The Conquest Verse and downward spiral in Turkey-Greece ties

Relations between Turkey and the European Union may indeed be back on track, but which track is that exactly? Just when I had given credit to EU-Turkey rapprochement, despite my usually pessimistic self, the usual flare-ups with Greece started up again.

Relations between Turkey and the European Union may indeed be back on track, but which track is that exactly? Just when I had given credit to EU-Turkey rapprochement, despite my usually pessimistic self, the usual flare-ups with Greece started up again.

Can there be an EU-Turkey rapprochement despite Ankara’s “troubles” with Athens?

As Turkey declares “victory” in its war against the coronavirus, one of the designated venues to celebrate was the Hagia Sophia. On the day of the “Conquest of Istanbul,” May 29, mosques across Turkey were opened up for prayers and the “Conquest Verse” from the Quran was recited at the Hagia Sophia. The “Fall of Constantinople” or the “Conquest of Istanbul” — which term you use depends on your viewpoint — occurred 567 years ago, and one would presume that both Greece and Turkey should be past whatever happened between the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires in 1453. But when things start go haywire between Turkey and Greece, things really go haywire in a downward spiral. 

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) likes toying with the “prayer in Hagia Sophia” theme, simply because it is politically lucrative. And if in the recent weeks, issues like the targeting of LGBTI people by top religious officials and the broadcast of “Ciao Bella” from the mosques of İzmir are occurring, then this must have to do with luring conservative voters back to the AKP. In other words, reciting the “Conquest Verse” at the Hagia Sophia has more to do with domestic politics than annoying Greece.

To recap, let’s recall the string of events that have happened since late April:

“The head of Turkey’s top religious authority has once again targeted LGBT individuals during a sermon. ‘Islam curses homosexuality. What is the reason of that? The reason is that it brings with it illnesses and decay to lineage,’ Ali Erbaş said on April 24, while addressing the novel coronavirus outbreak. Last year, Erbaş had claimed that the pride march ‘goes against creation,’ calling same-sex relations ‘heresy’.”

“The Italian resistance song ‘Bella Ciao’ was on May 20 broadcast simultaneously from several mosque minarets in Turkey’s western province of İzmir. The provincial religious directorate issued a statement regarding this unusual recital saying their central adhan system had been sabotaged by unidentified people.”

And last but not least came the Hagia Sophia saga on May 29:

“The Greek Foreign Ministry has denounced a decision by Turkey that verses of the Quran be recited at the Byzantine-era cathedral Hagia Sophia on the anniversary of the fall of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) in 1453 as an ‘unacceptable attempt to alter the site’s designation as monument’ and as an ‘affront to the religious sentiment of Christians throughout the world.’”

Undecided voters are on the rise in Turkey according to polls, and almost half of them are conservative and from the former AKP base. You do the math on why, all of a sudden, these aforementioned types of events that stoke conservative sentiment have been popping up.

But Ankara is doing other things too, much to the dismay of Greece. 

On the other hand, Turkey instrumentalizes Navigational Telex (Navtex) to designate certain waters in Aegean as “restricted” to conduct military exercises and carry out other military-related actions. In return, the Greek Navy does the same from time to time. All of this turns into a high-tension chess game between the two “NATO allies.” Add Frontex and NATO vessels to the mix and it gets really spicy. 

On May 29 (the day of the Hagia Sophia saga), Turkey’s message from Navtex had embedded symbolism, as four areas were marked as restricted to the South of Crete with the names “Ne”, “Mutlu”, “Türküm”, “Diyene” — meaning “Happy is the one who says I am a Turk.” This is the famous motto taken from the 10th Anniversary Speech of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. On the same day, the hydrocarbon research vessel “Oruç Reis” was spotted within the boundaries of Greece’s continental shelf. Greek frigate HS Nikiforos Fokas was dispatched to the area to monitor its activity, but Oruç Reis returned back “due to bad weather.”

As might be guessed, the news circulated in Turkish media with many jingoistic adornments. So, there was something for everyone when it came to domestic audiences in regards to the ruling AKP: Hagia Sophia prayer for conservatives and Navtex messages laden with symbolism for nationalists.

On a more serious note, on May 30, the Turkish Official Gazette outlined sections of 24 blocks in the Aegean where it will conduct hydrocarbon exploration. These sections overstep the contentious maritime borders agreement signed last November between Turkey and the Tripoli-based government in Libya. They are within or beyond 6 nautical miles of the coasts of eastern Crete (Girit), extending to Kasos, Karpathos (Kerpe) and Rhodes (Rodos), and overlap with the Greek continental shelf. 

The nautical sections are carved in a way that makes clear that Ankara is reiterating its position that the Greek islands cannot claim a continental shelf, and that they have the sovereignty over just six nautical miles of territorial waters. The publication of this news in the Official Gazette was followed by the consignment of those blocks to the Turkish Petroleum Corporation (Türk Petrol Ofisi-TPAO). And more Navtexs will surely follow — maybe with ever more creative and inflammatory restricted area names. Beyond this hydrocarbon business and the adding of fuel to the old “continental shelf in Aegean” feud between Greece and Turkey, all this is evidently about proceeding with the implementation of the border deal with Libya. 

Greek sources brand these developments as the “realization of their worst case” scenario. 

As if we needed more stress with the “Corona Crisis” still unfolding with its health, economic, social and political implications, we have now a “worst-case scenario” possibility between Greece and Turkey. 

Until Germany becomes president of the European Union Council in July, we may see a further rise in tensions in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara may be calculating these moves as utilitarian bargaining chips to order to assert loudly that “I am here, we’ll have it my way” in course of rapprochement with the EU. After all, some rapprochements consist of shaking cold hands.  

September 29, 2021 A post-Merkel Turkey