Turkey’s President Recep Tayyep Erdogan appears hell-bent on a collision course with Greece and President Trump seems to be his enabler. Earlier this year, this column discussed the “bromance” between Trump and Erdogan, a relationship rivaling his “bromance” with Putin. This relationship, we argued, encouraged Erdogan to take risks that could ignite war with Greece. I cited Trump’s cold dismissal of Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ appeal to intervene in the dispute and ignoring his overture about Greece participating in the F-35 program as further persuading Erdogan that Trump has his back. This followed Trump’s rejecting bipartisan appeals from Congress and the U.S. military to sanction Turkey for the purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems. If readers want further evidence of the intensity of the bromance, read John Bolton’s about to be published book The Room Where It Happened. Bolton, for example, writes that he briefed Attorney General Barr on “Trumps penchant for dictators.” Bolton singles out Trump’s positive response to Erdogan’s request to stop Justice Department action against Turkey’s Halkbank, implicating Erdogan’s son-in-law.
Predictions that Erdogan would double down on his campaign against Greece and Cyprus have proven disturbingly accurate. Erdogan and other officials repeatedly claim that Greek islands, including Chios, Samos, Limnos, Lesbos, and the Dodecanese belong to Turkey. Turkish over-flights and aggressive naval incidents in the Aegean have increased. More dangerously, Turkish fighters have flown visible high-speed passes over important islands, such as Chios. In March, Turkish jets harassed the helicopter carrying Mitsotakis and in May that of the Greek Defense Minister near Chios. Lately, the Turkish Navy designated three locations a few miles south of Crete and hundreds of miles from Turkey as naval exercise areas.
Turkey continues to assert that only mainland states, not islands, have an Exclusive Economic Zone. That Turkish claim, if accepted, would deny Greece and Cyprus the right to explore for gas beyond territorial waters and allow Turkey to drill within sight of the Greek coast as well as within half the Aegean, the location of several hundred Greek islands notwithstanding.
A few months ago, Turkey persuaded the so-called GNA, the UN-recognized Government of Libya, which holds sway only in the western half of that war-torn country, to sign an agreement that essentially gives Turkey economic control over the entire sea between Greece and Cyprus. Notably, it also would give Turkey control of the proposed East Med Pipeline bringing gas to Europe from the Cypriot/Egyptian/Israeli gas fields. In return, Turkey has sent Turkish drones, troops, and mercenaries recruited from its jihadist proxies in Syria to help the GNA win its civil war.
Erdogan has also inflamed the psychological environment. He announced that Aghia Sophia would be converted into a mosque, a move popular among Erdogan’s base and provocative to Greeks. Recently, Turkish military plans to attack Greece in 2014 were “leaked.”
Erdogan has embarked on an aggressive foreign policy, sending the Turkish Army to attack Syrian Army units fighting Turkish-supported insurgents in NW Syria. Turkey said it retaliated for the deaths of 20+ Turkish soldiers killed by the Syrians two days earlier and to prevent the Syrian Army pushing another million or so refugees into Turkey. Turkish forces are now fighting in Libya. But this comes at a time when the Turkish economy – a once-thriving economy that Erdogan could once honestly claim he built – has foundered. Mismanaged economic policies, rumors of corruption involving Erdogan’s son-in-law, the twin burdens of war and refugees combined with declining world trade has sent the Turkish lira into the sub-basement and inflation into the attic.
So why choose this difficult time to risk war with Greece? War would devastate the Turkish economy and a Turkish victory seems unlikely. Erdogan has seen his electoral margins narrow across Turkey and evaporate in its big cities. He has turned authoritarian (Bolton compares Erdogan to Mussolini) but his hold on power remains tenuous. His fantasy of restoring the Ottoman Empire has killed Turkish soldiers, revived Kurdish unrest, and complicated his relationships with NATO. He turned towards Russia for leverage but discovered that two can push down on that lever.
Erdogan desperately needs an international political victory. He has won big so far because he risked big. He needs Greece to blink when confronted and acquiesce in his grab of the EEZ. Domestically, his Anatolian base cheers his attacks on Greece. He reasons that if he can put a drill bit down inside the Greek EEZ, the international community will pressure Greece to avoid war and negotiate and, in the end, accept a fait accompli. NATO made it clear it has no dog in this fight. The EU wags its fingers and threatens economic sanctions. If he drills and finds gas, Erdogan thinks he can shrug them off.
This is where Trump comes in. American Presidents intervened to prevent war between Greece and Turkey in 1955, 1967, and 1996. In 1974 America, adrift in its own internal crisis and with its foreign policy controlled by Henry Kissinger, a close personal friend of Turkey’s Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, effectively sided with Turkey through initial inaction and later support. Sound familiar? Erdogan may believe that America’s current crisis will paralyze decision-making as in 1974 while he enjoys a relationship with Trump beyond Ecevit’s wildest dreams.
Erdogan’s fortunes depend on this risk paying off. Unless Trump forcibly tells him no, the temptation to take silence as tacit support can lead to disaster.