In an interview with Alexis Tsipras back in 2012, I had asked him who he’d call first if he were prime minister and had learned of a serious incident in the Aegean. It was obvious that he hadn’t given much thought to the scenario but he said, “Mr Erdogan, of course,” in reference to the then Turkish prime minister and now president.
I admit that I would not ask the same question today, because there is no clear answer. When such incidents occurred in the past, Georgios Papandreou spoke to US President Lyndon B. Johnson, the dictator Georgios Papadopoulos called Cyrus Vance, Constantinos Karamanlis turned to Gerald Ford, and so on. They all knew more or less what the response from Washington would be: some kind of intervention to prevent an escalation from both sides.
Things are very different today, as nobody knows what US President Donald Trump thinks on the big issues or who might influence him if he decided to pick up the phone to speak to Tsipras or Erdogan. The officials who held these portfolios are no longer in their posts and the “machine” does not work as it did in the past.
I cannot stress how strongly I feel about the need for caution. Greece has already suffered from mistaken or garbled messages from Washington. Right now, every Greek American and his cousin suddenly appear to be speaking for Trump, saying crazy things like, “Of course he’ll side with Greece if there’s a conflict because it’s a Christian country.”
Then there’s the issue of the government’s poor track record in reading international signals, but the stakes are much higher than negotiating the conclusion of another review here.
The second factor is Europe’s weakness in crisis management. Berlin is trying to play a leading role as a problem solver from the Kosovo to the Cyprus issue, but it hasn’t been tested in a big crisis that needs quick reflexes. More importantly, because of the migration crisis, Erdogan has leverage he didn’t possess before. He knows that he can deliver a serious blow to the German chancellor and other European Union leaders by opening the borders.
I’ve left Erdogan for last. He’s not Tansu Ciller or even Turgut Ozal. He feels almighty – albeit ephemerally – and under a lot of pressure, and there is nothing standing between him and the military leadership anymore; the buffer between politics and any tactical decision has been removed. The only obstacle is the weakening of the armed forces and the removal of well-trained officers, pilots and other personnel.
In other words, this is absolutely not the time for an incident between Greece and Turkey.