Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends the Teknofest Black Sea, an aviation, space and technology festival, at Carsamba Airport in Samsun, Turkey September 3, 2022. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

The Turks are used to criticism of Greece from their president. But what Recep Tayyip Erdogan had to say about the neighbor and NATO partner over the weekend surpasses all previous threats. Erdogan for the first time challenged Greek sovereignty over islands in the Aegean and Mediterranean and threatened a war of aggression to conquer the islands.

Erdogan swore his compatriots to a tough and costly fight against the West. Even nationalist Erdogan fans were surprised. “It’s the first time he’s spoken so openly,” said pro-government journalist Ibrahim Karagül.

For his threat, Erdogan chose to appear at an armaments exhibition on Saturday in Samsun on the Black Sea coast. When Erdogan entered the speaker’s platform in a red pilot’s jacket, tens of thousands of spectators cheered him on with Turkish flags.

The ongoing Turkish-Greek dispute over sovereignty claims in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean has escalated in recent days. According to Ankara, the Greek air defenses targeted Turkish warplanes during a reconnaissance flight near Rhodes. Turkey has therefore complained to NATO, but Athens rejects the accusation.

Anti-Greek saber-rattling can be heard more often than usual from Turkish politicians: On August 30, Turkey marked the centenary of a victory over the Greek army in western Anatolia; the Greeks had to withdraw from Anatolia at that time.

September 9, 1922 marks the anniversary of the conquest of the coastal town of Smyrna (now Izmir) by the Turkish army. Tens of thousands of Greeks, Armenians and Jews died when the city burned down. A year later, modern Turkey was formed. “Hey Greek, remember history,” Erdogan said on Saturday, referring to the Greek defeat a hundred years ago. “If you go much further, you will pay a high price.” He addressed only one sentence to Greece: “Don’t forget Izmir.”

Erdogan also addressed the Turkish-Greek dispute over dozens of islands in the Aegean and Mediterranean. These are Lesvos, Chios, Samos and Ikaria off Turkey’s west coast, as well as the Dodecanese islands, which are also close to Turkey’s coast and belong to Greece – the largest of which is Rhodes.

According to Turkey, Greece is violating the conditions under which it had received the islands after the world wars by stationing troops. Erdogan had already threatened the Greeks with war in June. “The fact that you have occupied the islands does not tie our hands,” Erdogan said to the Greeks, signaling that he no longer recognized Greek sovereignty over the islands.

“When the time and hour come, we will do what is necessary,” he added. “As we always say: One night we can come without warning.” With this sentence, Erdogan had previously announced military interventions in Syria and Iraq, which then took place.

Erdogan accused the US, the leading NATO power, of supplying Greece with weapons. In addition, Fethullah Gülen can live undisturbed in America; Erdogan has accused Gülen of orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt.

“We have to know very well who our friend is and who we have against us,” said the President, before he hit out at the West as a whole: countries that had “chained” Turkey in the past were waiting for a new opportunity to. “Our fight will be difficult and will require many sacrifices and will demand a price.” In the end, however, an indescribable success awaits Turkey.

Greece’s foreign ministry said Athens will brief allies and partners on the Turkish president’s “provocative” statements so that everyone knows who is acting “with dynamite against the cohesion of our alliance.” Athens Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis calls Turkey’s position in the dispute over the islands “absurd”. Germany and the EU had sided with Greece in the past few months.

In the Turkish primary campaign before the presidential and parliamentary elections next year, Erdogan is not only using anti-Western rhetoric to distract attention from the economic crisis in Turkey and current allegations of corruption against his advisors. The sharp tones to Greece and the US serve him to set an issue on which he sets the tone – and not the opposition.

Clashes with the West help him increase his approval ratings. In early summer, for example, after his threat to veto Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership, he gained momentum in the voters’ favour.