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Could Iran-Crisis Provide Cover for Erdogan?

Could Trump’s confrontation with Iran allow Turkish President Erdogan to precipitate a crisis with Greece? Erdogan has already positioned oil exploration ships with naval escorts threatened to drill in both the Greek and Cyprus Exclusive Economic Zones. Turkey has asserted its right to drill, not just off Cyprus but anywhere in its (claimed) EEZ, in diplomatic notes warning EU countries not to interfere. Could Erdogan take advantage of American distraction should shooting start in the Persian Gulf? History indicates that Turkey gets away with outrageous actions when Washington is preoccupied, given that no other power has the will to intervene.

Let’s review the previous moments when Turkish provocations brought the two countries to the brink of war. Sixty-four years ago this coming September a small bomb slightly damaged the birthplace of Kamal Ataturk, now a museum adjacent to the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki. The following day pro-government Turkish newspapers headlined the “attack” and within hours thousands of rioters filled the streets of Istanbul, killing, raping and pillaging. Greece mobilized and the two countries looked to be on the verge of war. Alarm bells rang in Washington and diplomatic cables flew to Athens and Ankara demanding both countries step back from the precipice. As an interesting aside on why we need good Ambassadors, the American Ambassador in Athens, on his own, delayed delivery of the diplomatic note to the Greek Government by 24 hours making it appear that the United States beat up Ankara first. He saw that, in the haste of drafting, the State Department had sent identical messages of reproof to both countries; delivery at the same time would have made it look like Washington blamed both countries for the crisis. His action defused Greek outrage, apportioned the blame, as deserved, to Turkey and provided cover for the Turkish Army to overthrow the Government of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. The Turkish Army tribunal that followed condemned Menderes to death because he had blamed the Army for the riots. The trial also revealed that Menderes had bussed in thousands of men from rural Turkey. Menderes arranged for two Turkish consular officers to put the bomb in Ataturk’s birthplace and then used it as a pretext to unleash the mobs to devastate the Greek, Armenian, and Jewish neighborhoods.

The August 1964 crisis that saw Turkish warplanes dropping napalm on Kokkina, a Greek-Cypriot coastal town, hitting Cypriot patrol boats, resort hotels and a hospital, killing more than 50 people does not appear to have been planned in advance. Greek and Turkish Cypriot irregular forces had started fighting that got out of control. Turkish Prime Minister Ismet Inonu’s threat to invade Cyprus to “protect” Turkish Cypriots produced a letter from President Lyndon Johnson sternly forbidding such an attack.

We all know the story of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. A Greek-mainland sponsored coup overthrew Makarios; Turkey invaded under cover of the Treaty of Guarantee and then followed up with a second invasion that created the current state of affairs. We fail to connect the timing with the crisis in the United States: Watergate, impeachment, and Nixon’s resignation. On the night the Turks actually landed, the Department of State woke Kissinger up at 3:00 AM in California where he had gone to preside over the collapse of the Nixon administration. His mind was on other things. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, who had studied under Kissinger and followed American politics closely, understood that the United States was incapable of reacting. (Note: While I strongly believe from personal observation that Kissinger was caught off guard by the first invasion, he was very culpable for the second attack.) I find it impossible to imagine that Nixon, had he been functioning normally at the time, would have looked the other way as Kissinger did.

The 1996 Imia incident which brought Greece and Turkey closer to war than at any time since 1955 may or may not have been a planned provocation. There is evidence that the Turks planned a small probe to see how the Greeks would react but it got into the press and escalated quickly. Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, the only woman who has ever held the job, felt herself constrained to play the tough guy. Greek PM Costas Simitis had an exaggerated faith in EU solidarity and kept waiting for the EU intervention that never came. Greek commandos landed on one island and Turkish commandos landed on the one next to it. Warships converged and things looked grim. At quite literally the 11th hour, once again a U.S. President, Bill Clinton, intervened to defuse the present situation.

In 1955 and 1964, U.S. leaders reacted swiftly and nipped the chance of war in the bud. In 1974, a clever Turkish Prime Minister exploited his friendship with a U.S. Secretary of State, the stupidity of a Greek dictator and the mistake of the Cypriot President, to launch an invasion of Cyprus. Despite all that, it would never have happened if the Nixon administration had not collapsed.

If the current hand wringing and finger admonishing is any indication, the European leadership still lacks the will or the capacity to protect its borders. NATO can do little better; it has no mechanism to prevent a clash between members. Only the United States can and has prevented it in the past. We may be approaching another United States lapse. This administration constantly and painfully pokes Iran in an effort to force it to the negotiating table. As previously noted in this column, the administration may have completely misread the dynamics affecting the confrontation with Iran. Its conduct of foreign affairs over the last two years proves it cannot walk and chew gum at the same time.

Does Erdogan want war? Almost certainly he does not. However, he has bluffed on the EEZ and drilling to the point of put-up or shut-up. He has suffered a dangerous electoral setback in his base, Istanbul. Turkey’s economy faces rising inflation and he has gone out on a limb defying the United States over Russian missile procurement. His adventures in Syria have gone awry. He needs a win. Forcing a confrontation with Cyprus has one complication: Israel’s interest in the same gas field where Turkey proposes to drill. With Greece he might calculate that he can face down an outgoing Tsipras administration or an incoming Mitsotakis Government before it can get its act together. He could risk drilling in the EEZ south of Kastellorizo, gambling that the Greeks would blink.

If this sounds unduly alarmist or even a bit fanciful, we should remember that no one in Europe or the U.S. Government believed Turkey would land on Cyprus in 1974. We were distracted then and we could be distracted now if something went south with Iran.