In his latest recent display of tough rhetoric, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras ruled out any trade-off with Turkey, in which Greece would return eight Turkish servicemen who sought political asylum in Greece following the failed 2016 coup against Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, in exchange for the return of two Greek soldiers who remain in pre-trial detention in Turkey after being captured on March 1 of this year.
In a televised interview on Saturday, Erdogan stated: “They ask us to give back the Greek soldiers and we told them ‘if you make such a demand, you should first give us FETO soldiers involved in a coup against our state’, said Erdogan, adding “If they are handed to us, we will consider” the situation on Greek soldiers.
Tsipras, in a talk before members of his SYRIZA party on Monday, ruled out this possibility before devolving into one of his party’s tried-and-true mantras, questioning Turkey’s “European orientation” in light of its recent provocations, stating: “Turkey looks like a country… at risk of losing its orientation and moving away from its European targets.”
Talking to SYRIZA MPs, Tsipras also stated “We reject, in the most categorical manner, unacceptable preconditions.”
In other words, the main concern for Tsipras and his governing crew is that Turkey is straying from its “European path.” This should come as no surprise though, as Tsipras’ victory speech on the evening of his election, January 25, 2015, was peppered with rhetoric about “saving Europe” but did not make any mention of saving Greece, or the Greek people.
Tsipras also claimed that the two Greek soldiers captured by Turkey were “chasing illegal immigrants,” a laughable assertion when considering the SYRIZA government’s “open borders” policy and red-carpet treatment of migrants, especially when compared to ordinary Greek citizens battered by austerity measures which SYRIZA has agreed to, implemented, and enforced.
Erdogan, in his interview, also offered a supposed olive branch, stating that “We need peace now. Besides, our peace with you is like no other,” while praising Tsipras as a ““young, dynamic” leader who desires “to take a new step.” Erdogan was unclear as to whether he was most impressed with Tsipras’ overturning of the July 5, 2015 referendum result which rejected austerity — an undemocratic coup d’etat which an autocrat like Erdogan can naturally relate to.
In what seems to be a classic “good cop, bad cop” routine, while Erdogan suddenly softened his tone and declared a desire for attaining peace with Greece, while his aircraft and naval ships continue to violate Greek airspace and maritime waters at will, Erdogan’s chief adviser Yigit Bulut, in a separate interview aired on Turkish television, was far more blunt, reflecting the realities of Turkish “hard power” diplomacy:
“Now, it would be embarrassing to wage a war against Greece from a technical point of view. It’s almost like a grown man hitting a baby in the crib when looked at from the balance of power between Turkey and Greece.”
It can therefore be surmised that if Greece is a “baby” then Cyprus, 40 percent of which Erdogan’s military continues to illegally occupy, is a fetus, which Turkey has no problem “hitting.” Unfortunately, Bulut neglected to make reference to the almost two months Turkey’s “powerful” NATO-sponsored military needed to defeat what amounted to a gang of rebels in Afrin.
What lies behind the tough stance recently adopted by Tsipras and other members of the Greek government, as well as President of the Hellenic Republic Prokopis Pavlopoulos — none of whom are noted for their patriotism — in recent weeks? The answer probably lies within the geopolitical chessboard in the region.
As Turkey has drifted closer to Russia, Iran and Qatar and has espoused populist rhetoric to score points in the Middle East (Erdogan’s hypocritical statements regarding the move of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, while his troops continue to divide the capital city of Cyprus, is a case in point), it is not unreasonable to surmise that Tsipras and the Greek government, especially following Tsipras’ recent visit to the White House, are under orders from Washington and NATO to flank Turkey and to essentially frustrate Turkey’s leadership as much as possible without risking outright war.
While Foreign Policy magazine and many commentators, including trigger-happy “foreign policy analysts” in Greece have all but declared war as an inevitability between the two countries, it is highly unlikely that Erdogan would jeopardize a sudden re-election campaign by risking any sort of military debacle, especially to a country described by one of his advisers as a “baby.” Turkey’s military is also stretched thin: in Syria, Iraq, and with its forces occupying 40 percent of Cyprus and on alert over developments in Armenia.
However, what is as good as war, at least as far as business goes, is the threat of war, as evidenced by Greece’s recent lease of two French frigates with the option to purchase two to four such ships in the coming years.