What is Turkey doing?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar attend a military exercise near Izmir, Turkey, June 9. [Murat Cetinmuhurdar/PPO/via Reuters]

This summer, for the first time in many years, the omens regarding Greek-Turkish relations are particularly bleak. There are many objective reasons why Turkey causing a heated incident is not the most likely scenario; however, the buildup of largely unjustified anger across the Aegean mixed with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s arrogant insecurity is causing justified worry and concern.

As long as the situation in Ukraine remains tense, it is essential that NATO maintain its cohesion. The unity of the transatlantic Alliance is challenged by Turkey’s reaction to the potential membership of Sweden and Finland but, at the same time, this opposition makes a rupture of the southeastern flank of the alliance less likely. NATO. It therefore seems that Erdogan’s real objective is not to open a rupture with Washington but rather to attract the attention of Joe Biden and to negotiate with the American president before the Turkish elections.

Where is Greece in all of this? On the one hand, there is the strategic relationship developed with the United States. From Turkey’s point of view, the Americans do not want to give Greece the impression that they have failed to prevent Turkey from triggering a crisis. On the other hand, Ankara expects constant pressure on Athens to force it to seek Washington’s involvement and thus open a channel of communication given that an incident between two NATO allies would inevitably be treated as a top priority requiring direct intervention.

Meanwhile, Erdogan enjoys dwindling domestic support ahead of Turkey’s elections. Therein lies one of the most pressing concerns in Greek-Turkish relations. Erdogan finds himself in an unprecedented situation. After dominating Turkish politics for two decades, he votes behind rival candidates. The strong card that cemented his reign, the Turkish economy, has become his Achilles heel. Moreover, his prolonged stay in power and his autocratic style, as well as his restricted circle of trusted officials, seem to reinforce his divorce from political, economic and social reality. Erdogan’s insistence on cutting interest rates amid soaring inflation speaks volumes about how out of touch he is with real events and the needs of his people.

This combination is problematic because, as in the case of Russian President Vladimir Putin, rationalism is put on the back burner in favor of a worldview deeply rooted in the “glorious past”, the need to “correct” historical events and the leaders’ desire to leave their mark on history. Faced with a possible electoral defeat and given that the Turkish economy is at risk of bankruptcy, Erdogan will naturally look elsewhere for a success that will allow him to score points at home and rally a diverse audience of Islamists and Kemalists glued to the nationalism. . Every time he launched an offensive in Syria, Erdogan’s polls rose – and that was as the economy boomed. Moreover, after 2015, when he chose to target the Kurds and, of course, after the failed coup in 2016, Erdogan was able to win the elections and the referendum thanks to intense polarization at home – which has now peaked – and to convenient enemies. outside Turkey.

Faced with a possible electoral defeat and given that the Turkish economy risks bankruptcy, Erdogan will naturally look elsewhere for a success that will allow him to score points at home.

Turkish leaders have unfortunately embraced the extreme views of the Kemalist deep state regarding the Aegean Sea and Greece. Meanwhile, hostility towards Athens and Nicosia runs through the political system. Inside Turkey, there is an organized campaign to cultivate and maintain an anti-Greek mood and backlash. Erdogan has recently embraced the longstanding doctrine of the Kemalist establishment that likes to paint Greece as the spoiled child of the West who acts on behalf of American interests and who could, under certain conditions, be used as a battering ram against the Turkey. Demonizing Athens is however as convenient as launching a military campaign against it is complicated. This certainly has a chilling effect on Ankara.

On the ground, the range of Turkish actions is more or less predictable (the ultimate goal being to hold Greece accountable in the event of an escalation of tensions): carrying out seismic campaigns in undemarcated maritime areas (the Rhodes- Karpathos-Kastellorizo ​​seems to attract most of the interest here), send a drillship inside the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Cyprus, activate the Turkey-Libya memorandum, launch a tender for studies on the Libyan continental shelf, triggering a stalemate on migrant flows and engaging in provocations even by Turkish fishing vessels, continued violations of Greek airspace by conventional and hybrid means. The frequency of hybrid (psychological) operations will intensify in an effort to wear down Athens and make a compromise more likely.

Diplomatically, in addition to advocating to an international audience for the demilitarization of the eastern Aegean islands – also insisting that its status is linked to Greek sovereignty over these islands – Turkey is considering sending a letter to the United Nations promoting the arguments and claims in the Aegean Sea. Turkish diplomats are digging into past cases that could be construed as supporting their cause in an effort to build arguments regarding maritime areas. All of this will require caution.

Also, Greece will have to examine whether such an action constitutes a violation of the Berne Protocol (submitting coordinates is equivalent to a unilateral delimitation) and whether the interests of the country are better served by indirect negotiation because each time Athens will have to respond to requests more and more specialized claims put forward by the opposing party.


Constantinos Filis is Director of the Institute of Global Affairs and Associate Professor at the American College of Greece.

Sharon P. Juarez