Greek former premier Costas Simitis has joined a chorus - including the United States and European Union - fearing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could spark a conflict in the Aegean and East Mediterranean, with designs on Greek islands and Cyprus.
The former leader of the now defunct PASOK Socialists said Erdogan may be planning another Imia crisis, referring to the 1996 incident in which the two countries nearly went to war over rocky, uninhabited islets between Turkey’s coast and Greek islands.
Speaking to Kathimerini, Simitis said that with Greece in a pre-election period leading up to July 7 snap polls, the survey-leading New Democracy would have a hot potato on its hands if the Conservatives beat the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA and come to power.
“The issues are known, but the prevailing conditions are different from those that prevailed for decades,” he said, referring to Erdogan sending two energy vessels and a warship into Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to look for oil and gas where foreign companies, including America’s ExxonMobil, are licensed to hunt.
He said the 1996 Imia crisis - in which three Greek servicemen died in a helicopter crash off the island that still hasn’t been explained and with some believing they were shot down and the incident covered up to prevent a full-blown war - “did not occur by chance.”
He added: “Since the then Turkish leadership wanted to take advantage of the crisis brought by (his predecessor as Prime Minister) Andreas Papandreou's illness, his resignation and the election of a new leadership, which they believed they could take by surprise.”
“It is not excluded that similar designs are harbored by the present Turkish leadership,” Simitis said, “The intense political confrontation in Greece ahead of the elections creates favorable conditions for such action.”
“Turkey could decide that this period provides an opening to impose its views on the delineation of both Greece's territorial waters and continental shelf,” Simitis said.
President Prokopis Pavlopoulos warned Turkey that Greece will defend its legal right to define its EEZ, with Turkey disputing the continental shelf and not recognizing the United Nations’ Law of the Sea, and noted that Athens has the backing of the EU, NATO and US.
Speaking at an event commemorating a resistance action against occupying German forces on the island of Crete in June 1942, Pavlopoulos said while Turkey doesn’t recognize laws governing the seas, including the Aegean and East Mediterranean it is bound by them.
WARNING SIGNS ON THE SEAS AHEAD
A catalyst has been Erdogan insisting he will go ahead with buying a Russian S-400 missile defense system that could compromise the defenses of NATO, the defense alliance to which Turkey and Greece also belong.
Adding to the tension, the US said it would not allow Turkey to go ahead and buy American-made F-35 fighter jets if Erdogan goes ahead with the Russian defense system purchases. Greece worries the defense system and F-35s could also be used in a conflict, putting Greece and its fighter pilots at a strategic disadvantage.
During his visit to Washington, Defense Secretary Evangelos Apostolakis - who earlier said he also feared a war over the seas - spoke with US officials about constant Turkish provocations that have gone on with NATO looking the other way.
In his meetings with Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Apostolakis called for the strengthening of the US military presence in the region and offered American access to all Greek bases, said Kathimerini.
Apostolakis, former head of the Greek Armed Forces, reportedly said Greece could be drawn into a war if Turkey persists in drilling in the EEZ of Cyprus - a member of the European Union - because Greece, like Turkey and the United Kingdom, the former Colonial ruler that still has a military base on the island, is a guarantor of security.
Questioned about Turkey's aggression in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean, Shanahan said that "dangerous and unprofessional acts” will not deter US operations, with the US Sixth Fleet having ships in the region as well.
In a letter, Shanahan said before meeting Apostolakis, he mentioned an “extremely attractive” US offer to Turkey to purchase its Patriot anti-aircraft system instead of the Russian system, the paper reported.
Shanahan’s letter also reportedly said the US will not let Turkish fighter pilots train in America if Erdogan gets the Russian system. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has kept a hands-off policy with Turkey despite the rising tensions and the defense alliance has made no moves for reprimands or sanctions.
Matthew Palmer, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, also has warned against Turkey’s plans for offshore drilling operations within Cyprus’ EEZ, reiterating American support for the legitimate government on an island where Turkey has unlawfully occupied the northern third since a 1974 invasion - with implicit US support at the time.
“The US strongly supports the right of Cyprus to exploit and develop its hydrocarbon resources and we believe that the proceeds from those resources should be shared equitably amongst all the people on the island within the framework of a negotiated settlement,” Palmer said in an interview with Cyprus New Agency after completing a round of meetings in Nicosia.
If Turkey - as it has done repeatedly - ignores entreaties and demands, Palmer said that,
“We’ve made clear to Turkey that we consider the actions that Turkey has undertaken in terms of its announced intentions to begin drilling as provocative and we have encouraged Turkey to stop those actions,” Palmer said.
“We have done that privately, we’ve done it publicly,” he said, without noting that the US also has a presence at Turkey’s Incirlik and Izmir Air Bases as part of NATO activities and with Washington still hoping Erdogan will ramp down the bellicose rhetoric.
The last round of talks to reunify Cyprus after 45 years collapsed in July, 2017 at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana when Erdogan and Turkish-Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci said they would never remove a 35,000-strong army in the occupied territory and wanted the right to militarily intervene again.
With energy thrown into the mix, the Cyprus question as well as Erdogan saying he openly covets return of islands ceded to Greece in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne a volatile, possibly explosive mix.
“We remain strongly supportive of the UN-led process of negotiations. We would like to see the island reunified. We would like to see that happen as quickly as possible,” said Palmer but there has been no sign the talks would begin again as the situation worsens more.