Turkish military aircraft violated Greek airspace 90 times on April 15, and conducted three overflights of inhabited Greek islands, according to Greek media. Turkish aircraft have, in fact, been violating Greek airspace almost non-stop since the beginning of the year. Turkey has for years openly been threatening to capture Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. Pictured: A Turkish Air Force F-16 over Eskisehir, Turkey, on September 13, 2020. (Photo by Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images)
While the world has been distracted by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Turkey, a member of the NATO alliance, has been busy harassing another NATO member, its Western neighbor, Greece.
Turkish aircraft have, in fact, been violating Greek airspace almost non-stop since the beginning of the year.
According to Greece's National Defense General Staff, Turkey violated Greek airspace every single day from April 11-13. Its F-16 fighter jets flew above the Greek islands of Panagia, Oinousses, and Farmakonisi. "The Turkish jets were identified and intercepted by Greek fighter jets as laid out by international law and practice," the newspaper Kathimerini reported.
Meanwhile, on March 31, Turkish weapons manufacturer and defense contractor Roketsan, a subsidiary of the Turkish Armed Forces Foundation, introduced its new missile with a video targeting a Greek island in the Aegean Sea.
The news website Nordic Monitor reported:
"A simulation video produced for the promotion of the new missile includes messages for Greece. Military experts speaking to Nordic Monitor state that large arms-producing companies similar to Roketsan have made more global promotions for their international customers but that Turkish companies have been producing simulations targeting Greece and other neighbors for years.
"Experts who analyzed the images for Nordic Monitor said the location from where the missiles are fired in the video is the coast of Çeşme in the west of Turkey and that the satellite map in the video has been reproduced with minor changes.
"They also state that the real islet and rocky images visually featured in the video confirm that they are the shores of Çeşme. In this case, the place shown as the enemy in the video is the Greek island of Chios, which is 4.1 miles from the Turkish coast.
"In the video, the Turkish side appears subliminally to be friendly forces, or according to military terminology, as blue forces, while the other side is defined by the color red, which means enemy.
"In this case, it is certainly no coincidence that the missiles were fired from east to west in the video. In such videos, missile simulations are generally from left to right, but in the ÇAKIR video, missiles are fired from right to left and enemy targets are destroyed, giving a subliminal message that the target is Greece."
In fact, Turkey -- both its government and political opposition -- has for years openly been threatening to capture Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. And as Turkey's recent violations of Greek airspace, the Roketsan video, and statements by Turkish officials demonstrate, Russia's invasion of Ukraine seems to offer a convenient precedent for Turkey to increase its military aggression against Greece.
Turkey claims that Greece has been violating international agreements by stationing troops and armaments in the eastern islands in the Aegean Sea. Greece has repeatedly dismissed these charges by responding that as long as there is a Turkish military threat to these islands they will not be demilitarized.
The legal status of the Greek islands in the Aegean is clear: The Treaty of Lausanne set the borders of Turkey and Greece, with the exception of the then-Italian occupied Dodecanese islands that reunited with Greece in 1947 following the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty between Italy and the World War II Allies.
In July of 2021, however, Turkey filed a complaint with the UN concerning the issue. The letter, addressed to Secretary General Antonio Guterres and signed by Feridun Sinirlioğlu, Permanent Representative of Turkey to the UN, stated:
"Upon instructions from my Government, I should like to once more bring to your attention the continuing flagrant violations by Greece of her solemn treaty obligations in both the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean Sea concerning those islands over which sovereignty was ceded to Greece on the specific and strict condition that they be kept demilitarized...
"Greece's continuing deliberate and persistent material breach of the demilitarization provisions of the Lausanne and Paris peace treaties, which are essential to the accomplishment of their object and purpose, constitutes a serious threat to the security of Turkey."
In response, Greece's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Maria Theofili, sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, which stated, in part:
"The arguments contained in the above Turkish letter that sovereignty over the Greek islands of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean was ceded to Greece by the Treaty of Lausanne of 24 July 1923 and the Treaty of Paris of 10 February 1947 '... on the specific and strict condition that they be kept demilitarized,' are not only manifestly unsubstantiated and unfounded but also legally and historically incorrect. Once again we wish to reiterate that sovereignty over the islands, islets and rocks of the Aegean was ceded to Greece definitively and unconditionally by the above Treaties and any interpretation against the letter or spirit of these fundamental Treaties would amount to an unauthorized attempt to unilaterally review and modify them."
In January a video was featured in the Turkish media which argues that Turkish naval academy students could easily reach the Greek island of Kastellorizo ("Meis" in Turkish) by swimming there from Turkey. The video was also published on the official Twitter account of Turkey's Defense Ministry. The video starts with Turkey's National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar stating:
"There is Meis Island, 1950 meters from Turkey. The swimming standard of our Military Academy students is 2,000 meters. So they can go there by swimming."
The video then shows some Turkish military students swimming to the Tuzla island, which is also 1,950 meters from Istanbul, where they are located.
If Turkey has no military or aggressive ambitions towards those Greek islands, why does it so intractably want no Greek military presence on those islands that are legally Greek territory?
Greece does not have such an agenda. Greece has not been busy invading or threatening its neighbors or other nations in the Middle East.
