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The recent crisis between Greece and Turkey: Two NATO allies on the brink of war, again

Article by Dr Yaprak Gürsoy

April 24, 2018

The recent crisis between Greece and Turkey: Two NATO allies on the brink of war, again

The old issue of Greek-Turkish animosity has resurfaced as the last addition to the series of problems that has inflicted damage to the southern flank of NATO. Just within the span of a week in mid-April, Greek soldiers opened fire on a Turkish helicopter, a Greek fighter jet crashed into the Aegean on its return from one of the mock dog fights with Turkish warplanes, it was reported that Prime Minister Tsipras’ helicopter was harassed by Turkish aircraft and Ankara claimed to have removed a Greek flag planted on an uninhibited islet in the Aegean.[1]


Based on news reports from both sides, things are appearing to spiral out of control fast. What are the root causes of these tensions and what can we expect in the near future?


A History of Animosity

Conflict between Greece and Turkey is nothing new. The two countries fought their independence wars against each other and formed their national identities against one another. Greece seceded from the Ottoman Empire in 1830 and the Turkish Republic was founded after the Greek army was defeated in Asia Minor in 1922. The Treaty of Lausanne was signed in 1923 by the Allies of the First World War, set the borders of Modern Turkey and has been the main text that has regulated Greek-Turkish relations since then.


Historical animosities, however, were hardly resolved by the peace treaty. Over the years, the perceptions of the enemy was stereotyped and perpetuated in both countries through education, historiography and literary texts.[2] Past conflicts were compounded by the experience of ongoing intercommunal conflicts. In September 1955, the Greek minority of Istanbul was attacked, killing tens of people, damaging millions of dollars’ worth of property and leading thousands of Greeks to flee.[3]  Both countries still blame each other for the mistreatment of their minorities and not recognizing their rights. On the island of Cyprus, where the two communities lived together, civil strife dragged on for decades until the Turkish forces’ de facto partition of the island in 1974.[4]  The dispute over Cyprus, as well as memories of the bitter war that has left thousands of deaths and many more displaced in its wake, continues to casts a shadow over bilateral relations.


Among all of the issues that afflict relations, however, the main problem today is the Aegean –a unique, relatively narrow, semi-closed sea separating the mainlands of both countries. The Aegean has around 3000 islands, islets and rocks scattered around, with no explicit ownership of the smaller formations given to either county in international treaties. Since the 1970s, the two sides have had disputes over the extent of territorial waters, continental shelves, national airspaces and the Flight Information Region (FIR), as well as the militarization of the Greek islands on the Eastern Aegean. Ankara claims that Greece is trying to turn the Aegean into a Greek lake, whereas Athens argues that Turkey violates Greek sovereignty.[5]


The disputes over the Aegean could have been easily solved through diplomatic channels. Indeed, the two countries have shown that with appropriate political leadership and mutual will, it is possible to reduce dissent. After the 1922 war, for instance, there was a period of relative calm in the 1930s. Similarly, only three years after Greece and Turkey came close to armed combat over the uninhabited small islets of Imia/Kardak, there was a period of rapprochement, with increased levels of diplomatic, as well as economic and social interactions.[6] Despite high hopes, the last episode of rapprochement failed in resolving the Aegean dispute or even putting it on the back burner for the long-term, as the current escalation of tensions clearly demonstrate.


The Current Imbroglio

Given the historical hostility of the two countries, the current crisis is perhaps not unusual. Yet, it has been still surprising in some respects. First, it has occurred after nearly two decades of comparative tranquillity. Sure, the two countries had continued to show their teeth, especially through dog fights between aircrafts and sometimes with fatal accidents,[7]  but these had not led to continuous vicious circles of discord as we are witnessing today. Second, both countries should have been ‘busy’ with other priorities –Athens, with the continuing economic crisis, and Ankara, with the Syrian war and the Kurdish conflict.


