Friday, March 30, 2018
Greece vs. Turkey: Are We Headed for an Intra-NATO War?
The alarming escalation in the Aegean.
MAR 28, 2018 |
By JOHN PSAROPOULOS
Satellite imagery of Greece and part of Turkey. Photo credit: Planet Observer/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.
The Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey hosts one of the world’s highest concentrations of high-tech weaponry. Sixty-seven surface ships and two dozen submarines are deployed on a body of water the size of Lake Superior. The two air forces command 448 fighter jets armed with smart bombs and guided missiles. On land, 832 heavy tanks and more than 2,500 lighter artillery vehicles—as much tank firepower as in all the rest of Europe combined—could rapidly be brought to bear along a Greek-Turkish border only 105 miles long.
These arsenals, built up over decades and constantly modernized, were not merely a boon to U.S. and German defence contractors. Western policymakers wanted to believe that loyalty to NATO’s mission of containing the USSR, rather than regional rivalries, motivated this exemplary level of Greek and Turkish defense spending. After the Soviet Union collapsed, good diplomacy and Turkey’s EU aspirations made it possible, most of the time, to overlook the downsides of an arms race between uneasy neighbors. Recently, however, the Aegean has become a dangerously narrow sea.
For decades, Turkish military aircraft have regularly violated Greece’s 10-mile airspace around its islands, on the grounds that Greece’s territorial waters extend only six nautical miles from shore, and that air and sea borders should match. Turkish ships also ignore the territorial waters around a number of small islands whose Greek ownership Turkey questions. These ships and planes are intercepted by their Greek counterparts, and mock dogfights result. Occasionally fatal accidents occur.
Kostas Grivas, who teaches advanced weapons systems at the Hellenic Army Academy, calls it a “a unique theater of confrontation,” where “land, sea and air forces are simultaneously in use in a very confined area, and there is an enormous amount of weapons systems and men-at-arms in deployment.” In the event of war, he believes, it would be very difficult to maintain command-and-control systems because of the intensity and speed of activity, meaning heavy fratricidal losses. In such chaos, the outcome might ultimately be up to local commanders’ ability to take intelligent initiatives. An Aegean war, Grivas says, would resemble “a mini-nuclear war because there will be so much high-tech ordnance discharged it will cause a huge amount of damage.”
The prospect of such hostilities has been suddenly brought closer this year, following events that are individually and as a series without parallel in recent decades.
Last autumn, Greek foreign minister Nikos Kotzias expressed concern that Turkey had become an “irritable power.” What inspired this concern was a record 3,317 airspace and 1,998 territorial water violations recorded in the Aegean last year—respectively double and quadruple the previous year’s numbers. “Our job is to behave responsibly,” Kotzias declared, so he invited Recep Tayyip Erdogan to become the first Turkish president in six decades to visit Greece.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s December 7 visit was a disaster. On its eve, Erdogan gave an interview calling for revisions of the Lausanne Treaty of 1923. This is the treaty that defines the borders of the modern Turkish state, while guaranteeing the rights of Greek and Muslim minorities in the two countries. It has kept Greece and Turkey at peace for a century and forms the bedrock of their détente. No Greek or Turkish head of state or government had ever publicly called for its revision. Greece’s President Prokopis Pavlopoulos reacted by overstepping his role as ceremonial head of state to lecture Erdogan. Lausanne, he asserted, was “non-negotiable.”