Greece and Turkey have a long and complicated history going back to ancient times, but recent developments have pitted them against each other, threatening to engulf the Mediterranean in a multinational conflict.
Greece and Turkey are both NATO allies, but that has not assuaged a history of conflict. While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has strengthened the NATO alliance, it has increased tensions between Greece and Turkey. When Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, gave a speech to both chambers of the US Congress in May, he emphasized the importance of US military bases in Greece for supplying Ukraine with weapons. In the speech, he called for the US to provide Greece with F-35 stealth fighters while also calling for the US not to upgrade Turkey’s F-16s.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with Erdogan in March 2022 and seemed to have reached an agreement on Mediterranean security issues. But this agreement quickly deteriorated, and Turkish violations of Greek airspace have reached unprecedented levels.
The situation grew even tenser on Sunday when Erdogan accused Greece of undermining the rights of the Muslim minority in its Thrace region. Muslims represent nearly 32 percent of the province’s population.
On Monday, The Turkish defense ministry accused the Greek coast guard of pushing a boat carrying migrants out of Greek territorial waters and back into Turkish ones.
The Ukraine war has also increased the importance of non-Russian sources of natural gas, putting the spotlight on Israel. One possible solution, a pipeline from Israel’s Leviathan field to Turkey, would run through Cypriot waters, requiring Cyprus’ consent under international law.
One of the motivations behind Turkey choosing a conflict with Greece is the waning popularity of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in light of the upcoming elections in June. Turkey’s economy is a shambles, with inflation hitting a 24-year high of 78 percent in June 2022. A war would provide a distraction from domestic politics and inflation. Despite being a NATO member, Turkey has become increasingly dependent on Russia as a trading partner, alienating both the US and Europe.
The 20th century began with Turkey carrying out a genocide against Greek Christians in Anatolia beginning in 1914 and continuing until after World War I. This was followed by the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922, which ended with a Greek defeat. In theory, the two countries reconciled over the Lausanne Treaty that was signed in 1923. Both countries joined NATO in 1952.
The two countries consider each other their greatest security risk, with control of the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean as the basis of their rivalry. In 1974, Turkey invaded and subsequently occupied the northern 37 percent of Cyprus, an unresolved issue. In the 1990s, Greek pursued a strategy of encircling Turkey. Toward this end, Greece formed a defense cooperation agreement with Syria in 1995. In reaction, Turkey spoke with Israel in 1996, though these relations deteriorated.