Observers fear a mistake or miscalculation could lead to military conflict between the Nato members
As warships bristling with 21st century weapons systems prowled the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey’s president drew on a rather earlier era to underline his latest round of sabre-rattling towards Greece.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan chose the anniversary of a battle that took place near 1,000 years ago as an opportunity to warn the Greeks that they would be swept aside if they stood in the way of Turkish ambitions in the region.
At the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Turkish Seljuk Empire beat Christian Byzantine forces, capturing the Byzantine emperor and forcing entry into the great hinterland of Anatolia.
The battle is celebrated as marking the birth of the state of Turkey; nearly a millennium later, President Erdogan was in bellicose mood.
“Turkey will take what is its right in the Mediterranean, in the Aegean and in the Black Sea,” he said during the speech on Wednesday.
“If anyone wants to stand before us and face the consequences, they are welcome to. If not, stay out of our way and we will continue with our work.”
The Greeks were not only acting like “pirates” but were “unworthy of the Byzantine legacy”, he said, in a further allusion to the tangled conflicts of the past.
The punchy rhetoric was emblematic of Turkey’s increasingly assertive posture in a dispute which now risks spiraling into military confrontation between two NATO members.
The crisis began earlier this month when Turkey sent a survey vessel, escorted by warships, to prospect for oil and gas in the Aegean.
Ankara argues that the many small Greek islands that lie off the Turkish coast should not be taken into account when delineating maritime boundaries and accuses Athens of trying to grab an unfair share of untapped resources.
Greece was furious, saying that the flotilla was trespassing in its waters and impinging on its exclusive economic zone.
On August 14, the confrontation threatened to escalate when a Greek frigate collided with a Turkish warship in waters between Crete and Cyprus.
The Greek ship, the Limnos, was approaching the Turkish survey vessel when it came into the path of one of its naval escorts, the Kemal Reis – named after an Ottoman admiral of the 15th century who battled the Venetians.
The Greek frigate manoeuvred to avoid a head-on collision and in the process its bow touched the rear of the Turkish frigate, in what the Greeks described as an accident. President Erdogan seized on the incident to issue an aggressive warning, saying that any “attack” on the survey vessel, the Oruc Reiss, would incur “a high price”.
Greece and Turkey have been squabbling over the Aegean for decades. In 1996, they nearly went to war over a barren collection of rocks known as the Ima islets.
An uneasy détente then set in and the tension was largely forgotten by the rest of the world.
Now it has erupted again, with potentially ruinous consequences for both countries and even the spectre of full-blown war.
Germany’s foreign minister warned this week that the two countries are staring into “the abyss”.
“The situation is very risky,” said Heiko Maas. “Whoever moves closer and closer to the abyss can at some point fall down. Nobody wants to solve this conflict militarily, which would be absolute insanity. Any spark, however small, could lead to a disaster.”
There are two key factors that make the current crisis particularly dangerous.
Firstly, Turkey has become more emboldened recently, buoyed by successful military interventions in Libya and Syria.
It feels hemmed in and contained by maritime demarcations that were drawn up nearly a century ago.
Many in the West accuse president Erdogan of pursuing neo-Ottoman adventurism to expand its sphere of influence.
“Turkey is meddling in Libya, Syria, Iraq and the Aegean – all areas that used to belong to the Ottoman Empire,” said Angelos Chryssogelos, an expert on the eastern Mediterranean from London Metropolitan University.
“What you see is a concerted effort by Turkey to liberate itself from the obligations that it assumed when it was founded. It is similar to what Russia is doing in Ukraine and Crimea. Erdogan is matching nationalist, Kemalist ideas with a neo-Ottoman agenda which has a populist dimension.”
The recent conversion of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s former basilica, back into a mosque is part of that nationalist agenda.
Many Turks do not see it that way. They argue that the current laws about continental shelves and offshore drilling rights are deeply unfair to Turkey and need to be changed.
“The reason Turkey has resorted to hard power tactics is related to its policy objectives. “It wants to demonstrate to Greece that Turkey will never accept the imposition of what it sees as an unfair partition of the eastern Mediterranean and it wants to convince the Greek authorities that the only way to resolve this is to negotiate directly,” said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of Edam, an Istanbul-based think tank.
“There is broad consensus over this within Turkey because it is seen as part of Turkey’s national sovereignty. It’s not politically partisan, it’s almost unanimous.”
Ian Lesser, the executive director of the German Marshall Fund of the US, a think tank, said: “Turkey is much more assertive and much more conscious of its maritime interests. It has used its military with some success in Libya and Syria. Its capacity to project power is greater it was in the past.
“There’s a long-standing Turkish argument that the international demarcations of the sea work against them. In their view, it condemns them to being a continental actor without access to the sea.”
Dr Lesser, an expert in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern affairs, says another element that has changed is Ankara’s relationship with the West, which is “almost at breaking point.”
Western policymakers are not sure whether to regard Turkey as an ally or a rogue state. “Probably a bit of both,” said Dr Lesser. “There’s a complete breakdown of trust between Turkey and European capitals.”
With Turkey’s long-discussed accession to the EU now at an impasse, the West has less leverage over Ankara than it did in previous crises.
A second factor is that there are far more countries involved in the dispute this time around compared to back in 1996.
France and the UAE have sent aircraft and warships to back up Greece, while Cyprus, Israel and Egypt also have a stake in prospecting for hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean.
The more warships and fighter planes there are jostling for space in the region, the greater potential there is for an accident or miscalculation that could lead to war.
It is not just oil and gas prospecting that has fueled tensions between the neighbours. They are at odds over Cyprus, which has been ethnically divided since the Turkish invasion of 1974, as well as Turkish accusations that Athens mistreats the ethnic Turkish minority in the Greek region of Western Thrace.
Economic problems at home have also fueled president Erdogan’s aggressive posturing abroad.
“Erdogan has serious internal problems, mostly to do with the economy, and has decided that the best defence is offence,” Petros Markaris, an author and social commentator who was born in Istanbul to Greek and Armenian parents, told an Italian newspaper, La Stampa. “His political discourse is inspired by the desire to revive the Ottoman Empire.”
Turkey does not want war, most analysts agree, but its brinksmanship is highly dangerous in such a volatile context.
“The idea is not to go to war but to place ships and planes in areas so as to stake a claim.
They are constantly applying pressure and trying to carve out space, to open up the agenda as much as possible,” said Prof Chryssogelos.
“I don’t think Turkey is looking for war but there is always the risk of an accident.”
Turkey upped the ante on Friday night by announcing that it will conduct live fire exercises northwest of Cyprus from this weekend until Sept 11.
“In all likelihood there will not be a deliberate military confrontation,” said Dr Lesser. “But with more military exercises and more forces in the region, the risk of something going wrong is there. This is what worries many observers.”