Steven Sahiounie, journalist and political commentator
On September 10, two Greek Coast Guard boats opened fire on a Turkish cargo ship with an international crew while it sailed in international waters. The “Anatolian” was attacked off the northwestern Turkish island of Bozcaada.
Turkey reported no casualties in the attack but has demanded an immediate investigation. After two Turkish Coast Guard ships arrived on the scene, the Greek boats left.
The Greek Coast Guard admitted to firing shots at the ship and believed it was acting suspiciously off the Greek island of Lesbos, which is well known as a people-smuggling route used to land economic migrants leaving Turkey and seeking asylum in Europe.
A video filmed on the cell phone of a crew member during the attack carries the sound of about a dozen gunshots and shows the bullet holes which hit the ship’s bridge. Turkey stated the attack was “in disregard of the rules of international law”.
Turkey and Greece are embroiled in a new dispute following decades of tensions. The historic foes are neighbors and fellow members of NATO, but now face thorny issues ranging from overflights, Aegean islands, maritime boundaries, and off-shore energy resources in the Mediterranean Sea.
On September 5, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that Greece was occupying demilitarized islands in the Aegean and threatened that Turkey was ready to take action in response. Erdogan warned Greece that Turkey might “come all of a sudden one night,” and added to Greece it would pay a “heavy price” for continued harassment of Turkish fighter jets over the Aegean, which hinted at possible military action.
On September 12, Hulusi Akar, Turkish National Defense Minister, accused Athens of a “two-faced” diplomatic policy towards Ankara and added, “Despite all our well-intentioned efforts, unfortunately, our neighbor Greece continues to increase the tension with some provocative actions and rhetoric every time. We do our best to prevent this.”
Akar accused Greece of hostile actions against the Turkish jets when the Greeks had locked on their radar, which he called unacceptable behavior. He stressed that international law dictates a nation’s airspace is contingent on its territorial waters, referring to the harassment of Turkish jets, and added that Greece arming the occupied islands was against international law as well.
Akar referred to the August 23 incident in which Turkish jets, while flying on a NATO mission, were threatened by the air defense system Greece had stationed on the island of Crete, as well as arming islands near the Turkish shore which are under a demilitarization treaty
Akar held out a hand of diplomacy to Greece by saying, “We say: ‘Come whenever you want, or let us come,” referring to his call to sit at a negotiations table to peacefully resolve the disputes.
Some political analysts say the upcoming June 2023 presidential elections in Turkey are playing a part in this current drama. They say Erdogan is behind in the polls, and inciting patriotic tensions against their old foe may boost support for him.
Greek officials have warned of a potential for military conflict with Turkey, and claim that they are simply defending eastern islands such as Rhodes and Kos, which are tourist destinations vital to the economy of Greece.
“I consider recent statements by the Turkish president unacceptable. However, we will always try to keep communication channels open,” said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 11, and added that a chance for the meeting would present itself at the EU summit scheduled in October in Prague.
Greece wrote letters recently to NATO, the EU, and the UN, asking them to formally condemn increasingly aggressive talk by Turkish officials and suggesting tensions could escalate into open conflict.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias warned the conflict with Turkey ran the risk of becoming an additional war in Europe, referring to Ukraine.
Mitsotakis, speaking from Paris, warned Turkey when he said, “Those who say that they will come in the night, we are waiting for them in the daylight, where it is shown who has the right and true power on his side.”
Erdogan seeks to prevent any energy resources project in the Aegean that side-steps Turkey, and wants an arrangement in the eastern Mediterranean Sea that includes Turkey and Cyprus in an energy sharing agreement. According to Asli Aydintasbas, of the European Council on Foreign relations, Erdogan will stop short of “seeking a physical confrontation with Greece.”
The EU issued a statement, Comments by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in a recent interview, disputing Greece’s sovereignty over some of its islands, are counterproductive and contradict de-escalation efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean called for in the Conclusions of the European Council from 23 March and 24-25 June 2021,” while on February 2022 the body stated, “Greece’s sovereignty over these islands is unquestionable.”
French President Emmanuel Macron weighed in on the dispute during a meeting in Paris with Mitsotakis and said, “This strategic partnership will not allow any unrest in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
“Both countries are stronger together,” Macron said while adding that “We fully support Greece’s sovereignty”.
The main issue of the meeting in Paris was the energy crisis and the search for common ground in the EU ahead of the Informal Council in Prague on 6 and 7 October. The off-shore energy resources dispute between Greece and Turkey put the dispute firmly on the agenda of the upcoming meeting.
Akar commented that Greece was complaining to third parties about Turkey, and called it “a two-faced policy.” He also referred to the politically divided island of Cyprus, which has the northern half under Turkish administration and occupation. He added that Turkey will protect the country and the Turkish Cypriots. Both Turkey and Cyprus seek offshore energy resources in the Mediterranean Sea.
Turkey had once been described as an American ally in addition to being a member of NATO for 70 years. But, the US relationship was strained when Erdogan was found to be supportive of ISIS while American troops were fighting to defeat the terrorist group.
With the US-Turkey relations low, Erdogan turned to President Putin of Russia and completed a major military deal with Russia which further angered Washington. Erdogan enjoys playing Russia and the US off against each other by showing he has other options.
Husamettin Tanrikulu has been arrested in Turkey after being trained for four months as a terrorist in Lavrion Camp in Greece beginning in March 2022. He returned to Turkey to carry out terrorist activities in June but was arrested due to a tip-off to police from a relative who knew of the plan to attack Turkish cities at the behest of the PKK terrorist group.
Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu has frequently accused Athens of harboring terrorists and warned that Camp Lavrion is a haven and training ground for the PKK. The Greek broadcaster StarNews revealed that the camp’s residents had admitted to participation in the PKK.
The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by the US, UK, EU, Turkey, and all western nations. It has been responsible for the deaths of over 40,000 people over more than 40 years.
High on the mast at Camp Lavrion, a flag of the PKK floats. Greece designates the PKK as a terrorist organization, which is the same classification as ISIS. And yet, Greece protects and shelters a group who have slaughtered thousands of men, women, and children of their next-door neighbor. Greece does follow a two-faced foreign policy towards Turkey.
Steven Sahiounie is a two-time award-winning journalist