Diversionary war: Turkey’s actions against Greece are a growing threat to NATO
Turkish obstructionism against Swedish and Finnish NATO membership, its limited offensive in Iraq, and its prospective offensive in Syria have grabbed international attention. But more significant is Turkey’s growing diplomatic tension with Greece, an ever-festering lesion that threatens to burst.
Considering Turkey’s domestic situation and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States must be wary. Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan could capitalize on international distraction and wage a diversionary war to boost his popularity, a conflict that would disrupt NATO’s cohesion and threaten the alliance.
Washington should act now to resolve the current incarnation of this long-standing Mediterranean dispute.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics since 2001, when his AKP party first won a two-thirds parliamentary majority. Although Erdogan was banned from Turkish politics for anti-secular incitement, his prime ministerial — and, later, presidential — predecessor, Abdullah Gül, until the mid-2010s at least, was functionally a stand-in for him. Erdogan may have restricted his Islamist proclivities and international assertiveness until he consolidated power in 2014-2016. However, Turkey’s break with the United States over the latter’s invasion of Iraq, and Turkey’s growing hostility towards Israel, indicated a deeper rift between Washington and Ankara. Erdogan consistently sought a greater regional role; through diplomatic pressure against Israel culminating with the Gaza Flotilla — a bald-faced attempt to prompt a confrontation with Israel — Erdogan hoped to position himself as the spiritual leader of the Islamic world.
The Arab Spring, however, transformed the regional balance. No power could pretend that the “Palestine Question” still defined regional politics. The Libyan and Syrian civil wars, and the subsequent rise of ISIS, thrust Islamism to the fore once again, while Iranian expansion in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon demonstrated the relevance of traditional coalition competition, rather than religious rivalry.
Turkey’s response has been to sharpen its shift away from the United States by alternating between Russophilic and Russophobic policies.
The Levantine maelstrom that began in Syria and exploded in Iraq stoked Turkish fears of Kurdish revanchism. Even before that, Russian presence in Syria prompted Turkey to pursue a more aggressive policy, supporting Islamist elements in the Syrian opposition and destroying a Russian Su-24 that briefly violated Turkish airspace. Two years later, Turkey agreed to purchase S-400 anti-air systems from Russia that, in 2019, prompted its ejection from the West’s F-35 fighter-jet program and U.S. sanctions.
More generally, Turkey asserted itself militarily since 2016, intervening directly in Syria and Libya. In the latter conflict, Turkey aligned with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, opposing the Tobruk-based French-, Russian-, Emirati- and Egyptian-supported House of Representatives. Although fighting there has subsided, tensions may again explode — and by striking a territorial deal in Libya, Turkey can lay claims to the Eastern Mediterranean’s natural gas deposits, threatening Israel, Egypt and Greece.
Turkish actions during the Ukraine war have indicated Ankara’s desire to return to the Western fold. Initially, Turkey refrained from engaging, likely seeking to determine if Ukraine would collapse within days. However, three days into the war, when it became apparent Ukraine would resist, Turkey closed the Bosphorus Straits to Russia; Russian Black Sea Fleet warships in the Levantine Basin can still return to their home port in Sevastopol, but their inability to sortie from Sevastopol into the Mediterranean will disrupt Russian outer naval defenses in the long-term.
Turkey also attempted to position itself as a mediator between Kyiv and Moscow, and it spearheaded a half-hearted attempt (albeit with great public fanfare) to ensure grain exports from Ukraine.
Yet, Turkey’s resistance to Swedish and Finnish NATO memberships is a ploy to extract concessions from Washington: If the Biden administration reinstates Turkey in the F-35 program and approves F-16 sales, Erdogan likely will relent.
Buying Turkish acquiescence is no way to ensure a long-term strategic partnership, however. Indeed, Erdogan is laying the groundwork for another Greco-Turkish confrontation.
