With formidable weapons on both sides, and bellicose talk to match it, there are fears that Greece and Turkey - both NATO members - could engage in an accidental conflict or a real fighting war as tensions have escalated in the Aegean, and along their border.
Turkish fighter jets have been violating Greek airspace for decades without a word from the defense alliance to which both belong, engaging in mock dogfights over sea where, underneath, Turkish warships have cruised past Greek islands.
In February, Turkish ships twice rammed Greek ships off the rocky, disputed islets of Imia which both claim, spiking worries that a jittery trigger finger on either side would have set off a battle or worse in an area where they nearly went to war in 1996.
Now, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, having narrowly survived a failed July, 2016 coup against him and gaining near-dictatorial powers in its wake, has stepped up provocations while fuming over not being allowed to join the European Union, and with elections coming in his country.
Turkey is holding two Greek soldiers who accidentally crossed the border while on patrol in bad weather and they face trial and, some Turkish media reports said, five years in jail with Erdogan strongly hinting they are hostages and bargaining chips to force the return of eight Turkish soldiers who fled after the coup, in which they said they took no part, and are seeking asylum in Greece.
Greek Premier and anti-nationalist Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras, apparently fearful that Erdogan would let human traffickers again flood Greek islands with more refugees and migrants, had been wary of tangling with the Turkish leader has stepped up his rhetoric too, calling Erdogan a “Sultan,” and beginning to press for the Greek soldiers to be returned, even calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin for help.
All that talk could be backed up, veteran Greek journalist John Psaropoulos wrote for The Weekly Standard, with tons of weapons on either side ready to slug it out in what could be a fast and furious war in a small space.
The border between the countries is only 105 miles long. The Aegean is only the size of Lake Superior but the two countries combined could pit a commanding arsenal of arms against each other, having a combined 67 surface ships, 448 fighter jets with smart bombs and guided missiles, 832 heavy tanks and more than 2,500 lighter artillery vehicles.
The unthinkable: that two NATO allies could battle each other, has become speakable with worry amongst Greeks that it could happen with the international community looking away, raising the ghost of 1974 Cyprus when Turkey was allowed to take the northern third of the island, with the US giving a wink and a nod of approval.
The military times and technologies are far different now, of course, with computer guided missiles, far more advanced submarines and warships and supersonic jets the primary forces although there is open talk in Greece that Turkey could take the island of Kastellorizo, only a mile off the coast of Turkey - and where then-Prime Minister George Papandreou went in 2010 to announce Greece needed a bailout that led to austerity.
The blue Aegean is the hotspot now where the intra-NATO war could commence.
Kostas Grivas, who teaches advanced weapons systems at the Hellenic Army Academy, calls it a “a unique theater of confrontation,” where “land, sea and air forces are simultaneously in use in a very confined area, and there is an enormous amount of weapons systems and men-at-arms in deployment,” the report said, with the fear that the speed of war today could lead to quick casualties from a planned attack or an itchy trigger finger.
An Aegean war, Grivas said, would resemble “a mini-nuclear war because there will be so much high-tech ordnance discharged it will cause a huge amount of damage.”
There was a record 3,317 Turkish airspace and 1,998 territorial water violations recorded in the Aegean last year—respectively double and quadruple the previous year’s numbers. A visit by Erdogan to Athens in December, 2017 to meet Tsipras and try to cool the jets didn’t work, and indeed backfired with Turkey stepping up provocations.
THAT TREATY ENTREATY
Erdogan doesn’t recognize the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that set borders between the countries, nor the Law of the Sea and has openly coveted the return of islands ceded to Greece, with firebrand advisors warning even Tsipras would have his arms and legs broken if he tried to step on Imia.
Since the Imia incidents and the detention of the Greek soldiers, polls showed 92 percent of Greek believe Turkey is their biggest threat and worries persist Erdogan is eager for a reason to attack to boost his popularity domestically and maybe be able to keep any gains, as Turkey did with Cyprus. “What I worry about is the risk of an unintentional confrontation,” said U.S. Ambassador to Athens Geoffrey Pyatt, with American intervention stopping a likely conflict over Imia with both countries since then mostly adhering to the “No Ships, No Flags,” unwritten rule.
