ATHENS -- Able to block NATO – which requires consensus among members – and with the European Union afraid he'll flood the bloc with more refugees and migrants through Greece, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is getting a free pass from both.
That's the feeling, said The New York Times in a feature, from diplomats and analysts as the belligerent Erdogan, ruling Turkey like a quasi-dictatorship, keeps sending fighter jets and warships to violate Greek airspace and waters where he plans to send energy drill ships – just as he's doing off Cyprus with no one moving to stop him.
Greek Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis' calls for the EU to hammer Turkey with hard sanctions were politely ignored after the bloc's leaders – nearly apologizing for even thinking of getting tough – issued only soft sanctions for the drilling off Cyprus, which he promptly ignored.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg made no secret of his reluctance to do anything about Turkish aggression in the Aegean and East Mediterranean even as Greece and Turkey were at a conflict flash point after Erdogan said energy research would begin off Greek islands before German Chancellor Angela Merkel intervened.
Turkey and Greece belong to NATO, as does France, one of whose frigates was forced to withdraw from Turkish warships escorting escorting a vessel suspected of smuggling weapons into Libya, violating a United Nations arms embargo.
Turkey has made a deal with Libya – that portion recognized by the UN despite violations of the arms embargo – dividing the seas between them, claiming waters off Greek islands, including Crete, where the US Navy has a base on Souda Bay.
Turkish warplanes buzzed an area near the Greek island of Rhodes after Greek warships went on alert over Turkey’s intent to drill for undersea natural gas there, the story noted before Turkey on Aug. 5 sent fighter jets into Greek airspace 33 times.
For all that, EU diplomats want no part of tangling with the tough guy Erdogan, the bloc and NATO said to believe Turkey is too big, powerful and strategically important at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.
Gone unsaid is that Turkey has failed for 15 years to advance talks to join the EU as Erdogan purged civil society, the judiciary, military, the education system and jailed journalists by the dozens, drawing only limp tweets of feeble protest in return.
“It’s getting hard to describe Turkey as an ally of the U.S.,” Philip H. Gordon, a foreign policy adviser and former assistant secretary of state who dealt with Turkey during the President Obama administration told the newspaper.
That puts Greece in the awkward position of hosting American troops for exercises, the Souda Bay navy base, signing a new military cooperation deal with Washington and engaged in a US-Greece Strategic Dialogue while fearing that President Donald Trump, who considers Erdogan a friend, would favor Turkey in a shooting conflict.
“You can’t say what U.S. policy on Turkey is, and you can’t even see where Trump is,” Gordon said. “It’s a big dilemma for U.S. policy, where we seem to disagree strategically on nearly every issue.”
Analysts not identified told the paper that Stoltenberg is afraid to stand up to Erdogan and tolerates Turkish and American misbehavior – the US is a member of the defense alliance that Trump has scorned.
Turkey has gone as far as purchasing S-400 missile defense systems from Russia – technically an enemy – and which could be used against Greece, but NATO did nothing about it, further emboldening Erdogan.
Former NATO Ambassador and one-time US Ambassador to Greece Nicholas Burns, now teaching at Harvard, said other countries in NATO have proved problematic for the alliance's timidity, but Turkey is the giant no one wants to confront, apart from Greece asking for action.
“Every time we discuss Russia” in NATO, “everyone thinks of the S-400 and no one says anything,” said one European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. “It’s a major breach in NATO air defense, and it’s not even discussed,” the diplomat said, not willing to go on the record despite reservations.
Unchecked by anyone, Erdgoan went so far as to convert the ancient Orthodox church of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople, which the world apart from Greece calls Istanbul, into a mosque and got away with it unscathed, still provoking.