On March 1, there was a seemingly harmless incident on the Greek-Turkish border in the Evros district of Western Thrace. Two Greek soldiers, as they were patrolling along the border under heavy snowfall, looking for tracks of possible smugglers or illegal immigrants, accidentally crossed the border, entering Turkish land, due mainly to the poor weather conditions and were soon encountered and detained by a Turkish military patrol.
Incidents of this kind are not uncommon in the area for both sides, especially during the winter, when the land is covered by thick snow and the weather conditions are poor, but, they are resolved on the spot, under a common understanding, in order to avoid lengthy court procedures and meaningless, populist exploitation from the media on either side of the border.
However, the two Greek servicemen were escorted to Edirne where 5 days later they appeared before a court on charges of illegally entering a prohibited military zone and after four weeks are still in custody awaiting trial.
In this particular case the Turkish authorities have chosen to follow the judicial procedure, however, the “by the book” treatment of the incident was bound to refuel the persistent tension of the past month between Ankara and Athens, since a Turkish coast guard vessel rammed a Greek patrol boat off the islands of Imia; a rocky formation that brought the two countries at the brink of war in 1996.
Greek media has treated the incident with the expected front page headlines and scaremongering, citing also the lack of coherence in the Greek coalition government, where the left PM A.
Tsipras projected a milder rhetoric as the means to an appeasement strategy, while the conservative right MoD, P. Kammenos has been commenting about “Greece being very close to a mortal accident with Turkey” and has referred to the detained Greek servicemen as “hostages of the Turkish state”.
The Turkish media, largely controlled by President R.T. Erdoğan, have been quoting his warnings related to Imia and his offensive statements towards the Greek President, P. Pavlopoulos, for advising his Turkish counterpart to respect the International law and the Lausanne Treaty.
Viewing the incident from a Greek point of view, bearing in mind Turkey’s recent interference in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), one would conclude that Turkey is a revisionist state and that Erdoğan is attempting to expand his authority in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean Sea, by risking a conflict with neighbour and NATO ally Greece.
This approach however, suffers from the usual flaws of any strictly Greek-oriented approach to Turkish foreign politics: it is confined to Greek-related issues, excluding the strong links between Turkey’s foreign policy challenges and its domestic politics.
From Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbours” approach to Erdoğan’s “neo-ottomanesque” shenanigans, Turkey’s foreign policy has been persistently stretched, while it remains exposed to proxy conflicts in the Middle East, involving Russia and the USA, as well as the century-old Shi’a vs Sunni sectarian clash, which is politically represented by Tehran and Riyadh. It is also under pressure by deteriorating relations with the USA, which are related to disagreements on major issues, the likes of Ankara’s war on PYD Kurds in Syria and the purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft weapon system.
Furthermore, relations with the EU, despite the recent Varna Summit, will not improve any time soon. The Turkish attitude towards EU members Cyprus and Greece is increasing scepticism while Erdoğan’s autocratic grip on power -supported by his witch-hunt against opposing voices within Turkey- remains firm at the expense of democracy.
Ankara has scheduled presidential elections in 2019 and the current President wants to secure a first round win against a fragmented opposition. However, he will need the support of the nationalist MHP to reach the 50% +1 threshold, just as he did for the 2017 referendum.
He has already signed a pre-election agreement with MHP leader D. Bahçeli but Erdoğan’s plans became complicated when M. Akşener split with the MHP leadership in 2016 over Erdoğan’s bid to transform Turkey’s constitution. She was an internal challenger to Bahçeli within the MHP and became a prominent right wing supporter of the “no” campaign for the 2017 constitutional referendum. Her expulsion from the MHP spawned the nationalist İYİ party that stormed into the political scene and is threatening to undermine the MHP’s electoral value for Erdoğan’s bid in the approaching presidential elections.
Ankara’s foreign relations are under pressure, but this is a situation that Erdoğan is using for his benefit in domestic politics, by stirring Turkish nationalist feelings. In his speeches and statements he has systematically attacked the USA, the EU, the PYD, the Greek-Cypriots and lately Greece, for being the “opposing side” to what he projects as Turkey’s fair claims. He is addressing a conservative-nationalist audience, on the pretext that Turkey is being unfairly treated from its neighbours and its allies.
He has completed the Afrin campaign but he already set his eyes on Manbij and Sinjar, while he maintains tension with Cyprus on the EEZ and with Greece over Imia and several other Greek islands in east Aegean Sea. He will not hesitate to transform his erratic behaviour in foreign policy to confrontational, as long as this will benefit his re-election bid.
However, as pressure in Turkey’s foreign relations mounts, the possibility of an “accident” that could escalate the tension to a crisis or even to a clash with neighbours and allies is increasing; and so does the instability in the politically unstable Middle East and the sensitive east Mediterranean Sea.
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