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Greece – Turkey Conflicts in Modern History

Greece and Turkey have been engaged in several conflicts in recent history due to their complex and mostly hostile relationship.

Since the establishment of the modern Greek state in the 19th century, the neighbouring countries have fought on two occasions. They have come close to military conflict on several others.

Greece and the Ottoman Empire (the predecessor of modern Turkey) went to war in 1897 over the status of the Ottoman province of Crete. There, the Greek-majority population had long desired union with Greece.

Despite the Ottoman victory on the field, an autonomous Cretan State was established under Ottoman sovereignty the following year. Crete officially joined Greece in 1913.

The two nations fought again in the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922 when the Greek forces invaded Asia Minor. This was following the Allies’ promises of territorial gains at the end of WWI and the defeat of the Ottomans. Asia Minor was part of Ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire before the Turks conquered it in the 12th to 15th centuries.

Despite its early success, the Greek army was defeated in 1922, which resulted in the Smyrna disaster and the uprooting of all Greeks from Asia Minor.

There have been several other instances when the two nations came close to armed conflict, including during the pogrom launched against the Greeks of Istanbul by Turkey in 1955.

Conflicts between Greece and Turkey since 1974

A series of crises further deteriorated relations between the supposed NATO allies with the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 . They have not resulted in open military conflict throughout the last half century. Lives, however, have been lost. Moreover, Greece and Turkey have engaged in an arms race that inevitably undermines their economies.

Turkey has constantly questioned Greece’s sovereignty of the Aegean islands. In particular, they dispute Greece’s rights in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean envisaged by the International Law of the Seas. Moreover,  it continues its illegal occupation of northern Cyprus despite numerous UN resolutions.

Cyprus invasion and Greek mobilization

The day of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, July 20, 1974 was the day time stopped for Cyprus. It was one of infamy and changed the course of the nation’s history forever.

For Cypriots, the ongoing crime of the Turkish occupation of their beloved country seems as fresh at each anniversary as it was then.

Turkey’s occupying forces captured thirty-six percent of the island. It expelled around 150,000 people from the northern part, where Greek Cypriots made up 80% of the population. That amounted to more than one-quarter of the total population of Cyprus and one-third of its Greek Cypriot population.

The Turkish invasion ended in the partition of Cyprus along the UN-monitored Green Line, which still divides Cyprus. Hundreds of people died, among them Greek soldiers stationed or sent to Cyprus. Hundreds more are still missing following the invasion.

Greece responded to the invasion by ordering a mobilization of its defense forces. The country called up thousands of reservists as the crisis reached boiling point. Many believed that a war between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus was inevitable.

Public response to the Greek-Turkey conflicts

The New York Times reported at the time:

The military rulers, clearly surprised by the Turkish invasion of Cyprus despite repeated warnings from Ankara, ordered reservists to report for duty immediately. The decree, which caused widespread disruption as men rushed from their homes and jobs, could involve up to 160,000 men.

Armor and troop reinforcements were moved to the Greek‐Turkish border although there was no retaliatory action against Turkey. The Government left its options open, saying that it would attack “wherever” it felt the country’s “national interests were threatened.”

Many glum young men called to duty hurried through the streets with personal belongings in small packages. Others climbed into open trucks headed for military induction centers.

There was no sense of rallying around the Hag. Rather, the mood was fear and uncertainty and, in many cases, anger, that the rulers had allowed the dispute with Turkey to reach this point, the New York Times report noted.

Eventually, the U.S. intervened and stopped further escalation between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus. The Cyprus invasion, along with Greece’s inability to defend the Cypriots,  brought  the collapse of the military junta and return of democracy.

1987 Aegean crisis

A crisis took place in late March 1987 between Turkey and Greece as part of the Aegean dispute. Turkey learned that Greece was drilling for oil in the Aegean Sea near Thasos, a Greek territory. In response, it prepared to send the Turkish survey ship Piri Reis (and later the Sismik 1) to the area with an escort of Turkish warships.

The crisis escalated, the armed forces of both countries were on alert, and each side said they would use force if obstructed by the other. The incident nearly started a war between the two countries.

Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou gave orders to sink the ship if found in Greek waters.

Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Özal said that “if Greece interferes with our vessel in any way, and this is what Papandreou is saying, we will act in the same way against him.”

“As a result,” Özal said, “it could be cause for war,” but he also added that “we are waiting for the first move from them.”

The crisis ended with the intervention of NATO Secretary General Lord Carrington, who called both Athens and Ankara and demanded an immediate de-escalation.

