US Economic Pressure on Turkey Could Roll Over on Greece, Cyprus

An oversized copy of a 200 Turkish lira banknote, featuring a photo of modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decorates a currency exchange shop in Constantinople. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The doubling of tariffs on Turkish steel for the United States has Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan trying to do with a fast-spreading economic crisis but could also provoke provocations against Greece and Cyprus, despite the release of two Greek soldiers who had been held in Turkey since March 1 on charges of accidentally crossing the border.

The lira plunging, banks and businesses in turmoil, the Turkish military engaged in Syria, the newly-elected Erdogan, who gained near-dictatorial powers, found that hasn’t helped him against US President Donald Trump, who exerted pressure to gain the release of Donald Brunson, a 50-year-old American minister jailed in Turkey for two years, following a failed coup attempt against the Turkish leader in which he said he took no part.

Erdogan had regularly sent F-16 fighter jets and warships to violate Greek airspace and waters and had Turkish warships trying to block foreign energy companies, including from the US, reaching Cypriot waters where they are licensed to drill for oil and gas.

With the tariff doubling being followed by Trump signing a law suspending the sale of US-made F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, which Diaspora leaders and others fearing they could be used against Greece if a conflict breaks out, more likely with Erdogan in trouble politically and looking for another front to distract attention from the economy, he’s been hit with a double whammy.

“The possibility of escalating Turkish tensions or provocations against Greece and Cyprus as a domestic diversionary tactic is real, especially if a potential IMF (International Monetary Fund) bailout requires severe austerity measures that corrode Erdogan’s political support base,” John Sitilides, a geopolitical strategist at Trilogy Advisors LLC in Washington DC told The National Herald.

He said that Greece and Cyprus have additional leverage with Turkey’s economy wobbling and can urge the European Central Bank and EU countries to back more severe Turkish loan repayment or default procedures.

“But any pre-emptive Greek or Cypriot actions must advance very carefully. Turkey can at will begin to send some of the three million Syrian refugees it currently houses towards Europe through Greece, triggering domestic turmoil just as Athens re-enters international credit markets,” he said.
That was in reference to Greek housing more than 64,000 refugees and migrants sent first to Greek islands – holding more than 15,000 – with Turkey allowing human traffickers to operate during a suspended swap deal with the EU.

On Aug. 20, three international bailouts of 326 billion euros ($369.22 billion) for Greece will expire and Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras is focusing all his political hopes on that after plunging in polls for reneging on anti-austerity promises.

WHAT COMES NEXT?

There’s swirling volatility in the convoluted relations now involving the US, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus and wider geopolitical considerations.

“It is very difficult to forecast as to where this crisis will go and how it will be managed. The US and Turkey, although allies and strategic partners, presently have fundamentally different views on several foreign policy issues … I do not expect to see normalized relations between the US and Turkey in the short run,” Prof. Ahmet Sozen, Chairman of the Department of Political Science & International Relations at Eastern Mediterranean University on Cyprus told TNH.

An internationally-respected figure and speaker about the Cyprus crisis and on Turkey, he said that, “It is important to note that some of the European allies, including the driving engine of the EU, Germany, showed support to Turkey in the current crisis. There is a possibility that Turkey might normalize its relations with the European partners in which case Turkey acts flexible on the issues with Greece.”

The economic duel escalated after Turkey said it would hike tariffs on imports of certain U.S. products, including rice and coal. Tariffs on American cars were doubled to 120 percent while tariffs on alcoholic drinks to 140 percent.

Erdogan reacted to the financial instability by blaming foreign powers, in particularly the United States, a longtime NATO ally, which he said is waging an “economic war” as part of a plot to harm Turkey without explaining why as the US had recently said Turkey was an important friend.
“Turkey’s financial crisis is rooted in economic mismanagement, political corruption, central bank manipulation and willful dependence on foreign creditors – all domestic governance decisions,” said Sitilides.

The battle is being watched carefully from Greece, which Erdogan visited in December of 2017 and reiterated he didn’t recognize the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that set borders between the countries and as he escalated tensions on his return to Turkey, nearly resulting in a miltary conflict earlier this year after Turkish vessels twice rammed Greek ships off the rocky, disputed Aegean islets of Imia where they almost went to war in 1996.

RAMMING SPEED

Despite the economic crisis, there was no sign it was distracting Erdogan fully from his dealings with Greece and Cyprus as the Turkish Coast Guard stalked Greek fishing boats in Greek waters and a Turkish fishing boat fired a gun in the air to frighten away Greek boats in the Aegean.

Noting that, Ioannis Michaletos, a terrorism and security analyst at the Athens-based Institute for Security and Defence Analysis told The National Herald that, “Aa nationalistic tendency will be fulled by the Turkish side which increases chances of a crisis with Greece.”

He said there will be a heightened state of alert between the countries. “The Turkish economy is integrated to the global finance circuit much more than Greece’s. A Turkish default will unleash a domino effect in the global markets. At the same time, NATO cannot simply afford to ‘lose’ Turkey. So that brings up a confused yet dangerous situation,” he added.

“If all trials to reach a compromise fail, then there could be a global crisis coming out of Turkey. That will affect Greece as well geopolitically but also economically and of course it raises the probabilities of Ankara unleashing a new immigration wave. We are in the midst of spectacular events possibly in the coming weeks,” he added.

Antonis Klapsis, a former political analyst with the New Democracy think tank Constantinos Karamanlis Institute for Democracy, and Adjunct Lecturer of History at the Hellenic Open University and the Open University of Cyprus told TNH there are other worrying dimensions.

“The crisis creates a big problem for Turkey and personally for Erdogan. His political and electoral success ever since 2002 has been based on the fact that that the Turkish economy was doing well under his administration – even though that many people, including myself believe that this growth was to a great extent a bubble,” he said.

“As far as Greece and Cyprus are concerned, there is always the chance of some sort of ‘Hot Incident’ with Turkey. The Turks have the tactical advantage that they can choose when, where and how to escalate the tension if they decide to do so,” he added.

That could take the form of Erdogan ordering drilling off Cyprus and as he hasn’t moved to try to restart unity talks that collapsed in July, 2017 at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana when he and Turkish-Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci said they would never remove a Turkish army on the northern third that’s been occupied since an unlawful 1974 invasion.

“Erdogan will try to make a show when ExxonMobil starts drilling in the offshore block given to the company by the government. The Turks will also send a vessel making some sort of explorations in waters maybe west/northwest of Pafos, but they will not dare to confront with ExxonMobil, with the Americans in general directly,” he said.

Sitilides said there’s good reason for worry. He said: “Given Erdogan’s mercurial leadership style, and the rapidity and depth with which this domestic crisis has unfolded, the regional scenarios remain utterly unpredictable and very perilous.”