Leadership: The Thousand Year War


May 3, 2009: For the last three decades, Greece and Turkey have been engaged in their own little cold war over Cyprus. But the roots of their conflict, and thus the mutual distrust and sometimes hatred between the two countries, goes back over a thousand years. The threat of an all-out conventional war between Greece and Turkey in the near future is somewhat unlikely, but the two nations are still enemies and age-old rivalries, like those in the Balkans of the 1990s, have a nasty habit of flaring up again at the blink of an eye. The potentially destructive results of such a confrontation are enhanced since the international community continues to sell both nations sophisticated military equipment. Whether these continued sales are a good idea depends on who is asked. Certainly both Greece and Turkey claim that continued procurement and development are necessary to their respective national security commitments.

The conflict over Cyprus was all about a Greece attempt to annex Cyprus in the 1970s, and their defeat by a Turkish invasion of the island. The Cyprus incident itself is only one small addition to the collection of conflicts between Greek and Turk, and certainly not the most bitter of recent confrontations. Certainly the defeat in Cyprus was difficult to stomach, but it was less intense than other wars. If anything, the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish War is the more important of the 20thcentury conflicts and more integral to understanding why the Greeks feel so much cultural antagonistic towards the Turkish Republic. After World War I, the Allies had promised Greece an large expansion of territory which included Ottoman Empire lands, effectively an attempt to partition the Empire. The Ottoman Empire effectively collapsed and was being divided up between the triumphant Allies, eager for victors’ justice.

One of the primary motivations for the Greek expansion into Turkish homelands in Anatolia was the idea of the Megali, or Greater Greece. This idea is essentially the same as the concept of the Greater Serbia that fueled the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. The goal is to expand Greek territory into all areas in the Mediterranean with significant Greek populations. Unfortunately for the Greeks, the idea was not achieved and, furthermore, the Greeks suffered a bitter and devastating defeat at the hands of Turkish troops, led by former Ottoman general Kemal Ataturk, who later founded the modern state of Turkey. The war cost Greece extremely heavy casualties, no territorial gains, and forced them to return to their pre-conflict borders, and undertake an exchange of peoples between the two countries. The war was the most humiliating defeat in 20th century Greek military history. This is something the Greeks have never forgotten or forgiven, no matter how much diplomatic progress is made in warming relations between the two countries. Even changes in Greek history textbooks several years ago, that presented a more positive image of Turkey, aroused bitter controversy in the Hellenic Republic, effectively dividing the country into two camps (moderates and nationalists). Ultranationalist attitudes towards the Turks no longer hold an all-consuming grip on the country, but it remains a major part of Greek society that is unlikely to go away anytime soon. 

The military buildup itself is of concern. Things are different now, compared to 30, or even 80, years ago. For one thing, the Greeks have a well-trained, well-equipped military that is more than capable of holding its own against the Turks. The Greek military today is  certainly more competent than the forces facing the Turks during the 1974 Cyprus crisis. The Greek Army contains around 200,000 active soldiers and can mobilize 300,000 reserve troops. Finances are more disparate and this is one of the major advantages the Turks have over their Hellenic rivals. The Greek annual military budget is almost $10 billion, compared to the more than $30 billion Turkish budget. The Greeks are outnumbered on the ground, where 515,000 Turks confront 400,000 Greeks. To make up for their deficiency in numbers, the Greeks maintain high standards of training and discipline and maintain several excellent special forces formations. Greece has evolved into a regional military power in its own right that is definitely to be reckoned with. 

The more worrying aspect of the conflict is the fact that both sides are well-equipped with high-tech arms that the world community continues to sell Greece and Turkey. This is a unique situation in terms of the nation-state standoffs going on in the world. For example, South Korea and North Korea have been, technically, at war for more than half a century, but the North’s capabilities for waging war have declined because of aging equipment, a wrecked economy, and famine. A similar situation exists between Syria and Israel, with the mighty IDF possessing the best weaponry on the market and first-class training, and the Syrians still struggling to modernize their own forces on a meager budget. 

Nations continue to sell both Greece and Turkey weapons because neither country is considered by the UN to be a rogue or outlaw nation. Both countries are very pro-Western, maintain relatively good diplomatic relations with the rest of the world, and are, all things considered, not regarded as tyrannical dictatorships bent on regional hegemony. Turkey and Greece maintain, at least for the moment, stable democratic societies, further improving their image on the world stage. Because of this, they get a free hand in procuring equipment.

Despite the seeming detent between the two countries, the standoff between the two countries continues, as a somewhat worried international community looks on. Nonetheless, arms companies continue to sell, both countries continue to buy, and neither side fully trusts each other yet. 


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