Greek confrontation. This practice shows once again that NATO is mainly driven by the primary interests of the two leaders of the Anglo-Saxon world (the US and the UK) who initiated the formation of this military alliance in the middle of the last century. The other members of the bloc align their interests with those of Washington and London, and their favorable geography and foreign policy determine their place in NATO.

Meanwhile, Turkey has a long tradition of flexible and pragmatic diplomacy. It is known that after the Cyprus crisis in the mid-1970s. The United States was forced to impose an embargo on the supply of arms and equipment to Turkey and reduce support for the Turkish economy. This situation contributed to the governmental crisis in Turkey and led to a series of snap elections, the formation of unstable governing coalitions, and the rise of social problems. The domestic political crisis was caused not only by internal problems but also by external interference.

Meanwhile, in the second half of the 1970s, Turkish intelligence agencies (especially MIT), on the recommendation of their government, actively explored the possibility of separate negotiations with the Soviet side on a military-technical partnership. In 1978, under the guise of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Turkish side actually made that proposal to Soviet representatives in Istanbul. Moscow advocated strengthening Soviet-Turkish relations and weakening the southeastern flank of NATO. On this basis, the Soviet side took a positive view of Ankara’s possible turn in the military-technical sphere.

However, the Turks leaked information so that the DIA and the CIA could convince the Pentagon and the White House that Ankara had an alternative. Ultimately, this situation led to Turkey’s third military coup in 1981, which strengthened pro-US positions. Accordingly, after removing political obstacles to maintaining and strengthening US and NATO positions in strategically important Turkey, Pentagon chief Caspar Weinberger announced the end of the embargo on military supplies to the ally because of the Cyprus crisis.

The long history of almost 50 years without a political solution to the Cyprus question is not evidence of the impossibility of resolving the problem in Greek-Turkish relations with the participation of the great powers, but rather of the unwillingness of the United States to put an end to the long-standing dispute. At one time, fear of the alleged Sovietization of Cyprus led to the occupation of part of the island by the Turks as part of US plans to control the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. The US has alternately imposed and lifted military embargoes on Turkey and Cyprus. At the same time, Washington’s goal remains unchanged: to maintain control over strategic regions with a divide-and-conquer policy.

Following the discovery of oil and gas fields on the Greek and Cypriot shelves of the Aegean and Mediterranean seas, the Turkish-Greek dispute has taken on a new poignancy in the first quarter of the 21st century. The fact that Turkish authorities under the leadership of President R. Erdoğan began to pursue a balanced policy and focus on pragmatic national interests, especially in their partnership with Russia, aroused the unhealthy jealousy and criticism of the United States.

Turkey has once again become the “France of the Orient” which US regional policy stumbles against. Following the Turks’ purchase of the Russian S-400 SAM systems, the United States famously imposed sanctions to restrict military supplies to its NATO ally (specifically the Patriot air defense systems and F-16 fighter jets). For its part, Ankara is seriously concerned about the US military policy toward Greece and Cyprus, in terms of military base reinforcements and arms deliveries. Athens and Nicosia now receive significant military support in the form of fighter jets, air defenses, and naval forces. The US does not even rule out the transfer of its largest air base, Incirlik, from Turkey to Greek territory. France, in turn, is delivering its new Rafale aircraft to the Greeks.

Although Turkish forces are more than twice as numerous as Greek forces (355,000 troops versus 144,000), Ankara cannot repeat the Attila blitz operation against Greece for several reasons. First, the Turkish army is now spread across several theaters of war (including Syria, Libya, and the Caucasus), which does not give it a large numerical superiority over the Greeks in the event of a military conflict. Second, Greece and Cyprus now receive significantly more weapons and equipment from the United States than Turkey. Third, the Americans are expanding their military bases on Greek territory (including the base of the NATO 6th Fleet in the Greek waters). Fourth, in the event of a Turkish-Greek military escalation, the US (and with it most NATO countries) will support Athens rather than Ankara. Accordingly, despite the high level of military threats in the Turkish president’s speeches promising an “overnight trip,” a military conflict with Greece and Cyprus is rather out of the question and could be costly not only for Recep Erdoğan’s political career but also for Turkey itself.

In the second half of the twentieth century, officers of the General Staff and intelligence agencies closely linked to NATO and the United States played the main role in all three coups d’état in Turkey (1960, 1971, and 1980). Another such attempt in July 2016, involving senior Turkish Air Force officers (notably former Air Force Chief Akın Öztürk and the head of Incirlik NATO Air Base, Bekir Ercan Van), failed and resulted in a putsch rather than a coup d’état. At the same time, Russia played a positive role in preserving the constitutional government of Turkey and its leader.

Thus, by a strange coincidence, the Turkish-Greek contradictions in the first quarter of the 21st century could repeat the situation of the second half of the 1970s, when Turkey was able to change course from the West to the North between the United States and Russia. However, for President R. Erdoğan, it is important to preserve his power in the process.

Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD in political science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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