Turkey seeks “breathing space” in the Aegean

By Thanos Davelis, Senior Research Associate, HALC

Turkish violations of Greek sovereign airspace over islands in the Aegean reached dangerous levels this week, posing a real threat to peace and stability in the region. On Wednesday alone, Kathimerini reported that Turkish jets made 10 flights over the islets of Imia and Kalolimnos, and 162 violations of Greek airspace. Earlier in the week a Turkish gunboat with Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar onboard sailed into Greek waters around the islet of Imia, putting Greece’s military on high alert.

Turkey’s provocations come on the heels of the Greek Supreme Court’s decision to refuse the extradition of eight Turkish officers accused of participating in the failed coup in July. The court ruled — and rightly so — that the officers’ fundamental rights were at risk if they were returned to Erdogan’s Turkey, where a government purge has seen tens of thousands of civil servants, military personnel, journalists, and members of the judiciary removed from their jobs, imprisoned, or facing accusations of terrorism. Freedom House recently released a report that sees Turkey with the second highest decline in freedom worldwide over the last 10 years. The ongoing purge has hit the army particularly hard, leaving it dangerously understaffed, thus creating the preconditions for an inexperienced pilot or naval officer to dangerously escalate any encounter in the Aegean.

Turkey’s military escalations in the Aegean are coupled with extreme and provocative statements issued from its elected officials. Perhaps it is just political posturing to bolster Erdogan’s position among hardline nationalists ahead of a crucial referendum that will likely see Erdogan obtain the absolute power he so desires, but the stakes are too high in this region of the world to play political games. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusolgu recently made unfounded claims of so-called Greek “provocations” in the Aegean, threatening that there could be “no going back” if an accident occurred. Such posturing is rich, considering that between the years 2010–2016 Turkey violated Greek airspace over 8,700 times.

According to HALC Senior Fellow and former Hellenic Navy officer Nikolas Katsimpras:

While there have been fluctuations in Turkey’s incessant provocations in the last 40 years, the increasing trend over the last six is clear. Turkish aggression in the Aegean reached its peak in 2016, according to the latest data from the Hellenic National Defense General Staff.

Turkey’s disregard for the rule of law and international treaties is a reoccurring theme, and unfortunately is the norm in Ankara’s behavior. It regularly disputes the Treaty of Lausanne that established its borders with Greece, it oppresses religious and ethnic minorities, disregards human rights and the freedom of speech, regularly imprisons journalists, continues to illegally occupy the northern part of Cyprus, and denies the genocide of Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians at the beginning of the 20th century. It should therefore not come as a shock to anyone when Ankara threatens its neighbors and believes it has the right to act with impunity. Turkey’s revisionist agenda poses a direct threat to, and undermines the fundamental rules and norms that the global community established following the devastation of World War II to safeguard and promote peace and stability.

In the face of such aggression, Greece has shown remarkable poise, doing its utmost to act in accordance with international law and prevent escalations from devolving into deadly accidents in the Aegean. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras correctly stressed this week that the future of the region cannot be built with “violations, provocations and with revisions of international treaties,” but must be built on the foundation of international law, mutual respect, dialogue, and cooperation. Tsipras added that irredentism, nationalism, and tolerance are obstacles to progress and good neighborly relations. Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias also hit back at Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, saying that Greece is a country that “believes in good neighborly relations” and in international law. He reiterated that Greece does not want friction with anyone, but Athens will also “not yield to pressure from anyone.” Greece’s commitment to peace and the rule of law is steadfast, and stands in stark contrast to Turkey’s descent into Islamo-fascist autocracy.

The world must see Turkey’s behavior and rhetoric for what it is: a reckless disregard for peace, a complete rejection for international law, and irredentist nationalistic jingoism that threatens the stability of the Eastern Mediterranean. Such actions do not belong in this century.

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