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[OPINION] Why Turkey is picking a fight with Greece

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Abdullah Bozkurt

The neo-nationalist partners of Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who played a key role in orchestrating the abortive coup of July 15 to benefit political masters now have a new plan in the works: belligerent posturing with neighboring Greece over disputed claims in the Aegean Sea.

The surprise visit of Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar, an Erdoğan loyalist, to the Aegean islets of Kardak (Imia), accompanied by the commanders of the land, naval and air forces, has all the hallmarks of this sinister plot and has nothing to do with the Greek courts refusing to turn over soldiers who are alleged to have been involved in a coup attempt. This is much bigger than the court case, and I’m afraid the Turkish Islamists, in cooperation with neo-nationalists in the army and intelligence agency, are set to escalate the tension with Greece.

The main motivation for Erdoğan in this belligerence is to fish for nationalist votes ahead of a critical referendum in April that will likely give him sweeping powers and the opportunity to change the character of the secular parliamentary democracy in Turkey into an autocratic one-man regime that is rooted in xenophobic Islamist ideology. The Turkish president had already sent signals to deliberately stoke tension with Greece months before Turkey’s top generals staged a showdown in the Aegean near Kardak last Sunday. In a series of public speeches delivered in October 2016, Erdoğan opened the Lausanne Treaty, which delineated borders with Greece, among others, up to debate, questioned the handover of islands in the Aegean to Greece and even said Turkish mosques are still present on islands near Turkey as if they were the deed to Erdogan’s claim on the islands.

We have seen that playbook in the past. I wrote details of secret plans of the neo-nationalists in the Turkish military before, exposing how they plotted to bring Turkey to the brink of war with Greece over the Aegean with false flags in 2003. I will quote some of my earlier writings to shed light on what we’ll likely see in the coming months on the border with Greece. Some influential generals at the time thought it would be a good idea to raise the tension with Greece to strengthen their position domestically and embarrass the new government formed by Erdoğan, who they despised. Now, the same neo-nationalist faction has partnered with him after Erdoğan found himself in legal trouble in the 2013 graft probes and orchestrated the acquittal of these crazy guys in the military to enlist allies against his political foes. In a secret deal of clemency for convicted felons by Erdoğan, these generals walked free, in total disregard of the overwhelming evidence of crime we all saw in the indictment and evidentiary files.

The secret plan to stir up troubles with Greece is borrowed from the botched false flag of 1962 called Operation Northwoods, a plot planned by the US Department of Defense to trigger a war with Cuba. The plan was not put into action following President John F. Kennedy’s rejection of it but contained appalling scenarios such shooting down passenger and military planes, the harassment of US aircraft, the sinking of a US ship in the vicinity of Cuba, the burning of crops, the sinking of a boat filled with Cuban refugees, attacks by alleged Cuban infiltrators inside the US and the destruction of aerial drones by aircraft disguised as Cuban MiGs.

The Turkish version of Operation Northwoods is called Operation Thunderstorm (Oraj), which was cooked up by neo-nationalist generals in the Turkish military as part of the plan in the Sledgehammer coup preparations. The plot was uncovered by investigators during the execution of a search warrant at the Naval Intelligence Department located at the Gölcük Naval Command, a major naval base located on the east coast of the Sea of Marmara. The plan sees an escalation of the crisis with Greece by provoking conflict in the air, at sea and on land borders.

The Oraj plan, dated February 2003, specifically asked for increased flights over the Aegean and ordered commanding officers to instruct pilots to engage in harassment maneuvers with Greek fighter jets. It wanted Turkish pilots to be more aggressive and even issued new rules of engagement allowing pilots to take shots at Greek fighters, albeit unofficially. The plan suggested reorganizing the special fleet with the specific objective of having a Turkish pilot shoot down a Turkish jet in his own squadron in the event all other efforts to provoke a Greek fighter to destroy a Turkish jet failed. Fabricated stories would then be planted in the media, saying that Greece intentionally shot down a Turkish jet.

To accompany the provocations in the air, both the land and sea forces would also be instructed to engage in hostilities. Tensions would increase along the Thracian border with Greece, with new guard outposts set up in the area. “The naval forces would continuously conduct training exercises in the Aegean Sea. Fighter jets would be kept on standby on the tarmac round the clock at the Balıkesir, Bandırma, Çiğli, Çorlu and Dalaman military airports, and they would be scrambled even if there were reports of minor infractions,” the plan explained.

Another document, dated December 2002, disclosed a secret meeting in Ankara about the Suga plan, where the issue of islands/islets whose sovereignty still remains disputed was discussed to provoke Greece. In a related memo dated Jan. 10, 2003, Navy Col. Mustafa Karasabun submitted plans to make changes in the rules of engagement in the Aegean, giving a free hand in provocations. Plotters debated different scenarios on how to best trigger a conflict with Greece, short of war. For example, one proposal envisaged creating the impression that the Turkish navy was about to conduct a major amphibious assault on the Greek base on Nisos Leros Island (İleryoz Ada in Turkish) near Turkey. Air assets were to be mobilized to boost that impression. The plan was intended to precipitate a change in the Greek navy’s level of alertness, resulting in a panicked response, stated Col. Murat Saka, the planning project officer, in a document submitted to a court.

