As Erdoğan ups rhetoric,Turkish-Greek tensions rise over demilitarised islands, migration

Turkish-Greek tensions continue to rise amid disagreements over demilitarised islands and the treatment of illegal migration as President Erdogan renews threats to use military force against his country's neighbour.

Turkey on Monday summoned the Greek ambassador to protest the alleged deployment of dozens of US-made armoured vehicles to Greek islands which Ankara says should remain demilitarised in line with international treaties.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned, meanwhile, that Turkey would not hold back on defending its rights and interests against Greece.

Turkish media on Sunday published aerial images that they said showed the deployment of armoured vehicles by Greece to the Aegean islands of Samos and Lesbos, heightening tensions between the two NATO countries that have a history of rivalry. Turkish officials say the deployment is in violation of the islands’ non-military status according to international law.

Turkish officials summoned Greek ambassador Christodoulos Lazaris to the Turkish foreign ministry on Monday, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported. It said Turkey also filed a protest with Washington, but did not provide details.

Erdogan accused Greece of engaging in acts of provocation against Turkey.

“We will not fail to defend our country’s rights and interests against Greece by using all the means at our disposal, when necessary,” Erdogan said following a cabinet meeting.

The Turkish president had upped his rhetoric against Greece earlier this month, threatening to “come down suddenly one night.”

Erdogan has previously used that phrase to hint at looming military operations into Syria and Iraq against Kurdish militants that Turkey deems existential threats. He made good on that threat several times.

“You occupying the islands doesn’t bind us," Erdogan said this month. "When the time comes, we’ll do what’s necessary. As we say, we may come down suddenly one night.”

He added: “Look at history, if you go further, the price will be heavy.”

“We have one sentence to Greece: Don’t forget Izmir," Erdogan said, in a reference to a crushing defeat of occupying Greek forces in the western city by the Turkish military in 1922.

In an interview with state broadcaster ERT, last June, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis dismissed Turkey’s questioning of Greek sovereignty over many of the eastern Greek islands, including the popular resorts of Rhodes, Kos and Samos just off western Turkey, as “completely irrational.”

“There is high verbal tension, but we don’t yet have, and I hope we don’t reach that point, tension in the field,” he said.

Turkey and Greece have decades-old disputes over an array of issues, including territorial claims in the Aegean Sea and disputes over the airspace there. The arguments have brought them to the brink of war three times in the last half-century.

Turkey has accused Greece of using Russian-made S-300 missile systems in Crete to lock onto Turkish jets in August. Ankara has also said Greek F-16s harassed Turkish jets by putting them under a radar lock during a NATO mission over the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey is submitting complaints to NATO. Athens has also accused Turkey of violating its airspace.

Tensions flared in 2020 over exploratory drilling rights in areas of the Mediterranean Sea, where Greece and Cyprus claim exclusive economic zones, leading to a naval stand-off.

Athens says it needs to defend the islands, many of which lie close to Turkey’s coast, against a potential attack from Turkey.

A Greek government official told The Associated Press that Greece “fully respects” its international obligations, adding that the Greek ambassador told his interlocuters that “Greece is not the country that is threatening its neighbour with war or assembling a large landing force on its coastline as Turkey has done.”

The official added that Turkey “continues to violate Greece’s sovereignty with its continuous violations of its airspace and overflights of Greek territory.” The official, who was not authorised to speak publicly to the news media, made the remarks on condition of anonymity.

Turkish media reports quoted security officials as saying 23 of the armoured vehicles were sent to Lesbos and 18 others were sent to Samos.

Meanwhile, Greek authorities said a six-year-old migration agreement between Turkey and the European Union remains in effect despite an escalating dispute between the two neighbours over the treatment of refugees.

Notis Mitarachi, the Greek migration affairs minister, said Athens will continue to observe the 2016 deal that allows it to send back most migrants travelling illegally from nearby Turkey.

“It is clear that for those coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, that Turkey is a safe country,” Mitarachi said. “Unfortunately, smugglers are still ‘selling tickets’ to people from those countries.”

Speaking at the UN General Assembly, Erdogan last week accused Greece of committing “crimes against humanity” by carrying out potentially deadly expulsions of migrants travelling from the Turkish mainland to nearby Greek islands.

The Greek premier described the claims as “absurd,” charging Turkey with “weaponising” migration to apply political pressure on Greece and other European countries.

Analysts say his defiant posture toward Greece could help Erdogan cement his popularity at home ahead of the 2023 elections where he is challenged by rivals who are likely to emphasise his authoritarian politics and the weaknesses of his economic policies.

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