NATO and Turkey are locked in an unhappy marriage, and Greece’s security is paying the price.
Since the start of the year, Greece’s military has recorded dozens of airspace violations by Turkish aircraft. Added to this has been an escalating war of words over the Imia islets as well as a collision between Turkish and Greek patrol boats that sparked phone calls between the countries’ prime ministers.
And, as Turkey fortifies its coastal presence overlooking Imia with monitoring equipment and new landing points, in the eastern Mediterranean Turkish warships have been involved in blocking plans by energy firms to drill in Cypriot waters.
Now events have taken another twist as two Greek soldiers were arrested and detained having strayed onto Turkish territory across the Evros river; they now face criminal charges, have been refused bail and are being held in Edirne (Adrianopolis).
Greece and Turkey are both members of NATO — but the alliance seems subdued in condemning Turkish adventures in the Aegean, leaving the EU to do the heavy lifting in terms of supporting Greece’s sovereignty.
The alliance’s biggest component, the U.S., was content to limit itself to concerns about a possible “accident” between Greek and Turkish forces in the Aegean, rather than call out Turkish provocations.
And although former NATO commander James Stavridis told Greek Reporter in an exclusive interview earlier this month that the Imia islets “are Greek and they will remain Greek forever”, other concerns are at play.
Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty states that collective defense means an attack against one member is considered an attack against all allies.
Although Turkey has not yet been accused of actually attacking Greek interests, its foreign policy plays — with Russia and in Syria — are making NATO wary of upsetting Ankara further.
In December, Turkey signed a deal with Russia to purchase two batteries of the S-400 surface-to-air missile system. This technology cannot be used by other NATO members and unless Ankara is excluded from upcoming NATO countermeasures briefings, Russia could be the beneficiary of vital Western intelligence.
The U.S. has already warned supposed allies of purchasing military kit from its geopolitical rivals, with the State Department talking of “appropriate measures” against countries investing in the S-400.
In this case, NATO has to tread carefully to keep Ankara onside — particularly as it has ordered 116 F-35 fighter jets which are to form the backbone of NATO’s warplane fleet in the coming decades. This expansion of Turkey’s aerial ability will also force Greece to invest more in its own defenses at a time when it is still emerging from a catastrophic economic crisis.
Turkey and the U.S. form the two largest militaries in the NATO alliance and these two ostensible partners have a relationship which has been strained to breaking point, particularly after the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey and Ankara’s ongoing military operations in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in Syria.
Turkey’s military and its local proxies are nose-to-nose with armed Kurdish groups backed by the U.S., which Ankara deems terrorist organizations.
Although Turkey’s NATO parliamentary assembly head recently marked 66 years of Ankara’s membership of the alliance with a call for “dialogue and co-operation in order to eliminate threats and turn challenges into opportunities” it is clear Turkey has become something of a semi-detached member of the club.
Earlier this month, Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos said he had briefed NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis in Brussels about Turkey’s activities in the Aegean.
He also claimed Greece had received reassurances that NATO leaders would persuade Turkey it could not ride roughshod over the sovereignty of a fellow member.
But there was little in the way of condemnation of Ankara. Stoltenberg was quoted on the same day as saying: “We want to do our utmost to avoid real problems and the escalation of conflict and tension between [Greece and Turkey].”
Greece’s public remains less-than-reassured that its primary military alliance is ready to put a stop to repeated unsanctioned flights over the country’s airspace — even over its capital.
Mirroring Greece’s feeling of isolation is Turkey’s exasperation with NATO over its purported failure to condemn groups hostile to it.
Turkey’s public remains convinced that Kurdish militants post the biggest threat to their safety, and bristle at the West’s failure to understand their fears.
The pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper recently accused NATO of “staying silent over the terrorist attacks against the former and not acting in accordance with the rules of alliance, causing a questioning of the existence of joint benefits for both sides”.
It went on to say “NATO has embraced an attitude that does not support Turkey but instead prefers to stay silent against the attacks of the terrorists despite verbally pretending that it sides with Turkey”.
NATO — faced with this level of mistrust — simply cannot afford to exacerbate any rupture with Turkey, which possesses the largest military in the region and sits at a vital geo-strategic point.
At the same time, NATO membership is about the only thing which has prevented Greece and Turkey from going to war so far.
In the rough game that is international diplomacy, Greece’s national security may be deemed of less importance than placating its much-bigger neighbor, but emotional demands that Turkey be thrown out of NATO would leave a huge, unchecked force on Greece’s border.