Prosecutors believe the Oraj plan was cooked up by Bilgin Balanlı, who was air marshal at the time and in line to become head of the Turkish Air Forces before his dreams were shattered by his arrest in 2011. He was given orders to do so by former Air Force Commander Gen. İbrahim Fırtına, who was the commander of the War Academies in 2003.

The ringleaders were the heads of the three commands in 2003 — Gen. Çetin Doğan of the İstanbul-based 1st Army Command, Gen. Fırtına and Adm. Özden Örnek of the Naval Forces Command — all of whom were later convicted but saved by Erdoğan in a secret deal. Unlike Operation Northwoods, some parts of the Oraj plan had already started to be implemented. For example, a confidential memo written by Navy Col. Cem Gürdeniz in February 2003 discussed increasing flights over the Aegean Sea as part of the Oraj plan. It also said the harassment of Turkish fighter jets by Greek aircraft and their prevention from undertaking given tasks would be brought to the attention of the public through the media.

After reading the indictment, I checked public records to determine whether they matched the details of these plans, and it turned out the actual timeline of events corresponds with the steps explained in the Oraj plan. According to a January 2004 report in the Greek Eleftheros Typos newspaper, there was a huge spike in the number of alleged violations of Greek airspace by Turkish fighter jets in that period. In 2003, there were a total of 3,900 violations committed by Turkish aircraft, up from 3,200 in 2002. In contrast, the preceding years saw a lower number of violations. In 2000 this figure was 398 and in 2001 it was 957. In 2003, when the Oraj plan was active, 1,020 incidents of dogfights between Greek and Turkish fighter jets were reported.

From the press coverage back in those years, it was clear that Greece was understandably upset over the unprecedented number of violations, prompting Athens to raise the issue with Ankara.

Frustrated by the lack of progress on the issue, Greek government spokesman Hristos Proropapas in October 2003 said: “Many circles both in Athens and Ankara do not want the violations to continue. But there are generals sitting in Ankara.” He was pointing the finger at the untouchable generals who secretly launched the plans. Perhaps Greek intelligence was even made aware of the plots in the 2003/04 period by its allies or found out on its own.

All indications suggested Greece knew something different was in play and suspected foul play on the Turkish side. It marshaled its diplomatic corps, even instructing its ambassador Michalis Christidis to hold a press conference in Ankara in June 2003 to share his government’s concerns directly with the Turkish public. Stressing that Greece had taken note of an unusual increase in the number of violations over the Aegean, the ambassador underlined that there was a qualitative change in the way these violations had occurred. “Most of the Turkish fighters were armed. Two-thirds of the violations happened within six miles of Greek airspace, and some of them were committed very close to residential areas,” he said.

These conspiracy plans were eventually thwarted because one man, Chief of General Staff Gen. Hilmi Özkök, was very much opposed to raising tension with Greece. He even gave an interview to Greek newspaper Eleftherotypia in October 2003 to ease Greek concerns. Erdoğan was weak in the government but was helped out by NATO, especially by the US, as well as by the European Union with the preparations of launching official membership talks with Turkey. Turkish media had been scrutinizing the actions of the military, and the judiciary was relatively independent with the rule of law still in place despite serious shortcomings.

Now the political calculations have changed dramatically. Erdoğan is leading the charge against NATO, bashing the allies all the time as if he were the unofficial spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin to discredit and undermine the NATO alliance. His media machinery is busy making a case that Turkey should exit NATO and deny access to the US and other NATO allies to bases in Turkey including İncirlik, where the US-led anti-ISIL coalition is based. He thinks belligerence with Greece will secure him his imperial presidency by attracting more votes under a pumped-up nationalistic euphoria. The neo-nationalists in the Turkish military for whom there is no love lost with NATO have a completely free hand to do as they please. The EU is in disarray and lacks the political determination to really tackle Turkey. Brussels has been busy for some time now with appeasement rather than a real engagement that requires playing hardball at times, especially on economic leverage.

More importantly, the Turkish judicial and police investigators who exposed these conspiracies in the first place and prevented the plans from reaching full operation capacity have been purged by Erdoğan as part of his deal with the neo-nationalists, led by the staunchly anti-Western and xenophobic Doğu Perinçek. Tens of thousands of judges, prosecutors, military, police and intelligence officers were dismissed, and many were arrested on trumped-up charges. Checks and balances in Turkey’s security apparatus are completely gone. On top of that, the media is totally controlled by Erdoğan and his partners. According to a Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) report issued last week, 191 journalists have been jailed with additional 92 being sought for an arrest in Turkey. It is a world record by any measure. Close to 200 media outlets were shut down arbitrarily by the government as well. Therefore, no independent media is left to scrutinize government actions and expose these plots.

A more dangerously combustible mix is now seen in controlling the levers of power in Turkey, which is ready to engage in hostilities with Greece to gain favors on the home front. Greece has more reasons to be worried today about Erdoğan’s ambitions.

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