For long decades, since the Turkish invasion in Cyprus in 1974, policy analysts on all sides would, almost unanimously, agree that an armed conflict between Greece and Turkey, neither side really desiring it, could only be provoked “by accident” –as it had nearly happened in January 1996. Also, that it could not last but only for a few hours before both sides stood down, at the command of interposing US forces.
Alas, this rather comforting conviction, still popular with the general public and not entirely abandoned by experts, may be rapidly becoming obsolete, in view of both, erratic regime mutations in Turkey, and dynamic regional developments.
The hypothesis can already be sustained, that Turkey is orchestrating a major incident involving naval and air assets, anywhere in the Aegean –probably in the so called, by Ankara, “grey zone” of the Dodecanese–, to be, immediately, followed up by high intensity hostilities all over the Archipelago and, possibly, on and around Cyprus.
The potential strategic scope of such a venture, aimed, initially, at inflicting a crippling territorial fait accompli on Greece, would be broader than extorting, manu militare, Athens and Nicosia to accept Turkish terms and conditions on longstanding bilateral disputes.
The occupation of a biggish Greek island, or a strategically situated small one like Kastelorizon, may be seen by Ankara as a sufficient negotiating asset to extort both the US and the EU and impose upon them essential acquiescence to Turkish claims on various issues: on the Syrian/Kurdish question, as well as on Mosul and Kirkuk vis a vis the US, and on a long agenda of differences and grudges vis a vis the EU.
The Turkish President is a maximalist and a risk taker. Authoritarian regimes always, especially when they feel fragile at home, seek conflicts abroad to divert their own public opinion from domestic issues. More particularly, anyone aspiring, as Mr. Erdogan very much does, to displace Kemal Ataturk and his secular ideology from the foundations of the Turkish State, could certainly do with a wreath of military laurels reaped on Greek soil. He may well estimate that the risk, though not totally insignificant, would not be appalling either. That the blow on NATO in the Eastern basin of the Mediterranean would be devastating, even fatal, may be the least of his concerns: it could even further endear him to his new strategic ally, Mr. Putin, while his own religious, Anatolian, base has, by now, become fervently anti-Western.
First and foremost, the equilibrium of forces across the Aegean, which had always been favourable to Turkey, a huge nation in all counts, has further been upset –terminally perhaps, or at least for the foreseeable future–, after years of economic crisis and meager defense budgets on the Greek side. Furthermore, Turkey’s austere and “disciplined” society –debatable though the desirability of this type of discipline might be in the long run–, has, year after year since the early 1970’s, become remarkably hardened to very significant annual losses of army personnel.
Even more importantly, the US and the EU, both of them the ulterior recipients of Turkish grievances and claims, and thus, the potential real targets of an attempt at armed extortion such as hypothesized in this text, by means of a showdown in the Aegean, are not at their best to dissuade it –the EU because of its internal instability, and the US because of its unpredictable Presidency. Or it could so appear to a bold autocratic gambler.
Already the wording of Turkish official communiqués has significantly deteriorated. Islets and rocks previously defined as parts of a “grey zone”, not specifically mentioned in treaties, are now referred to as “Turkish territory”. This insinuates that the reciprocal abstention from acts of sovereignty, which has, tacitly, been observed by both sides since February 1996, is no longer sufficient; that only Greek naval and coast guard units, should keep out from the waters of the islets in question, while Turkish units in the same area remain within their national territory.
None of this augurs well. What is there to be done? First and foremost, on the Greek side, both Government and military personnel on the spot, must not allow themselves to be baited to a trap, as it happened at Imia, in January 1996. No matter what the urge and the pressure could be to defend undoubtedly Greek national territory, they must not lose sight of the chessboard. The pretext must not be offered to Ankara to intensify hostilities and embark on large scale amphibious operations, either in the Dodecanese or in the Northern Aegean. All Turkish trespasses within the “grey zone” must be dealt with along diplomatic channels. Greek forces, which will, inevitably, be overstretched, should concentrate on the defense of important islands, as these would be the territorial negotiating assets sought by the other side.
Only the US could, perhaps, prevent the present, constantly deteriorating situation from detailing; though no longer by addressing warnings to the opposing sides, but by maintaining adequate assets, already positioned at critical points and ready at all times to interpose. If the worst is not to come to the worst, the supervision of the moratorium of acts of sovereignty over the “grey zone”, must be discreetly, but urgently, assumed by the US and possibly, other NATO Allies.
P.S. Last but not least: all, at the Pentagon and the State Department, must think twice whether the delivery of the first batch of F-35 fighters to Turkey should, eventually, be allowed to begin.
They must do so not for the sake of Greece, but in the context of their duty to safeguard the defense interests of the US itself. The writing is already on the wall. We all want Turkey to be part of the democratic Western world. If Mr. Erdogan wants it too, is another matter though. His courtship with Russia proceeds. The mass of his religious partisans is fervently anti-Western, both culturally and politically.
To protect sensitive technology, the US has, wisely, ruled out the export of the F-22 Raptor fighter. The technical features of the F-35 are not much inferior; perhaps, it should also be denied to certain unstable countries, including Greece –, as it might not be totally beyond the capabilities of the latter to attempt to rectify the deficit of her air-power. The worst could happen much sooner, of course; but if it luckily does not, a ban on the export of F-35s to both countries, for the near future at least, could become an added, effective measure of deconfliction. Legal issues may arise, involving even the payment of indemnities, but, otherwise, the potential damage to US interests in the Mediterranean and the M. East –most Israeli analysts do agree–, could be much greater.