In the end, both nations claimed victory after the episode. The Turkish vessel, Piri Reis, did not sail towards Greece’s Thasos, but public opinion in Turkey hailed its leadership since Greece did not unilaterally establish a right to the Aegean continental shelf, as Ankara worried it would.

In Greece, the people hailed Papandreou’s determination as a vigorous handling of the crisis. Yet the fact remains that the Greek continental shelf in the Aegean is still undefined.

The arrest of Kurdish leader Öcalan shakes Greece

In 1998, the capture of the Kurdish separatist Abdullah Öcalan on the way from the Greek embassy in Kenya and the related fallout led to the Greek foreign minister resigning and a government crisis.

Öcalan, a founding member of PKK that seeks independence for the Kurdish region of Turkey, sought refuge in Greece to avoid capture by Turkey.

Greek secret services initially permitted him to remain covertly in the country. When rumours of his Greek hideout reached the Turkish secret service MIT and the CIA, Greece sent him to its embassy in Nairobi, Kenya where he stayed for a time at the ambassador’s residence. After Greece asked him to vacate the premises, Turkish agents abducted Öcalan  at the Nairobi airport.

Öcalan was pictured held by Turkish agents on a plane that carried him to Turkey. Public Domain

He was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to aggravated life imprisonment when Turkey abolished the death penalty. From 1999 until 2009, he was the sole prisoner in İmralı prison at the Sea of Marmara. He remains in prison there today.

Öcalan’s capture led thousands of Kurds worldwide to protest, condemning his capture at Greek embassies in Europe. Greece suffered a major diplomatic blow in the Arab world and faced the anger of thousands of Kurdish exiles residing in the country. Since then, Turkey has accused Greece of harboring Kurdish terrorists, a charge Greece denies.

Crisis over the uninhabited islets of Imia

As unlikely as it may seem, a dispute over salvage rights between Turkish and Greek captains in 1995 was the trigger for a series of events that escalated into a major international incident called the Imia Crisis. The Greek-Turkey conflict almost escalated into war in January 1996.

The quickly-spiraling crisis saw the deployment of both countries’ special forces, the involvement of the United States, and the tragic loss of three Greek officers.

On December 26, 1995, the Turkish cargo vessel “Figen Akat” ran aground on the easternmost point of the two islets of Imia, which are a mere seven kilometers (4.4 miles) away from the coast of Bodrum, Turkey.

When a Greek tugboat approached to help, the Turkish captain insisted that the tug was in his country’s territorial waters. After the disabled vessel was eventually towed to a Turkish port, a routine salvage claim by the Greek skipper got the political wheels turning in the faraway Turkish capital of Ankara.

Turkey tries to establish sovereignty

On December 27, 1995, Turkey contacted Greek authorities as a precursor to declaring ownership of the two tiny islets. Athens denied the Turkish sovereignty claim, but it was not until later in January 1996 that events took a turn for the worse.

Greeks who lived on the nearby island of Kalymnos sailed to Imia and raised the Greek flag there.

Turkish media suddenly took note, and dispatched a team of reporters from the newspaper Hurriyet to the islets (called “Kardak” in Turkish) to unfurl their own country’s flag on live television.

The Greek Navy intervened the following day, sailing to the islets and replacing the Turkish flag as an increasingly feverish atmosphere gripped both countries. Naval vessels from the two nations then sailed to the hotspot.

Greek special forces landed on Imia and, on January 31st, Turkish forces followed suit. Four hours later, the crisis claimed its first lives, as a helicopter from the Greek frigate “Navarino” crashed while on a reconnaissance mission.

Three officers on board the helicopter, specifically Christodoulos Karathanasis, Panagiotis Vlahakos, and Ektoras Gialopsos, died in the mishap.

Although the incident was covered up at the time, there are allegations that Turkish forces had fired upon the helicopter.

It was only the shuttle diplomacy between Greece and Turkey mediated by the United States, as NATO’s largest military power, which halted the escalations and returned the situation to an enduring—and frosty—stalemate.

1999 Earthquake diplomacy between Greece and Turkey

Despite all the gloom and doom, there was a lull in Greece-Turkey conflicts during the so-called earthquake diplomacy of 1999.

The August 17th earthquake in Turkey devastated large parts of the country and killed seventeen thousand people. Greece moved to send a great deal of aid, donating blood and extending a helping hand despite decades of mistrust.

Greece was the first foreign country to pledge aid and support for Turkey. Within hours of the earthquake, the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs had contacted their counterparts in Turkey, and sent his personal envoys to Turkey. On August 17, 1999, and November 13, 1999, Greece sent a rescue team of twenty-four people and two trained rescue dogs. It also sent fire-extinguishing planes.