While much of the tension has been over Turkish violations of airspace, Erdogan’s moving of warships into the Aegean, including blocking foreign energy drill rigs from reaching waters off Cyprus where they are licensed has added to the jitters with Turkey and Greece, along with the United Kingdom being guarantors of security on the island - that Turkey invaded. Greece and Turkey still haven’t settled on who owns what part of the Continental Shelf, leaving that unsettled too.
Turkey is now pushing claims on islands and declared a “Grey Zone” in the Aegean, particularly over the 12 Dodecanese islands first granted to Italy and then reverting to Greece in a 1947 Paris treaty. “There were high expectations in Turkey that at least some of the Dodecanese would not be given to Greece,” Thanos Dokos, who directs the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) think tank in Athens told Psaropoulos.
“By not participating in the Second World War they were spared the destruction, but they lost the remaining Aegean islands. You can see statements … over the years expressing frustration that an uninterrupted line of islands across the coast are ‘strangling’ Turkey.”
Along with the claims has come the firebrand rhetoric with nationalists in both countries firing away and taunting each other, Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, leader of the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) who are junior partners in the fragile coalition led by Tsipras’ SYRIZA barking that Turkey was driven out in 1821 with the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Occupation.
And despite having gained near-dictatorial powers in the aftermath of the failed coup, Erdogan’s popularity is said to be waning, with Turks tired of his aggressive act and shutting down dissent, his backers buying media outlets and the President imprisoning prosecutors looking into what is said to be vast fortune he has accumulated.
FIRE AT WILL
In office nearly 16 years, he has been pushing for more of an Islamic state than a European country’s makeup and now could be seen more likely not to care what the European Union thinks about what he does, even if it means war with an EU country and NATO ally, with the defense alliance likely to sit out any conflict between them and keep its distance.
In 2017, Turkey spent $15.8 billion on defence; Greece could manage only $5.4 billion, and almost none of that was investment in new weapons and while cutting its defense spending 40 percent in the last decade still ranks among the highest in the world per capita.
But the economic and austerity crisis has left Greece without the ability sometimes even to have enough fuel for its fighter jets although the country still has a strong and varied arsenal it can use for defense and attack.
Dokos said the hype has been matched by the build-up in arms and worries something could happen, even unplanned and with the Turkey's military less experienced after Erdogan’s purges.
“You have fewer channels of communication. … The influence of the usual firefighters—the US, primarily NATO—is extremely limited in Ankara today. So this is an explosive mix. Statistically, the risk of an accident is higher,” he said.
David Phillips, a former diplomat who runs Columbia University’s Program on Peace Building and Rights, believes an accident or miscalculation is more likely because President Trump would not want to get involved.
“The last thing the U.S. wants is to intervene between Turkey and Greece where military action is involved. So Erdogan may just think he can pull a fast one and get away with it. He might unleash forces he can’t control.”
ALL THOSE REFUGEES
Erdogan has an ace up his sleeve he can use: 2.5 million refugees and migrants who went to Turkey, fleeing war and strife and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, that he can let human traffickers send to Greek islands after allowing a million to be sent before getting a swap deal with the EU that has been suspended, leaving Greece even more overwhelmed.
There more than 64,000 of them in Greece, including some 15,000 on islands almost within, as Erdogan has said, shouting distance from the Turkish coast and as an observation post has been set up on his mainland to watch Imia closely.
But the refugees and migrants have also been sneaking in through the northern border, aided and abetted critics have said, by Turkey and where the two Greek soldiers accidentally stepped across the border and could face espionage charges.
Retired Ambassador Christos Rozakis, an expert on international law, told Psaropoulos of the real fears: “We are at the pinnacle of the problem now. I fear that from now on, nothing is a given. We have Erdogan, an unpredictable man. We’ve no idea what he’ll do tomorrow.”