Turkey has a long history of conducting extreme operations with its secret services. The most traumatic of these for us was against the Greek minority in Istanbul in September 1955. On August 21, 2013, it was accused of launching a deadly sarin gas attack on a Damascus suburb, killing hundreds. The aim of that operation was to prompt a US military intervention by making it appear that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had violated an American ban on chemical weapons. Given Turkey’s proclivity for such extreme tactics, let us consider the events of recent days.
Clashes between Turkish and Syrian government forces culminated on February 27 and resulted in the death of 34 Turkish soldiers in Syria’s Idlib province. Facing the risk of losing control of the area, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan resuscitated his plan for a 30 kilometer safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. To get his safe zone, in Idlib at least, he needed the support of the Europeans especially, who were not fans of the plan. The answer was to deliver a shock to Europe. He had already threatened to open the gates to refugee and migrant flows into Europe on eight separate occasions and was at risk of turning into the boy who cried wolf.
On Friday, February 28, however, Erdogan mobilized his “open the gates” plan, directing thousands of unfortunate migrants to Greece, exclusively. The timing was instrumental. Greece was in some shock following violent clashes between riot police and residents reacting to plans for closed migrant centers on the islands of Lesvos and Chios on February 25-27. The government in Athens had come under fire. In the meantime, the country was heading into a three-day weekend for Clean Monday on March 2 and the Turks knew that under normal circumstances this means a break for the police and security forces, resulting in less vigilance on the border. They expected Greece to relax its guard as it got into the swing of the Carnival season. The idea was that the country would wake up on Tuesday, March 3, to the arrival of several thousand migrants and refugees. Given the preceding events, this would have almost certainly led to a leadership challenge against the recently elected government. This would have allowed Turkey to kill two birds with one stone: provoking political turmoil in Greece and proving its ability to use the migrant crisis to destabilize a country to Europe.
Turkey’s surprise tactics failed, however, for a number of reasons. To begin with, it was a mistake to send the migrants and refugees to the land border in northeastern Greece, as this is by far best guarded part of the Greek frontier. The Greek state machine was also on alert as a result of the riots on the islands. In the meantime, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had announced on the Thursday preceding Turkey’s operation that Greece would not accept any more illegal arrivals and was strengthening control of it borders as a result. The coast guard had also been instructed to “significantly” increase patrols in the eastern Aegean. Greece’s reaction to the sudden push on the border was, therefore, instantaneous and a significant police force was dispatched to Evros on the Friday morning. The Greek people, in the meantime, have shown incredible unity in their reactions as they have instinctively understood the magnitude of the Turkish threat. Lastly, the coronavirus outbreak and the suspension of Carnival activities have seriously dampened the mood.
Despite its failure, Turkey’s scheme shows that Ankara has a very good reading of the situation in Greece. That it is angry over that failure is also evident. For days it has tried to pin a death at the border on Greece and further acts of deliberate escalation cannot be ruled out. The Greek security forces need to be prepared for a drawn-out standoff, as we can be certain that the Turks will facilitate the passage of migrants and refugees into Greece.
What these events should tell us, first and foremost, is that Erdogan is living up to his reputation of having no qualms about resorting to extreme measures to achieve his goals. Things have been aggravated further due to the multiple dead ends his choices have led him into. Over the long Clean Monday weekend, he chose to use the element of surprise to knock Greece off its feet. It was a move that was not outside the context of Greek-Turkish relations. It was, in fact, Ankara’s second extreme step after the signing of the maritime borders deal with the Tripoli-based Libyan government in November 2019. Now we need to see what the third step will be.
* Angelos Syrigos is a New Democracy MP and associate professor of international law and foreign policy at Athens’ Panteion University.