In a rapidly intensifying war of words, government officials of the nominal NATO allies Greece and Turkey have been exchanging insults and threats in the past few weeks, recalling conflicts from a shared and bloody history. Relations have rarely been rosy, but the speed with which they have worsened, and the level of vitriol, have raised fears that the two heavily armed neighbors may be trash-talking their way to new conflict.
Adding to those concerns is the awareness that the two most credible mediators between the two sides — the United States and the European Union — appear to have little leverage with Turkey.
Greece and Turkey have played decisive roles in each other’s history, and this determines their relations today. The Greeks rebelled against almost four centuries of Ottoman rule in 1821 and, after years of war (and foreign intervention), won their freedom with the declaration of the Greek state in 1830. Turks commemorate Sept. 9, the date on which Turkish troops entered Izmir in 1922 after routing a Greek invasion force, ending millenniums of Greek presence in Asia Minor and leading to the declaration of a modern, secular Turkey.
Now, domestic political dynamics in both Ankara and Athens have affected foreign policy, triggering a cycle of verbal violence and dangerous posturing. Much of the tension stems from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s effort to undermine the legacy of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Mr. Erdogan, who has sought to restore Islam to the center of public life, has recently taken to calling for the “revision” of the Treaty of Lausanne, which in 1923 set the foundations for modern Turkey and established its borders and relations with Greece.
Ataturk had called the treaty “a political victory unequaled in the history of the Ottoman era.” In September 2016, Mr. Erdogan challenged this. “Some tried to deceive us by presenting Lausanne as a victory. In Lausanne, we gave away the islands that you could shout across to” from the Turkish coast, he said. This aggravated long-simmering differences with Greece over land, sea and air rights, and prompted an increasingly vocal response from Athens.
Recent developments include Ankara’s declaration that the Imia islets (Kardak in Turkish), a previous “gray area” in the Aegean Sea, are Turkish; a Turkish patrol boat ramming a Greek Coast Guard ship in the disputed area, which Greece considers its own; the military obstruction by Turkey of hydrocarbon exploration off the Republic of Cyprus; the prolonged detention of two Greek soldiers who strayed across the Turkish border on March 1, raising suspicions that Ankara might want to exchange them for eight alleged Turkish coup plotters, who were protected from extradition by Greek courts. Mr. Erdogan has persistently accused Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece of reneging on a promise to hand the eight back shortly after they fled to Greece in July 2016. Mr. Tsipras says he cannot intervene in the judiciary’s work.
This personal involvement has driven much of the invective. Recently, after Mr. Erdogan once again complained that Greece’s European Union partners had pressed him for the release of the two detained Greek soldiers while remaining indifferent to the eight alleged coup plotters, Mr. Tsipras’s office declared, “The rule of law prevails in Greece, which has a prime minister who respects and is familiar with Greek judicial practice and not a sultan who can make promises on their (judicial) rulings.” The Turkish Foreign Ministry shot back that “the Greek authorities have started to increasingly lower the level of discourse against Turkey.”
The recent “discourse” between the two countries, however, has already included clear threats of war. On March 11, replying to a call by President Prokopis Pavlopoulos of Greece for Turkey to respect borders and international law, Mr. Erdogan warned the Greeks to remember their losses in the Greek-Turkish war. “Those who want to refresh their memory should look at their recent history,” he said, “how they jumped into the sea to get away from here.”
The leader of the junior partner in Greece’s coalition government, Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, used the anniversary of the start of the Greek war of independence, March 25, to declare, “We will crush whoever dares to question our national sovereignty.” Referring to Mr. Erdogan’s recent talk of a “great Turkey” following the invasion of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria, Mr. Kammenos added: “Whoever has in mind large Ottoman empires should remember 1821, how the Greek people faced the Ottoman Empire and crushed it.”
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim of Turkey picked up the thread. “Turkey will never tolerate certain circles which violate our sovereignty in the Mediterranean and the Aegean,” he declared. “Those who play at being pirates in the Aegean should not forget Sept. 9, 1922,” he added.
Enmity and suspicion between Greece and Turkey was not erased by their joint accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1952. The two came close to war in 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus and occupied its north in response to a coup by Greek Cypriots who wanted to unite the island republic with Greece. In 1987 and 1996, disputes over sea and territorial rights in the Aegean again nearly led to war. Turkish warplanes continually fly into the 10-mile airspace around islands declared by Athens and over islets whose sovereignty Turkey questions. Ankara’s declaration that the two uninhabited Imia islets are Turkish has raised the stakes: urgent mediation by the United States in 1996 prevented conflict over the islets, resulting in an agreement that neither side would dispatch ships there or raise flags on them.
Today such mediation is less likely. Having grown accustomed to expressing outspoken criticism of the United States because of Washington’s objections to Turkey’s invasion of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in Syria, Mr. Erdogan is not likely to back down in any confrontation with Greece. President Trump’s recent statement that United States troops would leave Syria “very soon” — whenever that may be — must have boosted Turkey’s self-confidence.
European mediation could be even less effective. On March 22, the European Council — the leaders of the European Union member states — said that it “strongly condemns Turkey’s continued illegal actions in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea and underlines its full solidarity with Cyprus and Greece.”
The Turkish Foreign Ministry dismissed the statement. “Such wordings solely based on the Greek Cypriot and Greek claims are unacceptable,” it said. The Turkish minister of European Union affairs, Omer Celik, tweeted, “Solidarity is meaningful only when it is legitimate.”
Ankara clearly does not feel threatened by criticism that could weaken ties with the European Union. It is also keen to point out that it can control the flow of refugees and migrants, whose mass influx in 2015 shook politics in many European countries, suggesting that they may need Ankara’s good will more than it needs theirs.
Mr. Erdogan may have wanted to stir passions with a dynamic foreign policy as he marshals support for presidential elections that may be held any time before late 2019. Even as he undermines Ataturk’s legacy in order to change Turkey, he has co-opted the message of secular nationalist parties with his tough talk against Greece.
The Greek government did not want this fight but was forced to respond to Turkey’s positions. The undiplomatic statements coming from both Ankara and Athens, however, reflect the derision and “winner takes all” attitude with which both governments treat their domestic opponents. It’s almost as if they cannot help themselves. Uncivil debate appears to be on the ascendant internationally, but the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean are particularly dangerous for such outbursts.
On Tuesday, Mr. Tsipras tried to ease the tension with Turkey. “We don’t threaten anyone, but nor do we fear anyone,” he told his cabinet.
On Wednesday, his Turkish counterpart, Mr. Yildirim, took another dig: “Don’t take Greece into account. It’s a country the size of one of our cities. It is smaller than Istanbul,” Turkish media quoted him saying at a conference on higher education.
“However, we are neighbors,” he added, “and as long as they stay quiet, we have nothing to say.”
Nikos Konstandaras is a columnist at the newspaper Kathimerini and a contributing opinion writer.