American professor explains why Erdogan could choose a war with Greece

American professor explains why Erdogan could choose a war with Greece
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Ryan Gingeras, an expert on Turkish, Balkan, and Middle East history, says Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could take the risk of having a war with Greece.

Ryan Gingeras, a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and an expert on Turkish, Balkan, and Middle East history, wrote an article for “War on the Rocks,” explaining why Erdogan might choose war with Greece.

In the article Gingeras explains the recent developments in the Turkish-Greek tensions, and while reminding of the dangers of invading Greece, he explains why Erdogan could actually take this step.

On September 6, Erdogan said: “Your occupation of the islands do not bind us, we will do what is necessary when the time comes. As we say, we can come suddenly one night.”

Gingeras claims that Erdogan now focuses on the alleged militarization of the Aegean islands by Greece, a move Ankara insists is a violation of the 1923 and 1947 treaties that confirmed Greece’s sovereignty over the islands.

Gingeras argued in June that “a conflict between Greece and Turkey appears not only possible but probable,” and recent statements by Turkish officials and the events over the last months have increased the risk. A war would have serious consequences for both countries but Erdogan’s rhetoric, interests, and ideology suggests that Ankara might be willing to take these risks.

In early summer, there were signs that the tensions between Greece and Turkey were waning. In August, Greek-Turkish hostilities spiked with a Turkish drilling ship entering contested waters in the Mediterranean.

In the last week of August, there were several incidents. The first of which was when Greek warplanes harassed Turkish jets, according to the Turkish Ministry of Defense. Days later, Turkey claimed that a Greek S-300 system locked onto Turkish F-16s.

Both incidents took place during ceremonies marking the hundredth year of the Turkish War of Independence. Erdogan said that Greece’s deployment of the Russian S-300 was evidence of the hypocrisy of NATO. Within this context, Erdogan threatened to "come without warning" for Greece’s islands.

Erdogan’s remarks drew criticism from the Greek Prime Minister and the US State Department. Some observers inside and outside of Turkey have suggested that Erdogan is trying to appeal to national voters in the face of the 2023 elections since his voter base is diminishing according to polls.

Turkish government media also claim that Greece unlawfully militarized the Aegean islands. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne says that “no naval bases or fortifications” should be built on the five main islands in the North Aegean but a “normal contingent” of regular troops is allowed. The 1947 Treaty of Paris states that the Greek Dodecanese Islands to the south “shall remain demilitarized,” but these terms were meant as a promise to Italy, and Turkey was excluded from these negotiations. The Turkish Foreign Ministry has repeatedly declared that militarizing the islands could call their sovereignty into question.

Erdogan says that Greece’s acts in the Aegean are not the only reason behind the tension. In 2019, the US and Greece signed a mutual defense cooperation agreement and the Turkish media suggests that Washington is trying to "besiege" Turkey.

The US lifting the arms embargo on the Republic of Cyprus, and the American support for Kurdish militia in Syria in the context of the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), are often cited as further evidence of this plot. Erdogan declared in the United Nations that Washington’s delivery of arms to Greece constituted “a covert occupation.” He warned Greece that American and European support “will not save you.”

A slight majority of the Turkish electorate believes that Erdogan is trying to “create an agenda” before the elections and 64% do not believe there is “enmity between the Turkish and Greek peoples.”

Few in Greece appear to take Erdogan’s words lightly. With Greece also heading for elections in 2023, Mitsotakis said that any direct threat toward Greek sovereignty is a “red line” for the country.

Opposition leader Alexis Tsipras, while a vocal opponent of the defense accord with the US, balances his desire to unseat Mitsotakis with his own commitment to defending the country. Greece is also preparing for the worst with the country deploying an anti-drone “umbrella” using Israeli technology. Greek and French vessels conducted joint exercises as well.

The threat of conflict does not deter the Turkish opposition, Gingeras says, citing main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu suggesting that a truly nationalist leader would follow in the foot steps of the 1974 invasion of Cyprus.

A spokesperson from the nationalist opposition Good Party echoed these sentiments by claiming that Erdogan is demonstrating his inability to make Greece “pay a cost.”

Perhaps the most striking pro-war sentiment came from Erdogan’s coalition ally, nationalist leader Devlet Bahceli. Bahceli posed with a map showing Greece’s Aegean islands, including Crete as Turkish territory.

Gingeras asks: “What would Ankara hope to achieve with further escalation?”

He says that several former senior military officers suggested blocking or attacking Greek islands. Gingeras also refers to Hasan Basri Yalcin, the former head of research at the Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research (SETA). Yalcin believes Erdogan’s warnings are the beginning of a long-term operation to take over the Aegean islands. He argues that Ankara should charge Greece with violating the Lausanne and Paris treaties and in a similar fashion with the 1974 Turkish attack on Cyprus, should invade and occupy Greece’s islands.

One commentator answered why Erdogan would choose to pursue this course of action, saying Erdogan’s personal frustration with Greece’s increased strength and visibility will push him to escalate. Also, a desire for an electoral boost or the postponement of elections under the threat of war could play a role. There is confidence in Turkey regarding a confrontation with Greece, similar to how Americans viewed the war with Iraq before 2003. “As with Washington’s approach toward Saddam Hussein in 2002, there is a strong sense of optimism in Ankara that any conflict with Greece would be short, decisive, and victorious,” Gingeras noted. This leads to Erdogan believing that, if a war breaks out, the Turkish victory is assured.

But a Turkish attack on Greece would harm Ankara’s relationship with the US, the European Union, and NATO. Similar to the war in Ukraine, an attack would earn Erdogan comparisons with Russian President Vladimir Putin and it would lead to grave diplomatic, political, and economic consequences for Turkey.

Gingeras says history suggests that Erdogan may be willing to take action and endure the fallout. In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus despite the damage it made to Turkey’s relationship with the US. In Syria, Erdogan actually established a “security zone” by delivering his threats. Erdogan says that these actions are taken in order to defeat a NATO and American conspiracy to defeat Turkey.

Gingeras finishes by saying: “If Erdogan believes, as one columnists put it, that ‘America is our enemy, and not Greece,’ then it is possible he sees the risks of a rupture as a regrettable but still essential price to be paid in the name of Turkish national security."