Rising tensions in the Mediterranean have fueled fears of a new conflict between Greece and Turkey not seen since 1974.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has renewed the ultra-nationalist rhetoric of Turkish expansion, and this has been accompanied by Turkish military operations against Kurdish paramilitaries, the Syrian army, opposition factions in Libya and support Azerbaijan’s military against Armenia.
Now emboldened by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has bolstered Turkish soft power, Erdogan is looking to continue the provocations. Heightened militarist rhetoric has become a focal point of Erdogan’s campaign to mask failing domestic policies at home.
The Mediterranean has always been of interest to Turkey, although UNCLOS recognizes Greece’s EEZ. Although conflicts have emerged over Cyprus and a near-war over Imia, Erdogan’s AKP party has escalated tensions under the guise of ‘defending Turkey’ while simultaneously preaching further territorial expansion. .
Tensions rose steadily after Turkey’s failed 2016 coup against Erdogan’s ruling party. A few days later, the Turkish president called it a “gift from God” as Erdogan received new powers from the National Assembly. This would include mass arrests and detentions of numerous political rivals, journalists, Turkish human rights activists and Kurdish MPs.
Erdogan would then continue with anti-Western rhetoric, speaking of conspiracies than the United States. and Greece were organizing to sow chaos in their country. A once secular Turkey has become increasingly Islamist under Erdogan with little freedom of expression and rights. Despite the provocative rhetoric, the EU continues to appease Ankara, even with border violations reported by Athens, including illegal offshore drilling and thousands of flight interceptions.
On May 18, Finland and Sweden applied for NATO membership, which became another opportunity for Erdogan, who used the arms embargo the two countries imposed on him as an excuse to temporarily use his right veto to threaten their membership. Only the end of the embargo, the extradition of Kurdish militants and the sharing of information will satisfy the autocrat. The NATO veto has effectively made Erdogan one of the world’s most dangerous leaders, as he holds the fate of the most powerful military alliance in his vote.
With its mediation during the Russian-Ukrainian war, Turkish soft power was highlighted. propelling Turkey to the forefront of the great powers – but its domestic policies tell a different story.
Women’s rights under the AKP have been abhorrent, with many cases of murders of women and domestic violence. The economy has an inflation rate of 83% thanks to failing economic policies. Likewise, the violent government crackdowns have damaged Erdogan’s image at home and abroad. Ahval News reported in August that despite Erdogan’s populism, he still lacked the majority needed to win re-election. Along with domestic pressure, Erdogan has also been in a geopolitical quagmire with America, as Turkish-American relations have soured due to Ankara’s geopolitical bets.
The United States recently lifted the arms embargo on Cyprus for a full year, as Nicosia met the requirements of US law. Predictably, Turkey condemned this and its foreign minister said he would continue to militarily reinforce the 46,000 illegal Turkish soldiers already in Cyprus. It should be noted that relations were already strained in Cyprus before the embargo was lifted as Ersin Tatar, the Turkish Cypriot “president”, spoke of possible annexation by Erdogan and acted as an extension of the AKP.
On September 14, the Middle East Eye reported that 64% of respondents in Turkey did not see Greece as an existential threat, as election fever caused the current stalemate. As diplomatic relations hit new lows, a potential war would set the stage for Erdogan to invoke emergency powers to delay the election indefinitely.
Further east, Ilham Aliyev, the president and autocrat of Azerbaijan, has used its natural resources to appease the EU over its aggression in the region through alternative gas options in the wake of the Russian invasion. The European Commission president said Azerbaijan was a “reliable partner” even as it continues to encroach on Armenia proper, which is sovereign under international law and uncontested like Karabakh.
Aliyev will seek to continue to attract the EU and this helps keep Erdogan in power, as recent Azerbaijani victories could not have happened without Turkish military assistance. Likewise, the pipeline from Azerbaijan passing through Turkey and connecting Greece and Bulgaria will be used as leverage by Erdogan and Aliyev in future geopolitical conflicts.
The upcoming Turkish elections in 2023 will be watched with great geopolitical concerns and the Hellenic Army and the Cypriot National Guard will need to be on high alert and ready for any provocation. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the moderate Kemalist faction, the alternative to Erdogan, has the same aggressive policies towards the Mediterranean and has had various conflicts with Athens and Nicosia in the past.