Why Erdogan Might Choose War with Greece
“The islands you occupy do not bind us, we will do what is necessary when the time comes. As we say, we can come suddenly one night.” Weeks have now passed since Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan explicitly threatened to invade Greece, using the same language he deployed before previous Turkish military operations in Syria. A myriad of issues divide Athens and Ankara, but Erdogan has now focused his rage upon Greece’s militarization of its Aegean islands. While the Greek military presence there has remained largely consistent over the last several decades, Ankara insists that it is in violation of the 1923 and 1947 treaties that established Greece’s sovereignty over the islands.
As I argued in June, a conflict between Greece and Turkey appears not only possible but probable. A close reading of recent statements by Turkish officials, as well as the pattern of events over the last months, have only increased the risk. Serious consequences likely await both Turkey and Greece should the two states come to blows. Yet Erdogan’s rhetoric, as well as his interests and ideology, suggests that Ankara may be willing to brave those risks.
Prelude to a Threat
There were signs early in the summer that tensions between Greece and Turkey were waning. With the conclusion of an agreement to allow Sweden and Finland to apply for NATO membership, Erdogan appeared far more intent upon striking another blow against Kurdish militias inside Syria — an operation he has postponed under Russian and American pressure. Fears of renewed Greek-Turkish hostilities spiked again in early August with the launching of a new Turkish drilling ship purportedly bound for contested waters in the Mediterranean. But despite high expectations in the Turkish nationalist press, the voyage proceeded to waters safely within the confines of Turkey’s immediate coastline.
The summer lull ended in the last week of August after Turkish media reported several incidents between the Turkish and Greek militaries. The first encounter, according to the Turkish Ministry of Defense, occurred when Greek warplanes harassed Turkish jets taking part in a NATO mission over the Mediterranean. Days later, Turkish officials claimed a Greek S-300 anti-aircraft system locked onto Turkish F-16s near Crete. Anonymous Greek denials of the encounters did little to stem Ankara’s outrage. With both incidents occurring during centennial ceremonies marking the end of the Turkish War of Independence, Erdogan lambasted Greece’s deployment of the Russian-made S-300 as evidence of Greek malevolence and infidelity to NATO. It was in this context that Turkey’s president threatened to come without warning for Greece’s islands.
Erdogan’s words drew quick criticism. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis decried his speech as intentionally aggressive, coming from a leader who appears “to have a strange fixation with my country.” The U.S. State Department subsequently reiterated Washington’s desire for “all parties to avoid rhetoric and to avoid taking actions that could further exacerbate tensions,” stating that the sovereignty of Greece’s Aegean islands “is not in question.” Some observers inside and outside of Turkey have suggested that Erdogan’s falling poll numbers served as the primary inspiration for his outburst. Facing re-election in 2023, he may be attempting “to turn the tide” by appealing to nationalist voters who have failed to rally to his base.
The Politics of Demilitarization
Since Erdogan’s speech in early September, Turkish media, in coordination with the country’s official Ministry of Communication, have kept up a steady drumbeat of commentary on the Aegean. Among the most consistent criticisms voiced by official and popular critics is the belief that Greece has unlawfully militarized its islands off the Anatolian coast. This assertation is predicated upon clauses in two separate treaties addressing Greece’s sovereignty over its islands. According to the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, “no naval bases or fortifications” are to be built on the five main islands in the North Aegean. Nevertheless, the terms do allow Greece to maintain a “normal contingent” of regular troops there. Conversely, the 1947 Treaty of Paris states unequivocally that the Greek Dodecanese Islands to the south “shall remain demilitarized.” Greece, however, maintains the terms were meant as a promise to Italy, which ceded the islands to Athens after World War II. Since Italy had seized the islands from the Ottoman Empire in 1913, Turkey was excluded from negotiations in 1947, therefore making the pledge moot with respect to Ankara.
