By Dorian Jones, Voice of America
Greece is pushing back against Turkish demands that it demilitarize 16 Aegean islands. The Turkish government maintains it is defending Turkey’s rights and remains committed to negotiation, but analysts warn Turkey’s increasingly “robust diplomacy” threatens to isolate Ankara and escalate regional tensions.
“Greece does not provoke, does not violate the sovereign rights of others, but it doesn’t like to see its own rights violated,” said Greek Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos Saturday.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar on Wednesday accused Greece of keeping troops on the islands in violation of the 1936 Treaty of Lausanne, which governs the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece.
The dispute dates to 1974 when Athens started to militarize the islands off the Turkish coast in response to Turkey’s invasion of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus after a pro-Greek coup.
Akar’s focus on the dispute is widely seen as part of a broader policy. “Turkey is asking today for the islands’ demilitarization, when there [is] an incredible historical increase of Turkish jets violating Greek airspace,” said political scientist Cengiz Aktar of the University of Athens.
“It’s a message Turkey is an aggressive force in the eastern Mediterranean, and Turkey gives the impression it wants a hot conflict with its neighbor, Greece.”
Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan further ratcheted up tensions, announcing that Turkish research ships will be deployed in contested Cypriot waters to search for hydrocarbons.
The discovery of large natural gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean by Israel and Cyprus has unleashed a scramble by regional countries for the fossil fuel.
Ankara accuses Greece and other regional countries of seeking to shut it out of the believed bounty of vast energy reserves.
“We won’t let anyone violate our rights in any way. This is not a threat,” said Akar Wednesday, adding, “It’s not a weakness to say that we want good relations with our neighbor.”
“The strategy that Turkey is following is it should protect its legitimate rights in the Mediterranean,” said former Turkish Ambassador Mithat Rende. “The strategy is to have an equitable solution to the matter. And Turkey has made it clear it’s ready to talk.”
The policy of diplomacy, backed by strength, however, appears to be backfiring. Athens is looking to its European Union partners to push back against Ankara.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is due to meet Wednesday with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris and then travel to Brussels for talks with European Council President Charles Michel in a bid to build support against Ankara.
A regional gas forum of Greece, Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories is fast developing into a more formal relationship based on security. Analysts suggest the move is a reaction to Turkey’s more assertive policy in the region.
In January, Israeli media reported the country’s annual military intelligence report for the first time designated Erdogan as a “challenge.”
Underling Turkey’s regional isolation, Ankara does not have ambassadors in Tel Aviv or Cairo.
Some experts, though, argue that Turkish foreign policy needs to be viewed through the prism of domestic politics.
“Yes, all the regional countries are against Turkey, but it proves government rhetoric that Turkey is threatened, it’s under siege,” said Turkish political analyst Aydin Sezer.
“This consolidates Turkey and within the [ruling] AKP party itself,” he adds. “It delays divisions within the party. There are two new parties developing from the party. But such outside threats consolidate the party.”
Ankara is also likely to be calculating that it will be able to contain any threat of financial sanctions by the EU, which are being threatened over Turkey’s stance toward Cyprus and Greece.
Turkey’s EU migration agreement ended a significant exodus into Europe. Brussels is wary of Erdogan’s threats to open Turkish borders to the more than 3 million refugees in Turkey.
In the last year, the number of migrants entering Greece from Turkey has markedly increased despite the migration agreement causing concern among European politicians.
“That [migrants entering Greece] has unmistakably to do with the fact that Turkey is no longer consistently preventing landings,” Thorsten Frei, deputy parliamentary group leader of Germany’s ruling CDU/CSU, told German newspaper Welt am Sonntag.
On Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel held talks in Istanbul with Erdogan in a bid to shore up Turkey’s commitment to the migrant deal.
Given the EU’s limited ability to rein in Turkey, which has the largest navy and air force in the region, analysts predict further muscle-flexing.
“When you enter a policy of confrontation, you can’t step back; you are trapped; otherwise, you look weak,” said Aktar.
But the Turkish government could well be calculating, that whatever the outcome of its policy, it will be a win.
“I don’t think there will be a military clash,” said Sezer. “But, it’s a risk. It’s a dangerous situation, the longer it goes on. But this would be an opportunity for the government because it will prove to the people all those countries in the region are real threats to Turkey,” he added.