The Eastern Mediterranean Gets More Dangerous

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters in Manisa, Turkey, Friday, Feb. 24, 2017. (Presidential Press Service, Pool via AP)

The last couple of weeks have seen a steep deterioration in atmosphere in the Eastern Mediterranean. Relations between Greece, Cyprus and Turkey have worsened for no good reason. Turkish air and sea violations of Greek have increased, Turkish spokesmen make increasingly bellicose statements, and Erdogan Turkey has laid down “unchangeable” conditions that make continuation of Cyprus peace talks a bad joke. Erdogan’s actions in these regards defy any objective analysis.

Greece had until this week kept a rhetorical low profile (except for one or two unfiltered statements by its defense minister). Greek fighter planes followed the Turkish trespassers but did not interfere in their flights to avoid provocation. The Cyprus peace talks were going nowhere despite protestations by the Cypriots and the UN. Laying down deal-killing conditions when Turkey had no need to attract attention to its obstructionism defies logic.

Reckless provocation at a time of relative Turkish weakness further baffles most observers. The Turkish Army, the one sector where Turkey has an unequivocal advantage over Greece, has shifted its weight to the south of the country. Most of its best brigades are tied down fighting Turkey’s restive Kurdish minority the south east of the country or deployed to and across its borders with Syria and Iraq. Turkish forces are now engaged in ground combat inside Syria to evict ISIS from a strategic border region and preempt Kurdish militias from doing the same.

Turkey’s proxies, a rag-tag bunch of Sunni Arab rebel groups would prefer to fight the troops of the Assad regime (and its Russian and Iranian allies) rather than ISIS. The Turks have suffered significant casualties at the hands of both ISIS and the Kurds. Further weakening his forces, Erdogan took advantage of the recent coup to jail or cashier virtually the entire command structure of the Turkish Navy and Air Force as well as firing or jailing half the pilots of Turkey’s Air Force (TAF). In short, if something got out of hand, Turkey would find itself at great disadvantage until it could rebuild its personnel structures and redeploy its ground forces.

Yet, for some inexplicable reason, Erdogan has doubled down on these provocations. Firing almost all the senior generals and admirals increases the danger that an incident could spiral out of control. The four decades have seen repeated provocations and even a few incidents that caused casualties on both sides. In the past, the armed forces leadership in both countries had the wisdom and experience to prevent escalation. Unfortunately, on the Turkish side, the adults are no longer in charge.

Erdogan appears to have come completely unhinged by the events of the last two years. His apparent dream of reestablishing some sort of “Ottoman commonwealth” over Turkey’s southern neighbors foundered on his misreading of the Arab perception of history. He may have believed that his form of Islamist political revival would find resonance among the Sunni populations of Syria and Iraq. Ethnicity and history trump religion almost every time.

The failed military coup probably fed his paranoia while giving him pretext to crack down harshly on the structure of democracy and a liberal order in Turkey. He appears to have adopted the tactics of the old Kemalist regime he worked so hard to overthrow by constructing outside enemies to distract from his domestic problems. By denouncing the “traitors” who negotiated the Lausanne Treaty, which established Turkey’s boundaries after World War I, he laid the groundwork for creating a myth of betrayal that justifies threatening his neighbors.

The Western press has reported mostly on Turkey’s territorial revanchism in Syria and Iraq; I suggest his tirade about the “traitors who gave away Aegean islands close enough to hear me shout” should concern us more. Greece’s refusal to hand over the eight Turkish officers who fled to Greece after the coup outraged Erdogan’s ego and inflamed his anti-Greek rhetoric. This outrage appears to have communicated itself to the younger Turkish officers newly promoted to command positions. The increased tempo of violations of Greek airspace and territorial waters may reflect that outrage as well as curry favor with the Sultan wannabe.

The danger of accidental escalation cannot be overstated. For those of us old enough to remember, the 1995 Imia Incident got out of hand because then-Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, escalated for domestic political purposes before her generals and admirals could stop her. Appeals by Greece to NATO and to the EU to intervene were answered by silence; the Europeans fell all over themselves trying to get out the door. Greece and Turkey were literally a few hours away from war when President Clinton called Ankara and Athens and told them to stand down. With Europe in disarray and an American President bad-mouthing NATO, does anyone have confidence that someone would stop the war now?

The Greek political leadership has abandoned its previously supine and accommodating tone and turned more bellicose in hopes that Ankara wakes up but Erdogan is sleeping through the alarm clock.