Rising tensions in the Mediterranean have stoked fears of a renewed conflict between Greece and Turkey that hasn’t been seen since 1974.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has renewed ultra-nationalistic rhetoric of Turkish expansion, and this has been accompanied by Turkish military operations against Kurdish paramilitaries, the Syrian army, opposition factions in Libya, and militarily support of Azerbaijan against Armenia.
Now emboldened by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has propped up Turkish soft power, Erdogan looks to continue provocations. Heightened militaristic rhetoric has become a focal point of Erdogan’s campaign to mask failed domestic policies at home.
The Mediterranean has always been of interest to Turkey, despite UNCLOS recognizing Greece’s EEZ. Though conflicts have emerged over Cyprus and a near war over Imia, Erdogan’s AKP party have heightened tensions using the guise of “defense of Turkey” while simultaneously preaching renewed territorial expansion.
Tensions have steadily risen after the failed 2016 coup in Turkey against Erdogan’s ruling party. A few days later, the Turkish President called it a “gift from God” as Erdogan was given new powers by the National Assembly. This would include mass arrests and detentions of numerous political rivals, journalists, Turkish human rights activists, and Kurdish MPs.
Erdogan would then continue with anti-Western rhetoric, talking about conspiracies that the United States. and Greece were orchestrating to sow chaos in his country. A once secular Turkey has now grown increasingly Islamist under Erdogan with little freedom of speech and rights. Despite the provocative rhetoric, the EU continues to placate Ankara, even with the border violations reported by Athens that include illegal offshore drilling and thousands of flight interceptions.
On May 18th, both Finland and Sweden applied for NATO membership, which became another opportunity for Erdogan, who used the weapons embargo both nations held against him as an excuse to temporarily use his veto power to threaten their membership. Only the end of the embargo, extradition of Kurdish activists, and intelligence sharing will satisfy the autocrat. The veto in NATO effectively has made Erdogan one of the world’s most dangerous leaders, as he holds the fate of the most powerful military alliance in his vote.
With his mediation during the Russo-Ukrainian War, Turkish soft power has been on full display. propping Turkey up to the forefront of major powers – but his domestic policies tell of a different story.
Women’s rights under the AKP have been abhorrent, with numerous instances of killings of women and domestic abuse. The economy has an inflation rate of 83% thanks to failed economic policies. Likewise, the violent government repressions have hurt Erdogan’s image at home and abroad. Ahval News reported in August that despite Erdogan’s populism, he still lacks the majority needed to be re-elected. Along with domestic pressure, Erdogan has also been in a geopolitical quagmire with America, as Turkish-U.S. relations have soured due to Ankara’s geopolitical gambles.
The United States recently lifted the weapons embargo on Cyprus for one full year, as Nicosia has met the requirements of U.S law. Turkey predictably condemned this and their foreign minister stated they will continue to militarily bolster the 46,000 illegal Turkish troops already in Cyprus. It should be noted that relations were already tense on Cyprus before the embargo’s lifting as Ersin Tatar the Turkish Cypriot ‘president’ has discussed a potential annexation by Erdogan and has acted as an extension of the AKP.
On September 14, the Middle East Eye reported that 64% of respondents in Turkey do not see Greece as an existential threat, with election fever having caused the current standoff. As diplomatic relations have reached new lows, a potential war would set the stage for Erdogan to invoke emergency powers to delay elections indefinitely.
Further east, Ilham Aliyev, the President and autocrat of Azerbaijan, has used his natural resources to placate the EU on his aggression in the region through alternative gas options in the wake of the Russian Invasion. The President of the EU Commission has stated that Azerbaijan was a “reliable partner” even when they continue encroaching on Armenia proper, which is sovereign under international law and not disputed like Karabakh.
Aliyev will look to continue to entice the EU and that helps keep Erdogan in power as recent Azerbaijani victories could not have come without Turkish military aid. Likewise, the pipeline from Azerbaijan passing through Turkey and connecting to Greece and Bulgaria will be used as leverage by Erdogan and Aliyev in future geopolitical disputes.
The upcoming 2023 Turkish elections will be monitored with great geopolitical concerns and the Hellenic Military and Cypriot National Guard will have to be on its highest alert and readiness for any provocations. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that the moderate Kemalists faction, the alternative to Erdogan, have the same aggressive policies in regards to the Mediterranean and have had various conflicts with Athens and Nicosia in the past.