Unless you're in the Diaspora, a Hellenophile or news junkie, the simmering tension between Greece and Turkey over rights to the Aegean and East Mediterranean and plans to drill for energy there might seem of little consequence.
But the stakes are high.
A conflict, accidental or deliberate, would put two NATO alleged allies against each other, split the defense alliance, make the United States choose sides and have the European Union actually so something other than tweet or send out press releases.
Turkey has for years been sending fighter jets and warships to violate Greek airspace and waters while NATO looked the other way but the prospect of war made even that often-somnolent body wake up and host technical talks between the sides.
Writing for Fox News, Victor Davis Hanson, a Senior Fellow in Military History at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, who has written about Ancient Greece, cited the rising tide of anxiety that threatened to engulf the region.
Ahead of talks between Greek and Turkish officials in Ankara – not Athens – and an EU meeting with Turkey Oct. 1-2 that wasn't expected to have sanctions for Turkey on the table, he outlined the history that brought the two sides to a near flash point.
Noting the four-century Ottoman Occupation that on 2021 will have ended two centuries earlier, he noted how often they've almost come to blows, now heightened with modern technology and weapons of rapid destruction and how they almost tangled after Turkey seized the northern third of Cyprus in 1974.
“Still, the current escalation seems weird. Most territorial claims and disputes over borders were settled almost a century ago, and the two countries have had mass population exchanges,” he said.
So why, he added, is the enmity and divide still so deep and intense?
Turkey is a Muslim country, which has been trying since 2005 to join the EU, the likelihood dimming over President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's purging of civil society, the military, judiciary, and educational system after a failed 2016 coup against him, and as he has jailed journalists by the dozen to hold down dissent and criticism.
Erdogan also antagonized Greeks by converting the ancient church of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople – once the center of the Greek and Christian world – into a mosque to appease his hard-core base of nationalists.
The Cyprus invasion, with the implicit backing of the United States under then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and a military junta in Greece in 1974 that last seven years leading up to the Cyprus battle, saw anti-American sentiment rise further with Washington backing the anti-Communist Colonels.
“In contrast, Turkey once prided itself on its secular customs institutionalized by its first modern, pro-Western president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. His successors until recently were pro-American autocrats,” added Hanson.
Now that's turned upside down. The US and Greece have a stronger military cooperation, Washington wants a stronger military presence in Greece (the US has troops at the Incirlik base in Turkey) and Erdogan has alienated NATO and the EU.
Turkey, under Erdogan has become an increasingly Islamic state, often hostile to the U.S. It likes to leverage its NATO membership to advance its new Middle East agendas, he added, Turkey buying S-400 missile defense systems from Russia, a NATO enemy.
“Turkey is more likely than Greece to threaten force to advance its oil and gas claims. And it hints that dozens of Greek islands off the Turkish coast – Greek since pre-antiquity – may soon be targeted. Most neutral diplomats and legal scholars say Greece has the more sound legal claim over the disputed, oil-rich waters,” he said.
Militarily, it might look one-sided in Turkey's favor given its population and number of arms, but Erdogan's removal of top military leaders and even Air Force pilots has given Greece some key advantages if battles broke out.
“By many accounts, Greek pilots are among the best in the world. Greece’s smaller navy is far more effective than Turkey’s,” he said.
And while US President Donald Trump prefers Erdogan's dictatorial tough-guy style and considers him a friend, it's becoming more in US interests to back Greece, where the US Navy has a base in Souda Bay on Crete.
“Most Americans sympathize with underdog Greece. Many have close cultural and ethnic ties with Greece, Israel and Armenia, non-Muslim countries surrounded by Islamic nations. All three nations, at one time or another, have been bullied by Turkey,” he said, and most NATO members support Greece too, especially France.
“Add up all the contorted rivalries, histories and overlapping alliances and loyalties, and the dispute may seem irrational, if not silly. It likely would only end in a stalemate, an economic catastrophe, the near destruction of NATO’s southern flank, and the eventual intercession of the U.S. to warn Turkey to cease aggression,” he said.
The caveat is that Erdogan hasn't listened to reason, only passion.