Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has long been hinting at an impending military operation against Greece in the Aegean Sea as tensions continue to increase between NATO allies Turkey and Greece over maritime borders and energy exploration rights in disputed parts of the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. These disagreements are ongoing, and both the Turkish and Greek governments have attempted to resolve the issue through diplomacy and European Union, United Nations and NATO mechanisms. Erdoğan would, however, at this point, before the presidential election scheduled for June 2023, benefit from a military victory against Greece to please his nationalist allies in Turkey.
Erdoğan is likely at this point nervous since opinion polls indicate that public support for Erdoğan is currently insufficient to secure his top seat as Turkey’s economic woes are hurting millions of Turkish households. Erdoğan has received the support of Turkish nationalists who favor Turkey’s direct military intervention in Syria to prevent the threat from Kurdish groups at its border. Similarly, support for Erdoğan is likely to increase if he orders a military operation to take over the disputed Aegean islands from Greece.
Cyprus remains a point of contention between Greece and Ankara since Turkey took over the northern third of Cyprus with a successful “Cyprus Peace Operation” five days after the 1974 Cypriot coup d’état initiated by the Greek military junta, whose aim was the annexation of the Republic of Cyprus by Greece. The Turkish Cypriot community unilaterally declared independence in 1983 by forming the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC); however, only Turkey recognizes it, and Greece views Turkey as an invader on the island.
Similar to the dispute over Cyprus, which can be traced back to the British receiving the island as a protectorate from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 and its subsequent annexation in 1914, Turkey has been trying to reclaim the Dodecanese Islands, which were occupied by Italy during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-1912. Following its defeat in World War II, Italy was forced to hand over these islands to Greece without Turkey’s consent. Since then, an overwhelming number of Aegean islands have belonged to Greece including Lesbos, Chios and Samos, which are lined up along Turkey’s west coast.
Erdoğan warned the Greek government to remain cognizant of Turkey’s Aegean Sea rights while in the city of Izmir, where he observed the “EFES 2022” military exercise on June 9. “We leave it to the international community to decide what it means to demand 40,000 kilometers of maritime jurisdiction for Meis Island, which is less than two kilometers from our country’s mainland but more than 600 kilometers from Greece in the eastern Mediterranean,” Erdoğan said, criticizing Greek authorities via Twitter in both English and Greek.
Erdoğan sent a message to Greece by drawing its attention to the manner in which the Turkish army carried out successful military operations in Syria in recent years, mentioning that “Turkey will not relinquish its rights in the Aegean and will not refrain from using the powers granted to it by international agreements for the armament of the islands when necessary.”
Erdoğan hosted Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Istanbul on March 13, when the two leaders had lunch together at the presidential mansion on the banks of the Bosporus. During this meeting they discussed bilateral and international relations as well as the effects of the Russia-Ukraine war, the Turkish presidency’s communications directorate confirmed. Mitsotakis expressed his hopes of restoring a relationship with Turkey, stating during a cabinet meeting in March before the visit that “As partners in NATO, we are called upon … to try to keep our region away from any additional geopolitical crisis,” the Hürriyet Daily News reported. Mitsotakis hoped to calm tensions with Ankara since the militaries of NATO members Turkey and Greece were involved in several disputes in 2020 over energy resources in Aegean waters.
However, the meeting between Mitsotakis and Erdoğan in Istanbul was not as fruitful as anticipated, and less than two weeks later Erdoğan accused Mitsotakis of seeking to hinder the sale of American-made F-16 fighter jets to Turkey while visiting the US. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Biden administration has asked congressional leaders to approve an arms deal with Turkey and that Erdoğan’s government asked the US to approve the sale of 40 US-made F-16 fighter jets to it. Erdoğan and Turkish officials have always urged Greek leaders to not involve EU and NATO members in disputes between Ankara and Athens but rather to engage in direct conversation to solve disagreements. Erdoğan harshly criticized Mitsotakis, saying on May 23 that Prime Minister Mitsotakis “no longer exists” for him.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar’s reaction to Greek MPs at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly Political Committee meeting in Istanbul on June 14 confirms the seriousness of the tensions between the two countries. Greek lawmaker Spilios Livanos criticized Akar’s demand for Greece to demilitarize its islands and labeled Turkey an invader in Cyprus. Akar responded by saying, “If you say occupation for ‘northern Cyprus,’ it means that you want to quarrel from the beginning. …Turkey is not an occupier in the north of Cyprus. Massacres and coups took place there until 1974.”
Erdoğan announced that a planned summit scheduled to take place with Mitsotakis later this year had been canceled and pledged to “never agree to have a meeting” with the Greek leader. Turkish political analyst Hakan Bayrakcı, who appeared on CNN Türk’s “Tarafsız Bölge” (Neutral Zone), accused the US government of gaining access to Greek military bases to target Turkey and strategized that Turkey could occupy certain Greek islands so that the US would be unable to militarize these islands. The Hürriyet newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Ahmet Hakan, who hosts the program, reacted by expressing his frustration at the American presence in Greece and described Greece as the “new US state.” Turkish academic and military analyst Eray Güçlüer also argued that “the Dodecanese were temporarily given to Italy” and that they should be “returned” to Turkey, the Greek City Times reported.
Erdoğan’s Turkey is determined to take over some of the Aegean islands, with Turkey writing a letter to the UN regarding the sovereignty of the Aegean islands. “Turkey’s objections, as they were phrased in the latest letters to the United Nations, are absolutely absurd as they raise questions regarding Greece’s sovereignty over its islands. We cannot have any discussion over the absurd,” Mitsotakis told Greek public broadcaster ERT on Tuesday, Reuters reported.
Greece has benefitted from its European Union membership in challenging Turkey over the last four decades. However, Erdoğan may be successful in convincing major EU states and Washington, as Turkey’s strategic role in NATO has increased since Russia invaded Ukraine, to give the go-ahead for Turkey’s special military operation to take over the Aegean islands located near Turkey’s coast. Erdoğan’s victory over Greece in the Aegean Sea could also turn into an election victory.