Under Recep Tayyip Erdogan's administration, Turkey has taken on an increasingly autarchic character, using Islamist motifs and carefully-calculated symbolic moves to mobilize Muslims at home and beyond. Turkey's ambition is to appear as the leader of Muslims.
That posturing, combined with a dispute over territorial waters, has Erdogan threatening Greece despite both countries' memberships in NATO. Erdogan is openly threatening Greece, and Islamist mercenaries he backed in Syria say they're ready to repay the favor by doing what Erdogan wants with Greece.
Military adventurism has been a key element in this campaign. Turkey has supported Islamist groups during the Syrian civil war, among them the Islamic State, and at times, factions of the Free Syrian Army, a coalition including hard-core Islamist groups, such as the radical Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra. Turkey has used Islamist groups not only in Syria, but also in Libya against the Libyan National Army under General Haftar, in an interplay of geopolitics and militant ideology. Turkey provides continued military and operational support to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) that is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Turkey's support for the GNA and interference in Libya is the product of many factors. On the ideological level, Turkey continues its support for regimes affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood to maintain a possible political influence in Islamic countries. On the strategic level, Turkey signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Libya last November that would allow gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean Greek economic zone (EEZ). The United States called the deal "provocative" and a threat to the stability of the region in part because it pits two NATO countries against each other.
The MOU strangely omits the existence of Megisti, a strategically-located island at the easternmost part of Greek territory. Crete, one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean, lies right between Turkey and Libya.
With its presence in Libya, Turkey now controls the central Mediterranean route of migrant flows and it already controls the land routes. This reality gives Turkey diplomatic leverage over Italy and Malta, which don't want to see waves of new refugees. It also creates a strategic beachhead oriented against its great antagonist Middle East influence, Egypt. Finally, on an economic level, Turkey's interference in Libya is related to its investments there.
Turkey has systematically recruited Syrian jihadists as mercenaries, sending between 5,000-15,000 warriors to fight in Libya. Turkey ferried them to Libya in chartered jets, while weapons were transferred by aircraft and ships. Turkish strategic use of jihadists abroad was recently confirmed by the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), which estimates that Turkey sent 3,000 Syrian mercenaries to fight for Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) in just the first quarter of 2020.
Erdogan's support for Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, is an essential part of Erdogan's push to be seen as a global Muslim leader. Turkish leadership presents Hamas as a resistance movement defending Palestinians against Israel. Turkey gives financial aid to Hamas in Gaza and has also provided passports to Hamas members.
Erdogan's Turkey's relations with the Muslim Brotherhood are also documented in testimony before the U.S. Senate. The Muslim Brotherhood "has sustained defeats before, partially by finding bases elsewhere," Hudson Institute scholar Hillel Fradkin told a 2018 House subcommittee hearing. "In the 1960s this meant Saudi Arabia; today it means Turkey and Qatar."
The latest episode of Turkish support of Hamas unfolded last month, when Erdogan received Hamas officials who are Specially Designated Global Terrorists. Erdogan met with Hamas senior political leader Ismail Haniyeh, deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri, and an accompanying delegation. Both men are wanted by the U.S. as Specially Designated Global Terrorists. Al-Arouri is wanted for financial transfers to Hamas; he is also alleged to have orchestrated the gruesome June 2014 abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank.
Now reports indicate that Syrian Islamists, an expendable demographic base of warriors for the promotion of Turkey's regional policies, could be strategically used against another target. This time the target is not a war-torn state, such as Syria, Iraq or Libya, but neighboring Greece, a European Union and NATO member.
Greece is a Western state with Christian population, and the notion of jihad could be manipulated to provoke Islamist elements. Turkey aims to become a regional hegemon in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Greece, an advanced Western country with participation in EU decision-making, is Turkey's only neighbor that can cause considerable military damage to Turkey.
A longstanding rivalry between Greece and Turkey, both NATO members since 1952, intensified after Turkey's 1974 invasion and occupation of Cyprus, an independent state with a 78 percent ethnic Greek majority and a Turkish minority. Turkey also has repeatedly violated Greek airspace.