Although pinpointing the start of the current rise of tensions is difficult, one of the first signs of the upcoming set of events was the fleeing of eight air force pilots to Greece following the 15 July 2016 failed coup attempt in Turkey. In January 2017, the Greek Supreme Court decided against the extradition of the soldiers. President Erdoğan remarked that bilateral relations and confidence between the two countries would be damaged with this decision, mentioning that Prime Minister Tsipras had personally promised the repatriation of the soldiers.[8] To the dismay of the Turkish side, later in the year, one of the pilots was granted asylum by a committee of judges and experts.[9]


This was, in fact, one of the many issues that President Erdoğan had brought up in his visit to Athens prior to the committee’s decision. While the Greek side was expecting the first visit of a Turkish President after 65 years to be an opportunity to mend ties, Erdoğan astonished government officials with his rebukes. Aside from the fate of the soldiers, he claimed that the Lausanne Treaty should be reconsidered, accused Greece of mistreating the Turkish Muslim minority in Western Thrace and blamed the Greek side for the failure of peace talks in Cyprus.[10] A few months later, in what appeared to be a case of retaliation for the eight pilots, Turkish forces arrested two Greek soldiers who claimed to have accidently crossed the border in bad weather. The soldiers were arrested and charged with espionage.[11]

In the meantime, confrontations both in the Aegean Sea and air have significantly escalated. In July 2017, a Turkish vessel was shot at by the Greek coastal guard,[12] and in February 2018, two patrol boats collided near the Imia/Kardak islets,[13] setting the stage for the unusual week in mid-April. With the leaders of both countries persistent in making declarations that do not calm nerves down, there seems to be no quick de-escalation in sight.


Why Now?

It is clear that, despite historic animosity and many clashes before, relations have not been this much strained for this long. Since the Aegean dispute is hardly new, the main reasons for the recent entanglement must be sought in the changing domestic and regional context. Both Greece and Turkey have nationalistic political cultures. Historical animosities are easy to tap into whenever the approval of governments must be increased for domestic purposes. With the next general elections scheduled for June in Turkey and next year in Greece, politicians in Athens and Ankara can expect to achieve personal gain from escalating tensions.


Additionally, on the Turkish side, the 15 July 2016 coup attempt changed both domestic politics and foreign relations in fundamental ways. According to the Turkish government, the coup itself was masterminded by Fethullah Gülen, a preacher residing in Pennsylvania.  The US has refused to extradite Gülen, leaving bilateral relations between the NATO allies in disarray. In fact, Turkey has been in a series of rows with other European powers and losing the battle in persuading the West that Gülen himself was behind the coup.[14] Many Gülen affiliates still reside in the West and, without the cooperation of foreign powers, it would be impossible to secure the return of these people and their trial. This is why Ankara is insistent on the return of the eight pilots who fled to Greece. Their extradition can be instrumentalized for the domestic audience as an achievement and can force the hands of other countries in especially South East Europe to agree on the return of other Gülen affiliates.[15] Thus, the issue of the repatriation of eight soldiers is a sine qua non for the de-escalation of the imbroglio from Ankara’s point of view. Athens, however, maintains that this is a judicial matter out of the authority of the elected government.


Despite holding democratic principles on this matter, the SYRIZA-ANEL government is also partly responsible for the current state of affairs. The smaller partner of the coalition, the right-wing ANEL, holds 9 seats in the 300-seat parliament, barely above the 3% threshold. The ultra-nationalist leader of party, Panos Kammenos, is also the Minister of National Defence, who has personally taken a tough stance against Turkey contributing to the rise in hostilities. When Kammenos received his ministerial post in January 2016, his first act was to visit Imia/Kardak, drop a wreath in memory of the soldiers who died in the 1996 incident and remind everyone that the dispute still continued.[16] In February 2017, Kammenos threatened that if the Turkish Foreign Minister set foot on Imia/Kardak he would  “be dealt with” and more recently, implied that there was no way to speak with President Erdoğan because he was “crazy” and acted like a “sultan”.[17] These types of personal outbursts of the Minister are not helping in easing tensions.


In past crises, hostilities would be brought down with the intervention of the US, warning both NATO allies and mediating between the parties. This was how the 1996 Imia/Kardak crisis was prevented from turning into a prolonged battle. But, this option is not available at the moment. Turkey’s relations with the US are already strained because of the failed coup and the two are on the opposing sides in the bigger crisis of the region, namely the Syrian War. NATO itself is in disorder after the comments of the American administration regarding differences in defence spending among the allies. The dissent within NATO and the so-far disinterest shown by the American administration over the Aegean conflict, as well as the lack of another alternative intermediator, explain why now things are spiralling out of control in contrast to previous crises.