It is difficult to find Turkish commentators today willing to fully parse the contradictory nature of these agreements. Without fail, voices across Turkish media refer to Greece’s Aegean territories as the “the islands under demilitarized status (gayri askeri statüdeki adalar).” The zombified use of this expression has been accompanied by a breathless stream of reporting regarding the placement of troops and equipment on the islands. Multiple online sources have posted articles with still images of supposedly illicit bases and airfields from across the Greek Aegean. Commentators repeatedly reference the existence of tens of thousands of Greek soldiers garrisoned on the islands. The basis of these numbers, however, appear to come from studies conducted more than 30 years ago. Recently, Turkey’s official news outlet, Turkish Radio and Television, published drone photos showing Greek ships offloading dozens of armored vehicles on the Greek islands of Lesvos and Samos. Commentators in Turkey immediately seized upon the images of evidence of Greece’s desire to “militarize” the Aegean. More ominously, the Turkish Foreign Ministry has repeatedly declared that a failure to demilitarize the islands could formally call their sovereignty into question.
Erdogan himself has made it clear that Greece’s acts in the Aegean are not the sole source of tension. Since the 2019 signing of a mutual defense cooperation agreement between Washington and Athens, he has vilified U.S. support for Greece, rejecting claims that American efforts in the region are aimed at supporting Ukraine’s war against Russia. His supporters in the Turkish media regularly amplify these doubts. Washington’s goal, it is often claimed, is to besiege Turkey. The lifting of the U.S. arms embargo on the Republic of Cyprus, as well as U.S. support for Kurdish militant activities in Syria, are often cited as further evidence of this plot. It increasingly appears that Erdogan has come to believe the worst of American intentions. Washington’s delivery of arms to Greece, he declared before the United Nations, constituted “a covert occupation.” American and European support, he then warned Athens, “will not save you.”
What Does Erdogan Want?
There are many reasons to doubt the seriousness of Erdogan’s threats. A slight majority of Turkish voters, according to one poll, remain convinced his words are simply an electoral strategy meant to “create an agenda” ahead of next year’s vote. An even larger share, 64% according to the survey, do not believe there is “enmity between the Turkish and Greek peoples.” There is even less doubt that a conflict between Greece and Turkey would have a devastating effect upon the fragile economies of both states. Tourism revenue, particularly from resort towns on the Aegean coast, constitutes about 15 percent of Turkey’s gross domestic product (and about 18 percent of Greece’s). Both states depend heavily upon maritime shipping for trade. Before COVID-19, 87 percent of Turkish commerce was transported via seaside ports of entry. In addition to any potential economic damage, the international ramifications of conflict would be no less grave. Both the United States and the European Union have intimated a lack of tolerance for any attack on sovereign Greek territory. Conversely, neither Brussels nor Washington appears to possess any patience for Turkish claims of Greek aggression.
However, few in Greece appear willing to take Erdogan’s words lightly. In recent weeks both print and television discussions of Turkey have been more focused on the possibility of war. With Greece headed toward its own elections in 2023, Mitsotakis has staunchly declared that any direct threat toward Greek sovereignty is a “red line” for the country. While vocally critical of the government’s decision to sign a defense accord with the United States, opposition leader Alexis Tsipris has sought to balance his desire to unseat Mitsotakis with his own commitment to defend the country in the case of conflict. There are other, less subtle signs that Athens is preparing for the worst. News reports in July suggest that the Greek military has begun deploying an anti-drone “umbrella” on the Aegean islands using Israeli technology. More recently, Greek and French naval vessels have conducted joint exercises in the Aegean Sea as part of a broader mutual defense pact signed in 2021.
The risks of conflict, however, do not appear to fully deter Erdogan or his electoral opponents. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of Turkey’s largest opposition party, lambasted Erdogan’s pledge to “come suddenly one night.” A real leader, he argued, would replicate Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus and simply seize Greece’s “occupied” islands without threats or warnings. A spokesperson from the nationalist IYI Party echoed these sentiments. Erdogan, he maintained, had demonstrated his inability to lead by not making Greece “pay a cost” for dispatching armored vehicles to Samos and Lesvos. While he did not believe a war between Greece and Turkey was possible, he was certain any conflict would lead to Greece losing its islands. Perhaps the most sensational demonstration of pro-war sentiment has come from Erdogan’s coalition ally, nationalist leader Devlet Bahceli. In July, he happily posed with a map depicting most of Greece’s Aegean islands, including Crete, as Turkish territory. More recently, Bahceli declared before the Turkish Grand National Assembly that the “sovereignty, property rights, maritime jurisdiction and airspace” of multiple Greek island “undoubtedly and legally” belong to Turkey.