An earthquake struck Athens a month later, which killed 143 people. The Turkish people responded likewise, sending rescue workers and other support. Turks jammed the phone lines of the Greek consulates and embassy in Turkey calling to find out if they could donate blood. One volunteer even contacted Ambassador Corantis, offering to donate his kidney for a “Greek in need.”

It was the top that encouraged such acts and took many foreigners by surprise. They prepared the public for a breakthrough in bilateral relations, which decades of mutual hostility had marred.

2020 migrant crisis at the Greece-Turkey border

The events at the Greek-Turkish border along the Evros River in 2020 began on February 28th, when the Turkish government announced it was unilaterally opening its borders to Greece to allow refugees and migrants seeking refuge to reach the European Union.

Thousands of migrants arrived at the Greek-Turkish border along Evros. The migrants reached the border through white buses and taxis. They were supplied with Turkish ammunition. A Turkish armored car attempted to break the border fence with no success.

With the citizen’s help, the Greek police forces managed to prevent the erratic invasion using fire extinguishers, lighting, loudspeakers and the repair of the fence.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey’s borders with Europe are open, noting: “We will not close the gates to refugees. About 18,000 refugees have already passed and today the number will be 25,000 to 30,000 and we will not close our doors, because the EU must abide by its commitments.”

Thousands of people crowded into the area of Kastanies, seeking to cross over to the Greek side. Meanwhile, riot police units arrived from various areas of Greece to strengthen the Greek deterrent force.

The Minister of Civil Protection, Michalis Chrysochoidis, stated during his visit to Evros that: “Thousands of unhappy people are stacked at our borders. They have not come here on their own. They are expelled, repelled and used by the neighboring country, Turkey. We want to send a message in every direction that we will not let anyone pass without legal travel documents. Greece has borders. Europe has borders.”

After weeks of clashes with Greek security forces, most of the migrant crowd dispersed back to Turkey.

The crisis demonstrated that Turkey is instrumentalizing the migrant issue for its political gain. That included the weakening of Greece and blackmailing of the EU for more funds to deal with the hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees from the wars in the Middle East. This is a strategy Ankara continues to apply, as it fails to stop—but rather encourages—undocumented migrants from entering Greece.

Turkish overflights over islands and dogfights in the Aegean

From 1974 to 2022, many have lost their lives as Greek pilots defended Greek airspace from Turkish overflights violations on a daily basis.

It was May 23, 2006 when 35-year-old Hellenic Air Force pilot Konstantinos Iliakis lost his when his plane crashed on Karpathos island in the Dodecanese. He had been trying to intercept Turkish fighter jets, which had entered Greek airspace over the Aegean.

Greece remembers Giorgos Baltadoros, the fighter pilot who died on April 12, 2018 when his Mirage 2000-5 plane crashed into the Aegean after a mission intercepting Turkish jets that had violated Greek airspace.

Erdogan’s rhetoric fuels the Greece-Turkey conflict

“The islands you occupy do not bind us, we will do what is necessary when the time comes,” Turkish President Erdogan said recently explicitly threatening to invade Greece. He used the same language he deployed before previous Turkish military operations in Syria. “As we say, we can come suddenly one night,” he added.

A myriad of issues divide Athens and Ankara in the Greece-Turkey conflict. However, Erdogan has now focused his rage on Greece’s militarization of its Aegean islands. The Greek military presence there has remained largely consistent over the last several decades. Yet Ankara insists that it is in violation of the 1923 and 1947 treaties that established Greece’s sovereignty over the islands.

Two clauses in two separate treaties addressing Greece’s sovereignty over its islands predicate this assertion. According to the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, “no naval bases or fortifications” are to be built on the five main islands in the North Aegean.

Nevertheless, the terms do allow Greece to maintain a “normal contingent” of regular troops there.

Conversely, the 1947 Treaty of Paris unequivocally states that the Greek Dodecanese Islands to the south “shall remain demilitarized.”

Greece however maintains that it was merely a promise to Italy, which ceded the islands to Athens after World War II. Since Italy had seized the islands from the Ottoman Empire in 1913, Turkey was not part of the 1947 negotiations. This, therefore, made the pledge moot with respect to Ankara.

Erdogan, who faces election in 2023, in one of his most horrific verbal attacks yet accused Greece of crimes against humanity during his speech at the UN General Assembly in New York.

Erdogan also warned that Greece is making the same mistake as in 1922 in the Asia Minor campaign. “Unfortunately, we see that the Greek politicians, who dragged their own people and country to disaster a century ago, are still insisting on the same mistake today,” he said recently.

He has also ruled out any talks with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

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