Turkey, however, invaded northern Cyprus in 1974, forcibly displaced the Greek Christians living there, and has been maneuvering to acquire the rest. In 2018, Turkey also invaded northern Syria and, using jihadist paramilitary forces, has been occupying the region ever since.
As Turkey's economy keeps declining, so does the Turkish public's support for the government. According to a 2021 survey by the Yoneylem polling group, 53% of Turkish citizens have lost confidence in the Turkish president. According to the ORC polling company's surveys between February 2021 and March 2022, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost votes every single month in the past year. Is it possible then that the Turkish government feels the need for a military victory against Greece, to increase Erdogan's votes in the upcoming 2023 parliamentary election?
In addition, 2023 will mark the centenary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey and the signing of the Lausanne Treaty. Erdogan stated that his government has set some goals for 2023. Given the Turkish government's actions and statements, these goals are likely to include territorial expansion. On October 19, Erdogan said:
"[In 1914] Our territories were as large as 2.5 million square kilometers, and after nine years at the time of the Lausanne Treaty it diminished to 780,000 square kilometers.... To insist on [the 1923 borders] is the greatest injustice to be done to the country and to the nation. While everything is changing in today's world, we cannot see to preserving our status of 1923 as a success."
On October 22, 2016, he said:
"We did not accept our borders voluntarily... At the time [when the current borders were drawn] we may have agreed to it but the real mistake is to surrender to that sacrifice."
The previous month, Erdogan directly referred to the islands in the Aegean, saying:
"You can see the Aegean now, right? In Lausanne. we gave away those islands where your shout here [in Turkey] can be heard over there. Is this victory? Those places used to belong to us."
In an interview on state broadcaster TRT on February 10, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said:
"We have sent two letters to the UN because these islands were given to Greece with the 1923 Lausanne Treaty and the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty on the condition that it not arm them. But Greece started to violate that in the '60s.... These islands were ceded conditionally. If Greece does not stop, the sovereignty of these islands will be questioned.... If necessary, we will issue a final warning."
In response, the Lead Spokesperson for External Affairs of the European Union Peter Spano issued a statement, saying:
"Greece's sovereignty over these islands is unquestionable. Turkey should respect it, refrain from provocative statements and actions in this regard, commit unequivocally to good neighborly relations and work to settle any disputes peacefully. International agreements must be respected."
Turkish authorities, however, continue targeting the Greek islands. On February 18, Erdogan said:
"It is not possible for us to remain silent about the military activities carried out in violation of the agreements on the islands with a disarmed status. As a matter of fact, we brought this issue to the agenda of the United Nations. It will also be on the agenda in the coming period."
Despite an agreement to respect major national and religious holidays between the two countries, Turkey entered Greek airspace 37 times with F-16 fighter jets and CN 235 transport planes on January 6, on the day of Epiphany, the day that Orthodox Christians celebrate the manifestation of Christ. On February 7, Turkey violated the Greek airspace 60 times in a single day. On March 14, a day after the leaders of Greece and Turkey met in Istanbul and agreed to reduce tensions in the Aegean, Greek military sources revealed that there were 25 violations of Greek airspace by Turkey.
Meanwhile, Greek foreign minister Nikos Dendias described Turkey's stance on Greece as "the epitome of irrationality," adding:
"Turkey has lined up across our islands the largest landing force and largest landing fleet in the Mediterranean while demanding that we demilitarize our islands – in other words, that we relinquish our recognized right to self-defense, as foreseen in the UN Charter."
Turkey's aggression against the Greek islands and the rest of Greece should be analyzed within its historical context that includes Turkish conquests, imperialism, and Islamization throughout the centuries. Turks, originally from central Asia, invaded Asia Minor, which was then within the borders of the Greek Byzantine Empire, in the 11th century and began conquering and Turkifying it. The Ottoman Turks invaded the then Greek city of Constantinople (today's Istanbul) in the 15th century and destroyed the Byzantine Empire. After nearly four centuries of Ottoman oppression, the Greeks won independence as a result of the War of Independence (1821-32) and became the first of the Ottoman Empire's occupied peoples to secure recognition as a sovereign nation.
From 1913 to 1923, the Greeks in Anatolia that remained under the Ottoman Turkish rule were subjected to genocide, which almost completely eradicated Anatolian Christians, including Armenians and Assyrians. The Turkish persecution of Greeks and other Christians continued after the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 and culminated in the anti-Greek pogrom in Istanbul in 1955 and the forced expulsion of virtually all remaining ethnic Greeks from Istanbul in 1964. Ten years later, Turkey invaded the north of the Republic of Cyprus and has been illegally occupying 36 percent of it for the past 48 years.
Turkey's actions targeting Greece and Cyprus are about Turkey's desire for geostrategic superiority in the region at the expense of international law as well as about Turkish Islamic quest for expansionism and supremacy over Greeks and other non-Turks in the region. Today, as a result of Turkey's violent and hostile policies against Greeks, only around 1,800 Greeks reside in Istanbul, a city built by Greeks.
Turkey's aggression and atrocities have cost countless lives and dreadful human suffering. As long as the West continues enabling Turkey's systematic violations of human rights and international law, stability and peace will remain a distant dream in the region.
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.