Greek diplomats were stunned when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the Turkish delegation that negotiated the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne “betrayed” Turkey by giving away the Aegean Islands to Greece. He spoke of his frustration that these islands, which are “so close he can shout to them”, are not part of Turkey and stopped just short of demanding that their return to Turkey. He also stated that Turkey has a historic obligation to “protect” the Muslim populations of its lost Balkan provinces in Greek Thrace, Bulgaria, Serbia and further west.
These inflammatory comments come in the context of repeated Turkish justification for intervention in Iraq and Syria again based on a “historical obligation” to protect Sunnis from Shiite (i.e., Iran and Iraq) oppression. He implied Turkey needed to restore Mosul to its rightful owner.
The Greek foreign ministry protested Erdogan’s “provocative statements” while downplaying their significance as “meant for internal consumption.” I beg to differ.
The Treaty of Lausanne demarcated a border between the two countries designed to minimize the likelihood of future wars between the two old enemies. For the first 32 years, Lausanne worked. Turkey turned the relationship upside down in 1955 instigating pogroms in Constantinople. From then, Turkey has constantly escalated tensions between the two countries and undermined Greek sovereignty. Readers are familiar with Turkey’s frequent violations of Greek sovereign airspace and territorial waters and will remember the Imia incident. That would certainly have resulted in open war had President Clinton not intervened.
Erdogan’s declarations have opened an entirely new chapter in this ongoing crisis. Until now, Turkey based its claims on clever reinterpretations of existing treaties and agreements or on a demand for “equity” in the exploitation of the seabed. Never before has a Turkish Prime Minister formally questioned the validity of an existing internationally recognized Treaty. Erdogan declared Lausanne, a treaty that also demarcated Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq, null and void. Under the guise of fighting ISIS, Turkish ground forces have entered the territory of both countries and now threaten Iraqi sovereignty over the Mosul region. Turkey has now positioned itself as the protector of Sunnis against Shite repression led by Iraq with Iranian support, i.e., it has taken over the role of the Islamic State.
The Western political establishment has fallen into its old habits. It “tut-tuts” at Erdogan’s flagrant grab for dictatorial powers and his attacks on our allies the Kurds and then strains every muscle to placate Turkey as an ally in the fight against ISIS. Worse for Greece, western protests at Erdogan’s denunciation of Lausanne and his questioning of Greek sovereignty in the Aegean have been largely pro forma.
Erdogan has, without doubt, declared his intentions to undo the Treaty of Lausanne. He has already begun the process in Iraq and Syria. We must not discount the danger that once he has settled accounts with lost Ottoman provinces in Syria and Iraq he will turn his attention to Greece and the Aegean. Currently, the war in Syria and Iraq constrains him. Furthermore, the purge of the Turkish military, especially of his air force, has shifted the current balance of forces in Greece’s favor. The officer group most affected by dismissals is Turkish Air Force (TAF) combat pilots. Prior to the coup the TAF, had 600 active pilots for 325 fighter planes or almost two pilots per plane. Erdogan has dismissed and/or jailed half of them. This ration has fallen to 0.8/1. With two pilots per plane, the Hellenic Air Force currently has a decisive tactical advantage. Similar purges have also weakened other elements of the Turkish military though not so dramatically.
This gives Greece a breathing space of a few years. However, by 2020 we can expect the balance to turn dramatically in Turkey’s favor. New pilots will be recruited and trained. More dramatically, Turkey will continue to procure more modern aircraft while Greece, hobbled by budget constraints, will struggle to maintain its existing fleet. Turkey is on schedule in two years to acquire six F35 fighters, the most modern plane coming into the US inventory, and several dozen more in the next decade. Even though the numbers are small, its stealth capability will seriously challenge Greek air defenses. It may take several years to fully integrate the F35 but by 2020 the balance of air power will have decisively shifted to Turkey’s favor, if nothing changes. By 2020, Erdogan will probably have satisfied his territorial ambitions to the South and will be free to turn his attentions towards Greece. If he succeeds in recapturing “Ottoman” territories in Syria and Iraq, what will dissuade him from doing so in the Aegean?
Given its current internal political disarray and its financial problems, Greece will probably do nothing to prepare for a more powerful Turkey with Erdogan in charge promising to restore its “historic boundaries.” Germany seems equally dismissive of the threat and continues to insist that Greece drastically reduce defense spending before it will discuss debt relief. Erdogan also holds Mrs. Merkel hostage with the implied threat that he will release hordes of refugees into Europe if Berlin does not do his bidding.
What can Greece do? It’s best hope remains the Greek-American community. The Greek government and the community must reverse fifty years of worst practices and make a determined effort to persuade the US maintain a balance of power in the Aegean. Blocking the sale of the F35 may be difficult to achieve given that Turkey has already paid almost $200 million into the F35 development program. It should be easier to persuade Congress to reinstitute a military aid program to Greece; even 50 to 100 F16 or F15 fighters and a couple of missile destroyers would add enormously to future Greek deterrence. Alternatively, Greece might be left with its only other choice: going to war now before the odds change.