Turkey is a year away from presidential and parliamentary elections. Many Turks are starving. Literally. Their per capita GDP of around $9,500 has crushed many of them under a triple-digit inflation rate and a fast-depreciating national currency, while independent economists warn that this may be only the beginning of worse torment in a country of 84 million people, excluding 9 million refugees and migrants.
Many Turks, although starving, are nevertheless proud that they have a leader who can confront the "infidel West" -- including their traditional rival and neighbor, Greece. It is precisely this feeling that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose popularity has been plummeting in recent months, sees as a national weakness to stoke. Warmongering, the Islamist strongman evidently calculates, may convince the Turks to support revisionist bullying and ignore their misery.
Erdoğan, in this latest gamble, appears both right and wrong. He is right that his warmongering consolidates his grassroots supporters -- conservative Muslim and nationalist Turks, an unquestioning 20% of voters. But he is wrong that playing the regional neo-Ottoman bully will suffice to earn him a third term as president. Various opinion polls put his popularity at less than 30%, compared to the 52% with which he won re-election in 2018.
What should Erdoğan do, therefore, as former loyalists of his powerful Justice and Development Party (AKP) seem to be deserting en masse? Revisit the same pre-election political recipe that has worked numerous times before:
- Provoke tensions in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean Seas;
- Pray that Greek politicians feel compelled to reciprocate;
- Raise the stakes through inflammatory rhetoric;
- Provoke the Turks' anti-Hellenic sentiment, get national applause;
- Play the neo-Ottoman hero fighting the infidels;
- Pray that the US and EU join his theatrical production on Greece's side;
- Turn the whole play into a drama of Turks vs. infidel Westerners;
- Add some military fuel into the plot to provoke Turks' nationalist, militaristic feelings;
- Tell the Turks, "We are at near war with the infidel Westerners";
- In the final act, tell the Turks that their poverty is the result of Turkey's confrontation with the West and that "we all must pay this price for our independence."
Erdoğan has already set the stage for the new episode of his theatrical extravaganza. His coalition partner, ultranationalist leader Devlet Bahçeli, claimed that U.S. military bases in Greece pose a "direct threat" to Turkish security. That is nonsense. But more nonsensical than Bahçeli's comment was the universal silence. How could a peaceable NATO ally, Greece, pose a direct threat to another NATO member, Turkey, home to US military bases? Are US bases in Turkey a direct threat to Turkey?
In a June 9 speech, Erdoğan said that Greece should stop posting military personnel on its Aegean islands that have a demilitarized status under the 1923 Lausanne Treaty and 1947 Paris Treaty. He called on Athens to "avoid dreams, acts and statements that will result in regret, as it did a century ago, and to return to its senses," and invoked Turkey's war of independence in the early 1920s, when Turks defeated occupying powers, including Greece. Erdoğan did not mention that the same treaties also ban the militarization of Turkey's islands in the Aegean Sea and Turkey's Dardanelles and Bosporus straits.
Escalation was on the way. Earlier, Erdoğan announced that Turkey was halting all bilateral talks with Greece over a row with the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on what Ankara calls "airspace violations."
In this crescendo of Turkey's inflammatory rhetoric, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu played his part. He repeatedly said that if Athens persisted in militarizing its islands, Turkey would start questioning Greek sovereignty over them. Now we have casus belli in the plot.
The AKP's spokesman, Ömer Çelik, has also joined in the "we'll-soon-invade-the-islands" chorus as he threatened Greece with the "Turks suddenly coming one night."
Now it is time for the extras to play their parts. The Erdoğan-controlled media are running campaigns saying that 22 Greek islands in the Aegean Sea can be claimed by Turkey, and that Turkey has sovereignty over nine of them, including Samos, Lesbos, Chios, Limnos, Rhodes and Ikaria.
Fortunately, all these theatrics are about barking, not biting. Turkey does not have the political, military or economic might to invade a member of the EU, with the West watching. Turkey invading Greece is not Russia invading Ukraine. Erdoğan is a gambler who has used the same tactic for domestic consumption many times before. The ruse never ended up in a war across the Aegean. This one is no exception: Erdoğan, whatever he is, is not suicidal.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.