ATHENS – A Turkish warship’s use of live ammunition in contested Naval exercises off a Greek island has spiked worries of a confrontation with Turkey and escalation of tensions.
But security analysts are cautioning that it’s more likely Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan playing to a domestic audience as he seeks to gain more sweeping powers and livid a Greek court won’t extradite eight Turkish soldiers who fled a failed coup against him
Turkey has for weeks been sending F-16 fighter jets into Greek air space, leading to mock dog fights with Greek pilots, and sent warships past Greek islands that Erdogan said rightfully belong to Turkey.
But it was the firing of Turkish naval guns that really rattled Athens with a diplomatic source telling the newspaper Kathimerini that the incident off the eastern Aegean island of Farmakonisi was “a grave violation of international law.”
“Turkey’s unacceptable act raises serious concerns about the potential consequences of its behavior on the stability of the wider region,” the source said.
Both sides are members of NATO, which has said or done nothing to stop Turkish incursions into Greek waters or violations of air space with F-16 fighter jets.
What’s especially troubling to observers is the possibility of an unintended escalation, someone on one side or the other firing in anger.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned of an “undesired accident” after Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos flew over the islet of Imia, which both countries claim.
Kammenos went there after Turkey’s military chief passed the islet on a gunboat
In comments published in Turkish daily Hurriyet, Cavusoglu accused Kammenos of “constant provocations,” adding that “if there is an undesired accident, it will not be possible to correct it.”
Could it happen?
“There are little chances,” Ioannis Michaletos, a terrorism and security analyst at the Athens-based Institute for Security and Defence Analysis told The National Herald.
He said the Turkish military has been decimated since the failed coup and that some 70 percent of the fighter pilots either had to resign or were imprisoned, as were Naval officers.
“Erdogan does not yet trust his Army to conduct a real mobilization since that could be used not against Greece but against him,” he added, citing the military odds to be weighed.
RAISING THE HEAT
While Kammenos has provoked Turkey and Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras has said little – fearing Turkey will unleash more refugees and migrants onto Greek islands, critics said – the tensions are palpable enough to worry Greece’s major opposition New Democracy.
“We are deeply concerned to witness Turkey’s insistence on provoking … and maintaining a climate of tension in the Aegean,” New Democracy Shadow Foreign Minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos said in a letter to Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias.
John Nomikos, Director of the Athens-based Research Institute for European and American Studies (RIEAS) was concerned. “Greek Armed Forces must be alert in the coming months in order to prevent an ‘accidental war’ from Turkish aggressiveness,” he told TNH.
Greece sees the the spike in violations of Greece’s air space and territorial waters by Turkish ships and jets as a test of its resolve, the newspaper Kathimerini reported, part of a trend that began Jan. 29 when a Turkish gunboat carrying Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar sailed around Imia, where the two countries also went to battle in 1996 over the uninhabited rocks.
“Turkey is a ‘wild cat’ in a geopolitical corner, looking ways for an ‘accidental war’ by attacking Greece in the Aegean or Thrace regions,” Nomikos said.
“Unfortunately, Greece has been a ‘communication Trojan Horse; for Erdogan in order to manipulate Turkish Public Opinion from serious economic turmoil, job unemployment, lack of investment and of course frustration in the Turkish Armed Forces after the failed military coup,” he said.
Michaletos said Erdogan has too many fronts, including Syria, to do little more than rattle sabres over Greece, which has a sizeable military for a country its size and fighter pilots experienced in the mock dog fights.
“US and NATO will not give a break to Erdogan if he decides to conduct an offensive move into Greece, likewise Russia despite its warm relations with Erdogan , is unlikely to let him become a ‘loose cannon’ in the region,” he said.
If it came to an armed conflict, he said, “Turkey can rather easily get hold of a Greek small island … but it risks heavy casualties that will leave its area unprotected, risking an elevated risk of a Kurdish uprising.”
In the end, it will more likely be a 21st-Century problem that stops a conflict, he said. “Both countries and especially Greece will be economically decimated and that’s what actually keeps both sitting tight.”