Tensions at Sea
Turkey has threatened Greece with war if it extends its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles in the Aegean Sea, as a 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea grants it the power to do. Turkey is one of few states not to sign the treaty.
Tension between the two countries has reached a new climax, and escalated in March, with Turkey using mass migration as a weapon against Greek and EU territorial sovereignty. Until the coronavirus outbreak, Greece faced an unprecedented, mass movement of illegal migrants instigated by Turkish authorities. Tens of thousands of migrants who had spent years in Turkey were loaded onto buses which took them to the Greek border. Some attacked Greek policemen, border guards and military personnel. In one month there were 52,000 attempts to enter illegally Greek territory. The EU supported Greece's defense of European borders by providing funding and border guards, while some EU member-states, such as Austria and Poland, dispatched personnel and vehicles to safeguard the EU-Turkey border on the Greek side.
In addition, several military stand-offs in the Mediterranean Sea took place last month near Greek islands when the Turkish research vessel Oruc Reis attempted to approach Greek territorial waters, thus violating Greek sovereignty. It returned to Turkey earlier this month. In August, Erdogan threatened that Greece will pay a "heavy price" if the Oruc Reis was confronted. If Greece does not accept bilateral talks with Turkey on energy cooperation, he repeated, it will face "painful experiences."
Turkish research vessels also violate the territorial waters of Cyprus, another EU member-state. French President Emmanuel Macron has called for sanctions against Turkey, saying it is "not acceptable for the maritime space of a European Union member state to be violated or threatened." The EU adopted sanctions against Turkey last year over its unauthorized gas drilling in Cypriot waters. Now the EU may extend sanctions against Turkey in meetings next week dedicated solely to Turkish provocations in the Eastern Mediterranean.
According to Turkish media reports, Islamists active in Syria have declared their willingness to fight Greece under Turkish military command. In a Twitter message, Syrian jihadist Suheil Mohammad Hammoud said that, "the time has come to repay our debt towards our Turkish brothers who became martyrs in our territory. If they tell me 'Will you go on the frontier with Greece to fight?' the answer shall be Yes!"'
"Turkey fought for our freedom and offered martyrs," Hammoud said. "We are always ready for the task." He is referring to the origin of many foreign fighters of the Islamic State and other Islamist organizations from Turkey and the aid Turkey offered to the groups of the Free Syrian Army.
Hammoud, also known as Abu TOW for his expertise with anti-tank systems, told Al-Monitor that he has destroyed 70 Syrian government targets. These targets included planes, tanks, armored vehicles and machine guns.
Hammoud is a member of the Free Syrian Army's Hamza Special Forces Division, an elite group operating in Aleppo after the merger of five Free Syrian Army factions. The Free Syrian Army is a network of Syrian opposition forces aiming to overthrow the Assad regime. It has included radical elements, such as the jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra, while it maintained links to the Islamic State. Turkey trained and supplied the Hamza Division with weaponry. In return, the Hamza Division participated in Turkey's 2018 Olive Branch Operation, Turkey's invasion of the Afrin Region in northeast Syria. The operation sparked looting, murder and atrocities against the local Kurdish population.
Now Hammoud states that he would gladly serve under Turkish military commanders for an eventual operation on the Greek-Turkish Evros frontier in southeastern Europe.
This is a typical case of the use of Islamist fighters by a state actor that aspires to establish a military and political hegemonic presence, using militia in proxy operations against perceived enemy states. The prospect of Islamist mercenaries fighting for Turkey has sparked outrage in Greece. Greek officials, concerned about exacerbating the tensions, mostly have stayed quiet.
But concerns over Turkish aggressiveness against Greece and the European Union continue to grow. One cannot also discard the serious possibility that Islamist elements could be used to infiltrate migrant populations, which an official Islamic State memorandum shows has happened. Migrants carry their convictions with them, and some who fled Syria or Iraq were affiliated with Islamist groups.
Ioannis E. Kotoulas (Ph.D. in History, Ph.D. in Geopolitics) is Adjunct Lecturer in Geopolitics, University of Athens.
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