The focal point, once again, is Cyprus. Greece and Cyprus are linked by ethno-linguistic ties, political history and strategic interest. If Crete “caps” the Aegean, Cyprus provides Greece a pressure point against any Anatolian or Near Eastern power that would threaten it. Greece maintains a small military force in Cyprus, is a supplier to Cyprus’ small National Guard, and is a crucial Cypriot trading partner. However, in 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus, capturing a third of the island and collapsing the Greek military junta that had organized a coup in Cyprus earlier that year. Turkey has not annexed Cyprus outright, instead establishing a satellite state on the island’s north that only Ankara recognizes. The current situation is tenable, although Turkey has used Northern Cyprus to tacitly extend its presence in the Levantine Basin.
Turkey’s agreement with Libya solidified its claims to the Eastern Mediterranean’s petrochemicals. With the Libyan civil war’s apparent conclusion, and Turkey’s desire to return to the Western camp, Erdogan might be expected to refrain from spoiling Greco-Turkish relations with moves in Cyprus or elsewhere — but he has done the opposite. Turkey has struck a major economic deal with Northern Cyprus that would increase Ankara’s direct leverage over the statelet; it would list Ercan airport, Northern Cyprus’s international aerial hub, as a domestic destination on Turkish flights. Cypriot authorities fear this is the first step towards outright annexation, which would shatter a UN-brokered ceasefire and undoubtedly prompt a Greek military response. Erdogan has also leveled threats over Greece’s alleged militarization of Aegean islands, despite Greece’s long-standing military presence in the Aegean.
In turn, an escalating economic crisis is ravaging Turkey. Food and energy supply disruptions have sharpened inflationary pressures with which Turkey has grappled since 2017. Erdogan’s refusal to increase interest rates and tighten the money supply is an advanced form of macro-economic foolishness; in 2021, the Turkish lira’s value
was slashed by half. Yet inflation remains at 60-plus percent and is likely to climb.
Erdogan’s AKP lost ground in nearly all major cities in the 2019 local elections. As the 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections approach, Erdogan may seek to distract domestic attention with a major foreign policy crisis, such as a confrontation with Greece.
The United States should ensure that this crisis does not stress NATO. Russia will employ every tool at its disposal to force a confrontation between Greece and Turkey, including hybrid provocations, diplomatic overtures, naval exercises and perhaps even false flags.
Preventing a crisis requires three steps, one military, two diplomatic.
First, the United States ought to increase its naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ideally, it would sustain a consistent carrier deployment to the Levantine Basin, as it did during the Cold War and has done since Russian designs against Ukraine neared their boiling point. The very presence of a U.S. carrier, with the combat power it provides, may be sufficient to deter Turkish escalation and demonstrate to Ankara that a diversionary crisis will only trigger more stresses for Erdogan’s regime.
Second, the United States should convene a series of bilateral Turkish-Greek summits, similar to the “shuttle diplomacy” it practiced in the 1970s between Israel and its Arab adversaries, to coordinate policy with Northern Cyprus and the Cypriot Republic. At minimum, pinning Turkey in substantive dialogue will slow an escalation cycle. At best, the U.S., through skillful balancing, can address Turkish diplomatic demands and settle issues more generally.
Third, the United States should prioritize reintegrating Turkey into NATO. This should involve both the sale of F-35s and F-16s with the caveat that Turkey must support U.S. activity in the Black Sea. Turkey should receive a reward for good behavior. But it should also offer something in return — for example, decreasing tensions on Cyprus or allowing Western ships to enter the Black Sea to clear Russian mines and escort merchant ships carrying Ukrainian grain to global ports.
As the Ukraine War drags on, the greatest threat to Western objectives will not be Russian military capabilities but divisions within NATO. A Greco-Turkish confrontation would threaten to upend the Atlantic Alliance at precisely the wrong time. It must be prevented.
Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of “Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy” (2013) and “Seablindness: How Political Neglect Is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It” (2017).