Just as we breathed a sigh of relief that the activities of Turkey’s new drilling ship Abdulhamid Han has not caused a further crisis or muddied the waters of the Mediterranean, this time it was Greece that stirred up the waters in Turkish-Greek relations. Throughout last week, the Turkish Armed Forces reported three incidents where Greek air elements harassed Turkish F-16s by “radar locking”. Radar locking means completion of all procedures to hit a target from acquiring the target from the radar range to fire the missile accurately at it. An aircraft as well as radars of surface-to-air missiles (SAM) can place a lock on an aircraft. If the lock is placed by a target detection radar, it is not possible for pilots to detect whether a missile has been triggered. There is an obligation to act according to the worst-case scenario.
S-300 accusation leveled at Greece
In fact, such incidents between the Turkish and Greek air forces have taken place many times before in the Aegean. However, the Turkish F-16s harassed over the high seas last week were carrying out a NATO mission.
Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar appeared on television and said that the F-16s were put under the radar lock of S-300 missile defense systems stationed in Crete. As you will recall, the S-300s which the Greek Cypriot government bought from Russia in 1997, were deployed to the island of Crete in Greece in 1999, under the pressure of Turkey and the direction of the United States. Kept in storage until 2013, the S-300s were used for the first time in a NATO exercise in 2013 to which military attachés in Greece were also invited.
It is all very well to claim that the S-300s are outdated models and that the S-400s pose a threat to the F-35, (leading to Turkey’s removal from the F-35’s production and sales plans), the question remains: Is Greece entitled to Russian missiles while Turkey is not?
Why is NATO silent?
With today’s technical facilities, it can be easily determined by whom and how an aircraft is harassed. It is uncommon in NATO’s history for a NATO member country to use a missile system procured from Russia to place a radar lock on another NATO country’s aircraft performing NATO missions, which is regarded as hostile behavior in NATO’s rules of engagement (encounter). It concerns NATO as much as Turkey and Greece.
It is thought-provoking that neither Greece nor NATO officials had made a statement denying Minister Akar as of Aug. 30. Were they planning to remain silent in the hope that Turkey’s accusation against Greece will be forgotten in time? I’m sure the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will follow up on this issue conveying it both to the USA and NATO.
Turkish-Greek problems in airspace
The main airspace-related problem between Turkey and Greece is the width of the airspace and the nature of the Flight Information Region (FIR). Greece claims 10 miles of airspace despite 6 miles of territorial waters, contrary to international law. It also considers the FIR as a sovereign zone and demands that any military aircraft entering the FIR, which is under the responsibility of Athens, provide a flight plan in advance.
Greece is not in a position to claim that its airspace was violated in the middle of the Mediterranean. At best, it can state that the Turkish F-16s did not fill in the flight plan, as an excuse for harassment. The Greek authorities’ statements that “We were not aware of the presence of Turkish planes in that area” suggest that they wanted to emphasize that no flight plan was conveyed.
We handed over the FIR to Greece
Unfortunately, Turkey, surrounded by seas on three sides, does not have a single FIR.
At the European Regional Meeting of the International Aviation Organization held in Istanbul in 1952, the Turkish government of the time presented the responsibility of the Aegean FIR to Athens on a silver platter. It is said that the Ministry of Finance of the time objected when the responsibility of the Aegean FIR was offered to Turkey, stating that “it is too trivial to spend money on.” Now, political advantages aside, Greece is printing money from the Athens FIR. It must be the definition of “a lack of vision”.
Mitsotakis may escalate tensions
In Greece, Prime Minister Kiryakos Mitsotakis is in a difficult situation. Inflation is approaching double digits, even though Greece IS not in a place to compete with Turkey on that. Gasoline and electricity prices are on the rise, rents are unaffordable. Greece is heavily dependent on foreign energy. It is not clear what kind of winter awaits Greece.
These are not unique to Greece, as Turkey also experiences similar problems, but the difference is in the difficult parliamentary structure. The revelation that the phones belonging to the leader of PASOK, the third largest party in the opposition, had been tapped in 2021 is causing a scandal. Despite the opposition of Mitsotakis, the Greek Parliament decided with an overwhelming majority to establish a commission to investigate this scandal.
One month after the 2023 elections in Turkey, there will be elections in Greece in July 2023.
I’m afraid Mitsotakis may want to return to the policy of creating tension with Turkey, which always attracts the attention of the Greek public, in order to change the agenda under these difficult conditions. We should not fall for this trap.