With most of the world currently teetering on the brink of war, or already at war in the case of Ukraine, why not toss another log on the fire, right? Coming out of left field, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a warning to Greece this week to demilitarize some of the islands in the Aegean Sea where they have recently been expanding their military footprint. The Tyrant of Turkey insisted that he was “not joking” in making these demands and clearly seemed to be implying that there would be military consequences if the Greeks don’t comply. Turkey’s position is based on agreements made between the two countries following the Greco-Turkish wars and conflicts of 1922 through 1974. Turkey ceded the islands to Greece on the condition that they remain unarmed and neutral. Greece argues that Turkey has already been threatening military action and they have the right to defend themselves. With access to the Black Sea already in dispute because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the stalled exports of grain from that region, another naval battle in that region is probably the last thing we need. (Associated Press)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday warned Greece to demilitarize islands in the Aegean, saying he was “not joking” with such comments.
Turkey says Greece has been building a military presence on Aegean in violation of treaties that guarantee the unarmed status of the islands. It argues that the islands were ceded to Greece on condition that they be kept demilitarized.
Greece argues that Turkey has deliberately misinterpreted the treaties regarding armed forces on its eastern islands and says it has legal grounds to defend itself following hostile actions by Ankara including a long-standing threat of war if it extends its territorial waters.
While Greece and Turkey are both technically allies, being members of NATO, the peace between them has always been uneasy at best. And as much as I hate the idea of agreeing with Erdogan about anything these days, he kind of has a point. The Greeks and the Turks have been fighting over the islands in that region, particularly Crete and Cyprus, for a very long time. When the Turks finally recognized Greek’s claim to the islands in question, it was with the assurance that the islands would remain largely unarmed. Greece’s decision to put new military installations in the region was provocative in that sense.
The prospect of yet another conflict there raises additional questions about NATO and its involvement in the Aegean Sea. NATO is supposed to be an alliance against external threats, primarily Russia and the former Soviet Union. But what happens if one NATO member attacks another? Are we all supposed to go to war against Turkey in that event? Turkey and Greece both joined NATO at the same time (in 1952) but that hasn’t managed to stop them from fighting multiple times since then. If history offers us any path to follow, the rest of the NATO nations would likely sit that fight out and just encourage both countries to return to diplomacy.
This fight dates back through most of recorded history, at least to the battles between the Byzantine Greeks and the Seljuk Turks. More accurately, it’s the latest version of the battle between the Ottoman Empire and the Byzantine Empire. Some years ago, a volcano under the surface of the sea briefly pushed a small island up above the water. Greece and Turkey immediately began arguing over who would own it before it sank beneath the waves again.
With luck, this confrontation will calm back down again. Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran are much bigger problems at the moment. We don’t need any of our allies starting (or restarting) wars while we’re trying to keep lids on all of the pots we currently have boiling around the world. But if they do start fighting, the world will be watching to see if Russia offers to jump in on Turkey’s side and whether or not Erdogan would accept Putin’s help. If so, that should really be the last straw in terms of allowing Turkey to remain in NATO.