Greece Girds for Two More Years of Turkish Tension

FILE - Turkish police officers guard the entrance to Greece's consulate, as a small group of protesters gather demanding the extradition of the eight Turkish military officers who escaped to Greece by helicopter after the failed coup attempt in July 2016, in central Istanbul, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/ Emrah Gurel)

ATHENS – Greece expects tension with Turkey over Aegean islands could go on for two more years and believe Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will try to claim them.

Erdogan id furious Greece’s high court refused to extradite eight Turkish military members who fled a failed coup against him in July, 2015 – they denied being involved and said the fled in a helicopter after taking fire and landed in northern Greece.

He has stepped up provocations, sending more F-16 fighter jets to violate Greek air space, and warships past Greek islands after previously saying he won’t recognize the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that set borders between the countries.

Erdogan said some of Greece’s islands near Turkey’s coast – so near he said they were within shouting distance – belong to Turkey as the anxiety between the two NATO members continues to escalate.

Greek and foreign analysts said Erdogan’s stepping up of belligerent language is tied to an April 16 referendum in which Turkish voters will decide to expand his authorith and give him near-dictatorial powers even though he wants to bring his country into the European Union which has denounced him for imposing harsh anti-terror laws.

Erdogan has created “grey areas” in the Aegean, essentially disputing Greece’s sovereignty, even over unpopulated islets such as Imia, a group of rocks where a previous confrontation in 1996 almost brought the countries to war.

Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos flying over Imia. Photo: Eurokinissi, File.

Greek officials told Kathimerini they believe the trouble will last up to the 2019 national elections in Turkey and that if Erdogan fails to gain greater powers in April this year his government could become unstable, especially as he has decimated the military of many of its officers who were arrested.

There’s a vacuum in the United State’s ability to be a broker of calm as key State Department officials who were involved in relations between Greece and Turkey have left and not been  replaced by  administration of President Donald Trump although there is some optimism as his Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, has Greek heritage.

Greece’s Foreign Ministry criticized comments made by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Imia and the Turkish soldiers seeking asylum in Greece.

“When someone is unable to respond politically to the facts, he may well not understand them. He may not grasp the technical, legal and political aspects of the issues, and for this reason chooses to make personal attacks. Attacks that do not promote the relations between the two countries and are foreign to our political culture. One’s actions reflect on oneself,” the ministry said, the Athens News Agency reported.

Asked in an interview with Anadolu Agency on Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias’ remarks that the Turkish “General Staff Chief couldn’t set foot on the Imia even if he wanted to,” Cavusoglu was quoted as saying: “If his duty was to do so, he would have done it. Let’s not forget that we set foot on the places we were supposed to. Our stance on Kardak (the Turkish name for Imia ) is clear.”

Commenting on the Greek Supreme Court’s decision not to extradite the soldiers, Cavusoglu claimed Greece is “preventing the traitors from being prosecuted for their crimes” which is “not in line with good-neighborly, friendly relations.”