Turkey and Greece keep quarrelling, but don't expect conflict soon

The most recent war of words may have domestic political purposes

Greek soldiers engage Turkish troops in 1921. Violence between the two brought misery and death to the Turkish people and military defeat for the Greeks. Getty Images
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One hundred summers ago, the forces of the Turkish National Movement, led by the charismatic and confident Mustafa Kemal, had turned the tide and begun pushing the invading Greeks further and further west, with nowhere to go but into the sea.

Just a year prior, Greek military leaders had felt so confident advancing into the Anatolian heartland that they reportedly invited their British allies to a victory dinner in Kemal’s new Turkish capital, Ankara. But the Turks halted that advance at the brutal, game-changing Battle of Sarkaya, some 50 kilometres west of Ankara, and reversed the momentum.

In March 1922, the Allies, led by France, the UK, Italy and the US, suggested the two sides meet for an armistice. But, not unlike Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in recent weeks, ignoring western advice to hand land to Russia, Kemal instead hoped to push the invaders fully out of his territory.

To that end, Turkish forces launched what came to be known as the Great Offensive in late August and quickly took Afyonkarahisar and Dumlupinar. On September 1, Kemal famously urged his charges: “Your first goal is the Mediterranean. Forward!”

They reached their destination in a matter of days, a humbling defeat for the Greeks and a canonical victory for Kemal, who would sign the Treaty of Lausanne the next year, found the Republic of Turkey and later be dubbed “Ataturk”, or Father of the Turks.

This region-shaping moment came to mind last week when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, amid fast-rising Greco-Turkish tensions, delivered a rare tweet stream in Greek, advising Athens to mind its manners in the Aegean. “We warn once again Greece to be prudent, to stay away from dreams, rhetoric and actions that will lead to results it will regret, as happened a century ago,” he tweeted.

Three decades of relative amity followed the war and the 1923 population exchange, but the two neighbours and rivals have been at each other’s throats ever since: Turkish pogroms in 1955, Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and the island’s ensuing division; banging the drums of war in 1987, 1996 and 2020.

Over the past year, a series of talks hinted at a thaw, until Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited Washington in late May, finalised a deal for F-35 fighter jets and urged the US Congress not to send military hardware, presumably F-16s, to Turkey. “He no longer exists for me,” Mr Erdogan said of Mr Mitsotakis in response. “I will never agree to meet with him.”

Greece came back with a dismissive comment and, as per the routine, the tensions soon escalated to include maritime border disagreements in the Mediterranean, Aegean island militarisation and violations of airspace.

Last week, after Ankara hinted that the sovereignty of certain Greek islands in the Aegean might come under question, Athens sent letters to the UN outlining its complaints and the US urged the Nato allies to resolve their disputes through diplomacy. High drama, yet also a bit of a broken record.

Amid the greatest hits, the longtime Turkish leader’s reference to what happened a century ago stands out. Setting aside the obvious point – Greece’s humbling – that Turkish victory still today represents a defeat of western imperialism.

Greek forces had captured a great swathe of Anatolia stretching from Izmir to Bursa and Eskisehir, while the Allies had taken control of the Mediterranean jewel of Antalya and the grand prize, Istanbul, as well as Canakkale – ensuring full control of the Turkish straits. Not since Fatih Sultan Mehmet II trotted into Constantinople on his white horse in May 1453 had Turks felt so vulnerable.

Mr Erdogan’s reference signalled that Turks today might feel similarly hemmed in by its supposed western allies: when Greece places troops on Aegean islands (though there’s little evidence of this); when the EU restricts Turkey’s maritime boundaries or access to Cypriot energy reserves; when the US partners with Turkey’s foes in northern Syria and opposes Ankara’s Syria policy.

The ruling AKP has in recent weeks received its lowest-ever polling numbers, just a year out from a national vote, and Turkish warnings of aggression against Greece are an assertion of nationalist might that is largely meant for a domestic audience.

Of course, it’s not all for show. Ryan Gingeras, a top Turkish historian and national security professor at the California-based Naval Postgraduate School, wrote last week that, in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a new Greco-Turkish war “​​is not only possible but perhaps, at some point, probable".

Yet at least for now, these standoffs almost appear staged. As each side, and each country’s opposition, takes political advantage of the moment, one can almost envision back-channel diplomats sending each other quiet thumbs up about the ramped-up rhetoric.

As with Ankara’s looming incursion into northern Syria to take on Kurdish militants, a bit of rhetorical sparring with Greece underscores Turkey’s military’s confidence while also sticking it to the “imperialist” West. Domestically, that’s a win-win.

Going to war with Greece, on the other hand, would be disastrous for Turkey, Greece, the US and Nato – not to mention the Nato-backed war effort in Ukraine. But as recent history has shown, that it is an exercise in futility doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

Published: June 14, 2022, 4:00 AM
Updated: June 15, 2022, 1:32 PM