Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reconverted the historic Church of St Savior, one of Istanbul’s most celebrated Byzantine buildings, into a mosque on August 21, a month after opening the iconic Hagia Sophia to Muslim congregations. [EPA]
Everyone understands, or should be able to understand, that Greek-Turkish relations are on a knife-edge. The objectives, the intentions, the reactions, the actions and the provocations of Turkey were totally predictable and, as this column pointed out in previous days, this and the coming weeks will be extremely critical as Greece could find itself caught up in a conflict at any moment. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears more and more determined to have done with Greece and he does not make any secret of his intentions. The repeated cyberattacks by Turkish hackers on Greek government sites are also an indication of where he stands.
The hope is that things will improve over the weekend if German efforts to de-escalate the tensions pay off, but the prospects appear gloomy at the moment. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu left no room for optimism during his meeting with his German counterpart Heiko Maas. Turkey was deeply annoyed by the maritime boundaries accord signed between Greece and Egypt, and the ratification of the deal by the Greek Parliament will not make this any better. In light of this, it is hard to understand the decision of SYRIZA opposition lawmakers to vote “present” during Thursday’s vote in Parliament, while also requesting that the procedure take place with a roll call vote. The explanation is simple: Partisan exigencies once again came before the party’s obligation to the nation.
The fact that Ankara’s extreme rhetoric and provocative actions are part of a broader strategy is deeply disconcerting. Erdogan, as this column has often pointed out, is driven by the “Blue Homeland” doctrine and its multiple objectives. The decision to turn Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and the Church of St Savior in Chora into mosques aspires to cut Greece’s connections to its Byzantine past.
Similarly, the show staged by Erdogan on the anniversary of the 1071 Battle of Manzikert served, firstly, as a reminder that Seljuk Turks settled in that area of Asia Minor after defeating the Byzantine army and, secondly, as a message that he plans to expand the country’s sovereignty in the Eastern Mediterranean and to the east. This is hard for Europe to understand.
It is clear that the Erdogan establishment is not only a threat to Greece as, apart from certain European countries, it also irritates many states in the region – mainly Syria, Egypt and Israel.
The fact that Turkey upsets other states in the region (Israel in particular) in its desire to claim the leadership of Sunni Islam spurred the US State Department to issue some strong-worded statements. On the other hand, there is Donald Trump. However, the US president cannot ignore the Israeli lobby, especially in the runup to the presidential election.
Any prediction would be premature, but Erdogan does not seem to be at all intimidated by any reactions in Europe. Time will tell if the same applies to America’s anger.