(CNSNews.com) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday escalated a row with neighboring Greece, repeating warnings that in response to supposed Greek threats, Turkey will take retaliatory action.
In recent days, tensions have flared between the two countries – both members of the NATO alliance, but with a long history of rivalry – with Turkey’s Islamist president issuing veiled threats to invade Greek islands in the Aegean Sea near the Turkish coastline.
Ankara has accused Greece of militarizing the islands in violation of agreements, and says Greek fighter jets and air defense systems have locked onto Turkish military aircraft taking part in NATO exercises.
Greece meanwhile accuses Turkey of multiple violations of its airspace and territorial waters.
During a visit to Bosnia, Erdogan warned that Turkey could “come suddenly one night” in response to Greek actions.
“We can come suddenly one night when the time comes,” Erdogan told reporters, adding that if Greece continues to make “illegitimate threats” from islands under its control, “there is a limit to our patience.”
When Turkey’s patience runs out, he said, “necessary action will be taken.”
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias called the comments “reprehensible.”
“We are not deterred. Nor are we afraid,” he said after meeting with his French counterpart in Athens. “We have faced far more serious threats in our history. We reject neo-Ottoman bullying. We will not get caught up in this delirium.”
The row comes at a sensitive time, as Turkey and Greece mark the 100th anniversary of hostilities remembered in the former as a historic victory, and in the latter as a humiliating and tragic defeat.
In a series of battles between late August and mid-September 1922, Turkish forces pushed the Greeks out of western Anatolia (Asia Minor), where they had landed in the aftermath of World War I with the support of the victorious Allies.
Tens of thousands of Greek and Armenian Christians in the port city of Smyrna (now Izmir) were killed in a massive fire that raged for more than a week, and around 200,000 were evacuated, spelling the end of longstanding Greek and Armenian communities in the city.
Erdogan, who is running for another presidential term in elections next June, marked Turkey’s “Victory Day” last week with pointed digs.
“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 in a speech.
Several days later, Erdogan again made public comments about Greece, using the same “come suddenly one night” phrase.
“You occupying the islands does not bind us,” he said on Saturday. “When the time comes, we’ll do what is necessary. As we say, we may come suddenly one night.”
And, alluding to the tumultuous events a century ago, Erdogan added, “We have one sentence for Greece: Don’t forget Izmir.”
On Monday, Erdogan repeated some of the rhetoric, saying after a cabinet meeting in Ankara, “Greece is not at our level, as it is not our equal politically, economically, or militarily.”
‘Unacceptable behavior from a NATO country’
Greece, a member of the European Union, has won the E.U.’s support in the row.
“The continuous hostile remarks by the political leadership of Turkey against Greece and the Greek people raise serious concerns and fully contradict much needed de-escalation efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean,” E.U. foreign policy spokesman Peter Stano said in a statement.
“Threats and aggressive rhetoric are unacceptable and need to stop,” Stano said, adding that the E.U. expects Turkey to deescalate tensions and “fully respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all E.U. member states.”
Turkey – whose own aspirations to join the bloc have been held up for decades – swatted away the E.U. criticism.
Foreign ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic said the E.U.’s “pampering attitude towards Greece encourages deadlock instead of solution and supports Greece in its pursuit of maximalist demands.”
The ministry has also launched a diplomatic offensive, sending letters laying out Ankara’s position to E.U. member-states, NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
Turkey’s claim of “maximalist” demands by Greece relates to disputes over the extent of territorial waters and airspace around and above Greek islands in the Aegean.
Greece says Turkey has violated its airspace more than 6,000 times this year, and its territorial waters 1,000 times.
In a speech at an Athens university late last month, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) called Erdogan’s Turkey “the most persistent and proximate threat in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
“Despite its status as a NATO ally, Turkey challenges Greek sovereignty with provocative overflights in the Aegean Sea,” he said. “Violating airspace with fighter jets is simply unacceptable behavior from any country – it is definitely unacceptable behavior from a NATO country.”
Menendez listed other concerns about Erdogan’s policies at home and abroad, and said Turkey’s long-ruling leader “seeks aggression as a diversion from the dire failure of his horrific economic circumstances that afflict the Turkish people.”
The U.S. should not sell “superior weapons” to Turkey and should “hold Erdogan accountable for his behavior,” Menendez said.
Med Tensions: Erdogan Warns Greece, France They May Pay Price For Their ‘Overambitious’ Leaders (Aug. 31, 2020)
Greece Looks to EU For Support as Dispute With Turkey Over Aegean Gas Drilling Worsens (Jul. 23, 2020)