There has always been a militarist streak in the political discourse in Turkey, except perhaps for certain periods when Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s foreign policy doctrine “zero problem with neighbors,” was adopted as foreign policy objective. This doctrine of co-existence without conflicts, gradually gave way to an adventurist and militarist stance. Simply put, you cannot have zero problems with your neighbours when you threaten them with military action. There are number of justifications put forward by the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) government to defend its stance in various fronts: in the Aegean, it is the ‘grey zones’ or the Lausanne Agreement of 1924. In the Mediterranean, it is national interests related to energy reserves that stir the pot; in Syria it is the “terrorist” Kurds. The President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also threatened Iraqi Kurdistan with the prospect of invasion, ostensibly because of their desire to be independent. Erdoğan’s canvass therefore is very wide.
In general, AKP and Erdoğan do not feel that they need to justify their stance with rational arguments to put their case forward in each of these real (Kurds) and manufactured (“grey zones” in the Aegean Sea) disputes. We have seen a number of bizarre statements along the lines of “offering an Ottoman slap” (reserved for the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson). To the Greeks, Erdoğan was even less charitable: “they escaped being salted like fish in Sakarya”, he said only this month, referring to the Battle of the Sakarya in the Greco-Turkish War (1919–1922). His narrative includes past glories and future victories, dreaming of grandeur in an imperial scale.
The war cries emanating from Turkey are more than just rhetorical utterances intended for domestic audience, constructed to procure votes in the next election. There is an ongoing military operation in Afrin, ironically named ‘operation olive branch’ (Zeytin Dalı Harekâtı), which culminated in the capture of the city. This operation, with its commensurate bravado and language of hate, resulted in the actual loss of life of many innocent civilians, Kurdish fighters, but also young Turkish men, sent to war with the narrative of Mehmetçik and martyrdom, combining both nationalist and religious undertones. This operation is concerning enough as it caused 200,000 residents of Afrin to leave the city, but it seems the intent of the regime is to spread these operations to the Mediterranean Sea and the Aegean.
When Erdoğan does not issue threats, the task is left to his immediate environment to do so. For instance, his senior advisor, Yiğit Bulut, threatened Greek Cypriots and the Italian energy firm exploring for gas in the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone (EZZ): “Look at their impertinence, bitchiness & courage! If you try to enter the zone, commander-in-chief will give the order to hit you”. In March this year, Bulut said that Erdoğan will order a strike in the Aegean, if the Greeks set foot on the islet of Imia (called Kardak by Turkey), Bulut warned. “Do they want to test our determination? We are challenging Greece to set foot on [Imia]. If that happens, we will defend them to the death”.
What is striking in both Erdoğan and Bulut’s language is the total disregard for diplomatic etiquette. The cautious approach adopted by Davutoğlu, which Erdoğan approved at the time, gave way to an irresponsible, adventurist, irredentist, swashbuckling discourse and policy.
There have been a number of violations of Greek air space and nautical space in the past year. These are routine to the point of not being newsworthy any more. This is disputed by Turkey, which paints Greece as the provocative party. It is not my intention to discuss the veracity of claims and counter claims; it is a complicated issue best left to the experts. As long as these disputes do not result into an armed conflict, the issue will continue to be of annoyance and irritation for both countries. Of more concern is the incident that took place last month when two ships belonging respectively to the Greek and Turkish Coast Guard Boats, collided near Imia.
So far Greece responded to Turkey via a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen), which states that the Greek Air Force and Navy is committing the Aegean for drills with real bullets. The issuing of a NOTAM intends to restrict large regions across the Aegean Sea for intermittent periods until the end of April. This is a response to a Turkish Navtex that covered areas in the central Aegean Sea. Turkey issued a Navtex for drills with real bullets on the 25 March 2018, on the Greek Independence Day! This is definitely an escalation of hostilities.
The Greek governing party Syriza is anti-militarist, though the conservative Defence Minister, of the junior coalition party, The Independent Greeks, likes the military hardware and occasionally responds to Turkish assertions with fervour. To moderate, Syriza appointed a deputy Defence Minister, Fotis Kouvelis with leftist credentials, reporting directly to the Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras. In general, the tones emanating from the Greek government are low-key, trying to downplay the threats so as not to escalate the conflict to a point of no return. Erdoğan sees this as a sign of weakness and increases the intensity of threats. It is not just the government in Turkey, which adopted a language of conflict and dubious nationalism. The opposition with the hapless Kılıçdaroğlu also contributes occasionally to the aggressive discourse, to establish his nationalist credentials and compete with Erdoğan. Kılıçdaroğlu issued a threat to Greece in 2017: “We will come and take back 18 Greek islands”. He later increased the number of islands in dispute to 156.
In the Mediterranean Sea natural gas exploration and drilling caused dispute between Turkey and multiple parties (Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel). There was a military standoff in February between the Turkish navy and a drilling ship licensed by the Greek Cypriot administration. Al Jazeera wrote that “Ankara feels the natural gas alliance of Greece, Greek Cypriots, Israel and Egypt is scheming for diplomatic, economic and military faits accomplis.” There may be legitimate grievances motivating Ankara on this issue, but these grievances cannot be resolved with continuous threats and warnings. Parties need to come to the table to discuss EEZs but at the moment Erdoğan’s mindset would not allow it, seeing it as a concession to his imaginary enemies. He has locked himself to pursuing one approach only.
Erdoğan often makes references to the borders of the heart, which is an expansionist dream and he even asked his fellow Turkish men to be ready for conscription. This language of war is the constant theme in his repertoire.
It is hoped that cooler heads in the Turkish government will prevail. Unfortunately, such measured politicians as Abdullah Gül and Ahmet Davutoğlu are no longer influential in the AKP. Even if the Aegean and Mediterranean conflicts to do not escalate, and it is hoped that they do not, there is the real possibility that the Middle Eastern operations will expand beyond Afrin, into other Kurdish controlled territories in Syria; they may even envelop Iraq,
Turkey is going through an authoritarian period in which any alternative points of view are discounted and not reported in the media, which is overwhelmingly controlled by the government, and those that utter them are persecuted. With the acquisition of Doğan Group’s media assets by pro-Erdoğan Demirören Holding in March, the platforms for expression of alterative views are reduced even further. In this environment, lacking meaningful public debate, only the hawkish points of views are presented as those of the Turkish people. We are living in dangerous times indeed.
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