Conclusion: Future Prospects

Turkey and Greece have never fought an actual war since the 1920s. We can expect hostilities to continue for some time but fall short of an actual war. Both sides should be perfectly aware that any type of aggression on the mainland of the enemy would result in thousands of deaths and the possible involvement of other NATO allies.  A disaster of this sort is something both sides would want to avoid.

The worst case scenario for Greece and Turkey is the possibility of almost continuous, small-scale military operations especially on and around the Aegean islets. Such military operations might lead to limited combats, with military and even civilian casualties on both sides. An ‘accident’” could lead to more serious battles unless political leadership on both sides of the Aegean make a conscious effort to ease off their rhetoric both diplomatically and publically.


Dr Yaprak Gürsoy is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University. She would like to thank Othon Anastasakis, Evangelos Liaras and İlke Toygur for fruitful discussions on the recent developments in the Aegean.


[1] “Greek Fighter Pilot Killed in Crash”, TRTWorld, 12 April 2018, ; “Turkish Fighter Jets Harass Tsipras’s Helicopter”, Ekathimerini, 17 April 2018,; “Turkey Warns Greece After Hoisting of Flag on Aegean Islet”, Reuters, 16 April 2018,

[2] Hercules Millas, “National Perception of the ‘Other’ and the Persistence of Some Images” in Mustafa Aydin and Kostas Ifantis eds., pp. 53-66, Turkish-Greek Relations: The Security Dilemma in the Aegean (London: Routledge, 2005).

[3] Dilek Güven, Cumhuriyet Dönemi Azınlık Politikaları Bağlamında 6-7 Eylül Olayları (Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı, 2005).

[4] James Ker-Lindsay, The Cyprus Problem: What Ever yone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[5]For the claims of both countries, see, Hellenic Republic Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Issue of Greek-Turkish Relations”,, and  Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Turkish-Greek Relations/Aegean Problems,

[6] Leonidas Karakatsanis, Turkish-Greek Relations: Rapprochement, Civil Society and the Politics of Friendship (Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2014).

[7] See, for instance, “Mid-air Fighter Plane Collision Risks New Greek-Turkish Crisis”, The Guardian, 24 May 2006,

[8] “Erdogan Expresses Anger over Turkish Officers, Suggests Tsipras promised their return”, Ekathimerini, 27 January 2018,

[9] “One of Eight Turkish servicemen Granted Asylum by Greece”, Ekathimerini, 30 December 2017,

[10] “Confrontational Erdoğan Stuns Greek Hosts on Athens Visit”, The Guardian, 07 December 2017,

[11] “Turkey Refuses to Release Greek Border Guards in Spy Row”, The Guardian, 05 March 2018,

[12] “Greek Coast Guards Fire on Turkish Vessel in Aegean”, The Telegraph, 03 July 2017,

[13] “Greece Protests to Turkey over Boat Incident, Ankara Denies Fault”, Reuters, 13 February 2018,

[14] The German intelligence agency, for instance, was not “convinced” that Gülen was behind the attempt. See, “Coup in Turkey Was Just a Welcome Pretext”, Der Spiegel, 20 March 2017,

[15] “Gulen Schools Fight Provokes New Tensions in Bosnia”, Balkan Insight, 26 July 2016,; “Turkey Presses Albania To Extradite Key ‘Gulenist’ Suspect”, Balkan Insight, 13 October 2017,; “Kosovo Parliament to Probe Arrests of Turkish Nationals”, Reuters, 04 April 2018,, “Turkey Presses Albania To Extradite Key ‘Gulenist’ Suspect”, Balkan Insight, 13 October 2017,

[16] “New Greek Nationalist Defence Minister Resurrects Old Tensions with Turkey”, The Guardian, 30 January 2015,

[17] “Kammenos Threatens Turkey: Don’t Step Foot on Greek Islands”, The National Herald, 27 February 2017,; “Erdogan ‘Has Gone Completely Crazy’ says Kammenos”, Ekathimerini, 03 April 2018,

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