While not necessarily pointing to an immediate conflict, this general confluence of opinion regarding Greece begs an obvious but elusive question: What would Ankara hope to achieve with further escalation? In the absence of clearer demands from Erdogan, few in the Turkish media have dared to speculate at length. Several former senior military officers have suggested blockading Greece’s islands, or attacking them outright, in the hopes of removing suspected bases and weaponry. A far more comprehensive and nuanced course of action can be found in the writings of Hasan Basri Yalcin, a frequent news commentator and former head of research at Turkey’s foremost think tank, the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA). Erdogan’s threat to “come without warning,” he believes, was the beginning of a long-term operation aimed at taking over the Aegean islands. Legally speaking, he argues Ankara should charge Greece with violating the Lausanne and Paris Treaties, thus invalidating Athens’ sovereignty over its territories. “The best example for such a strategy,” Yalcin concludes, “is Cyprus.” An invasion and occupation of Greece’s island territory, like Turkey’s attack on Cyprus in 1974, would help “re-determine the status of the islands.”
Why would Erdogan choose to pursue this course of action? Perhaps, as one commentator has argued, Erdogan’s personal frustration with Greece’s increased strength and visibility in the international arena will push him to escalate. The desire for an electoral boost, or even his constitutional ability to postpone the vote under the threat of war, could also play a role. There also seems to be a general air of Turkish confidence regarding the result of any confrontation with Greece. In this regard, Turkey’s political climate bears a strong resemblance to that of the United States before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In the same way many Americans viewed Iraq as an overripe threat to Middle Eastern security, there is a similarly palpable sense of Turkish exasperation and impatience when it comes to Greek issues. 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. Turkey, after all, has humiliated Greece on the battlefield more than once before. In the same way Kosovo, Bosnia, and the Gulf War appeared to exemplify America’s military superiority to Iraq, Turkey’s commentariat generally shares Erdogan’s self-assured belief that the country’s interventions into Syria, Nagorno-Karabagh, Iraq, and Libya have demonstrated Turkey’s own military prowess. And like the hints of bigotry found in American news coverage of the war in 2003, prominent Turkish commentators also describe their Greek antagonists as inherently weak and effeminate. In short, if Erdogan does choose war, it may be because he, like many others, believe success is assured.
Of course, a Turkish attack on Greece would cause potentially irreparable harm to Ankara’s relationship with the United States, the European Union, and NATO, particularly given Greece’s defensive pact with France and the robust presence of U.S. personnel in the Aegean. In the shadow of the invasion of Ukraine, any attempted occupation of Greek territory would undoubtedly earn Erdogan immediate and unenviable comparisons with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Given these circumstances, it seems almost impossible to imagine Erdogan discounting the grave diplomatic, political, and economic consequences of such an action.
And yet, history indicates that he may be willing and able to endure the fallout. In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus despite the damage it inflicted upon its relationship with the United States and NATO. In Syria, Erdogan delivered upon his threats of invasion after long telegraphing his intentions to establish a “security zone” in the north of the country. Turkish troops continue to threaten to expand their occupation in the face of repeated warnings from Washington. Rather than shy from confrontation, Erdogan has touted these advances as an effort to defeat a NATO and American conspiracy to destroy Turkey. 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.
Ryan Gingeras is a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and is an expert on Turkish, Balkan, and Middle East history. He is the author of six books, including the forthcoming The Last Days of the Ottoman Empire (to be released by Penguin in October 2022). His Sorrowful Shores: Violence, Ethnicity, and the End of the Ottoman Empire received short-list distinctions for the Rothschild Book Prize in Nationalism and Ethnic Studies and the British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize. The views expressed here are not those of the Naval Postgraduate School, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.