“Will Erdogan wage war against us?” Greek media are currently keeping their country’s public in suspense with this question. It is asked daily in almost every news program, with thriller music playing in the background. It’s not just a topic that sells well from the media perspective. The dramatic fear-mongering also helps the Greek government to warn of a “national danger” instead of dealing with uncomfortable domestic issues, such as the never-ending wiretapping scandal or high inflation.

Beyond media exaggerations and the political instrumentalization of the topic, however, there is no doubt that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is currently making increasingly threatening statements: “Hey, Greeks! Check out the story. If you continue like this, the price will be very high for you,” he repeated at several events in recent weeks.

With this, Erdogan wants to commemorate the year 1922, when the founder of the Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, defeated the Greek army and had the Greek population of Asia Minor expelled. A hundred years after the “Asia Minor catastrophe”, as the Greeks call this momentous event, Erdogan threatens to repeat it: “We can come suddenly one night,” he announces.

Is that serious? Does the Turkish President really want to send his warplanes and attack Greek islands in the eastern Aegean, as he has repeatedly hinted?

These questions will also be discussed at the forthcoming founding summit of the European Political Community in Prague on Thursday and Friday (October 6th and 7th, 2022).

The meeting is a new format of the EU, to which the Western Balkan countries and Turkey, among others, have been invited. It is also about whether and how the EU and Turkey can get closer again and cooperate better in the context of the Russian war against Ukraine. De-escalating rising Greek-Turkish tensions will be crucial to this.

According to most experts and observers, one thing is already certain: Erdogan’s rhetoric may sound martial – but it is most likely not meant to be taken seriously. The Turkish head of state simply cannot afford a war against EU and NATO member Greece.

The reasons are manifold: Firstly, Erdogan’s chances of winning such a war are more than uncertain. On the other hand, he should be aware that NATO would never allow its member country Turkey to wage war against Greece, especially not the USA.

Even in the Imia crisis of 1996, when minor military clashes broke out between Greece and Turkey over two uninhabited islands, NATO and the USA had prevented further escalation. If the situation deteriorated further, they would be even more decisive.

Because of the Russian war against Ukraine, NATO cannot afford to be weak by allowing a military conflict between two member countries. Specifically, the American military bases on Crete and in Alexandroupolis in eastern Greece are extremely important for the military supply of NATO troops in Eastern Europe and for military aid to Ukraine.

However, a so-called “hot episode” in the Aegean cannot be entirely ruled out – triggered, for example, by a Turkish invasion of an uninhabited small Greek island, of which there are many in the East Aegean. However, that would be the worst scenario.

What is certain is that Erdogan has been pursuing a policy of “controlled tension” since the failed Turkish military coup in 2016, sometimes with more, sometimes less harsh rhetoric. Parliamentary and presidential elections are due in Turkey in the middle of next year, which is why Erdogan’s language is currently sounding very martial. It seems that in this way he wants to please his nationalist constituency.

A possible plane accident could also escalate the explosive situation. Turkish fighter jets are currently penetrating Greek airspace almost every day and have to be repeatedly forced to turn back by Greek military aircraft. So far no pilot, neither Turkish nor Greek, has lost his nerve. However, a fatal error cannot be ruled out.

It has been Turkey for many years that has threatened Greece with war if Athens limits its territorial waters around its islands to 12 miles, in accordance with international law. Nevertheless, the Turkish president is now turning the tables and portraying it as if Greece were threatening Turkey with war.

He complains that Greece is playing “dangerous games” in the region because of the military build-up on some Greek islands and promises that he will use “if necessary, all means at our disposal” to “defend the rights of the Turkish people”.

The standard response of Greek diplomacy is: “We are not threatening Turkey. We expect Ankara to give up the casus belli and we are always ready for a dialogue based on international law and the international law of the sea.” These are the statements of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is demonstratively trying to remain cool.

For example, in his speech at the UN General Assembly, addressing Turkey, he said: “I would like to tell you that Greece does not pose a threat to your country. We are not enemies. We are neighbours.”

Although Erdogan has so far shown no willingness to engage in dialogue with Mitsotakis, Ibrahim Kalin, the Turkish President’s most important adviser, has not ruled out a meeting between Erdogan and Mitsotakis on the sidelines of the EU summit in Prague.

However, Mitsotakis for his part also has no great interest in a substantive dialogue with Erdogan. While it is important to him to appear as a good and reliable partner internationally, he also knows that his conservative Nea Dimokratia party and most of its voters tend to be against negotiations to resolve the Greek-Turkish dispute. Nationalism isn’t just a problem in Turkey – it’s also a problem in Greece, where parliamentary elections are also scheduled for next year.

So if the international pressure has an effect and a meeting between Erdogan and Mitsotakis takes place in Prague, then both will probably sit down at the negotiating table with the same basic mood: neither is pushing for a constructive dialogue to bury the dispute once and for all.

Author: Bali Feet

The original of this article “War rhetoric, but no war” comes from Deutsche Welle.