Why war between Turkey and Greece remains unlikely
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is currently expressing increasing threats towards Greece. Sometimes the threat is indirect, as when Erdogan reminded Athens that Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, defeated the Greek army in 1922. Other times, it's more direct. "We can come suddenly one night,” he said earlier in October.
Officially, the tensions continue to be about borders and sovereign rights in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey is raising claims to sea areas that, according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Greece and Cyprus are entitled to as exclusive economic zones (EEZ).
Greece has offered to have the dispute over economic zones settled by the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The government in Ankara has so far refused to do so - possibly out of concern that an arbitration award could be to the detriment of Turkey.
"Erdogan, due to the economic situation in Turkey, is not in a very good position and there is a big possibility he might lose the elections, and therefore he needs to use every tool he has"
The value of these areas is based on the natural gas deposits suspected there. However, Turkey does not recognise the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Moreover, Ankara has recently also been challenging Greek sovereignty over Aegean islands such as Rhodes, Kos, Lesvos, and Samos and argues that Athens has illegally deployed the military, violating the Treaties of Lausanne (1923) and Paris (1947), which guarantee the demilitarisation of the islands.
Greece, on the other hand, has argued that the military is part of its right to self-defence given the threat Turkey poses, according to Athens.
As history has taught repeatedly, such situations and their outcomes are volatile and hence difficult to predict. War can never be ruled out entirely. For instance, a possible plane accident, based on human error or a mere misunderstanding, could suffice to escalate the situation.
Turkish fighter jets have repeatedly violated Greek airspace and have been forced to turn back by Greek military aircraft. Ankara, in turn, accused Greece of "hostile action" after Athens locked its S-300 missile system onto Turkish jets in August.
However, there are two reasons that provide some hope that war is not really on the table.
First, Erdogan can ill-afford a war against his neighbour. After all, a war against EU and NATO member Greece would, at the very least, end with some form of international isolation.
"Indeed, [it] is almost impossible for a real full-blown conflict between Turkey and Greece since both of them are NATO members and no one will make that kind of irrational move," Erdi Ozturk, Associate Professor in Politics and IR at London Metropolitan University, told The New Arab.
Second, one look to Turkey explains why the sabre-rattling is primarily for show, considering next year's crucial elections.
"More than 60 million Turkish voters are gearing up for the twin [parliamentary and presidential] elections scheduled to take place in June 2023 at the latest. Arguably, these are the most critical elections in the Republic's history, marking a date for a collective choice as the country celebrates its centennial. The outcome will define the course of Turkey," Ozturk noted.
Approval ratings for Erdogan and his party have never been worse during his two-decade-long tenure. The primary reason is a devastating economic situation, with Turkey facing an inflation rate of 83 per cent.
"Erdogan, due to the economic situation in Turkey, is not in a very good position and there is a big possibility he might lose the elections, and therefore he needs to use every tool he has," said Ozturk.
"In these circumstances, he needs to consolidate nationalist and Islamist groups in Turkey, and therefore he has been creating a different level of tensions with Greece. Furthermore, by doing this, Erdogan has been consolidating some of the nationalist groups within the state, such as supporters of the nationalist party MHP and Eurasianists."
"[It] is almost impossible for a real full-blown conflict between Turkey and Greece since both of them are NATO members and no one will make that kind of irrational move"
With the increasingly aggressive rhetoric towards Greece, Erdogan is hence trying to distract from the economic crisis and mobilise his base. Accordingly, his interest in lowering the temperature towards Greece is thus relatively minimal.
During the European Summit in Prague last week, Erdogan said: "We have nothing to discuss with Greece," after he had already ceased all political contacts with Athens in the spring and declared that Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis no longer existed for him.
Meanwhile, Mitsotakis has no great interest in a substantive dialogue with Erdogan, either. He is also cognisant that his conservative Nea Dimokratia (New Democracy) party and most of its voters oppose negotiations to resolve the Greek-Turkish dispute. And Greece, too, will hold parliamentary elections in 2023.
All the more important is the mediation of international actors. During the Imia crisis of 1996, when minor military clashes broke out between Greece and Turkey over two uninhabited islands, NATO and the US prevented further escalation.
Should the current situation deteriorate, one can expect NATO to make a clear statement. Russia's war in Ukraine cannot allow the alliance to face an internal conflict spiralling out of control between two member states for the purpose of domestic elections.
For now, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is trying to remain neutral in the conflict and is avoiding anything that might suggest siding with one of the two member states. But within the alliance, dissatisfaction with Turkey is growing.
Not only is Erdogan blocking the admission of Sweden and Finland, but he is also contemplating joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a sort of anti-NATO that includes China, as well as Russia and Iran.
"It seems that the tension will stay at the same level until the Turkish elections," said Ozturk. Indeed, it would appear that Erdogan is likely to continue his current strategy of tough rhetoric, without ever going too far, in an attempt to secure the presidency next year.
Thomas O. Falk is a journalist and political commentator. He has covered politics for Al Jazeera, The Diplomat, The Spectator, Haaretz, GB News, South China Morning Post, and others
Follow him on Twitter: @topfalk