As the coup attempt was crumbling in the early hours of July 16, 2016, it must have come across as unimaginable to Greek officials that soldiers who have been trained to see Greeks as enemies would flee to “hostile territory.”
Yet the eight Turkish soldiers, including three majors, three captains and two sergeant majors, flew to Greece by helicopter, in what has become the start of a process that would give Alexis Tsipras’ government a huge headache.
“First of all, why did we let the helicopter in? Wasn’t there any way to keep it out? We all knew during those days that there was a lot of activity and that there was a possibility of this,” journalist Alexis Papahelas had asked Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias in an interview last February.
This is what Kotzias had to say: “I think that if the competent authorities in northern Greece over which the helicopter flew had known who was in the helicopter and what would happen, they wouldn’t have let it in. But I imagine they were taken by surprise by the fact that a helicopter landed on Greek territory and carried the eight officers, who consider themselves persecuted by the Turkish state. This was also the ruling of the Greek courts, while the Turkish state says they were involved in the coup.”
I am pretty sure that since that day the Tsipras government has been cursing against “those competent authorities in the north,” as it put them in a messy situation.
Ankara claims Tsipras promised President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that the soldiers will be extradited. But the Greek judiciary proved Tsipras wrong. It seems that Erdoğan trusts Tsipras and believes in his sincerity on his wish to have the soldiers extradited. How else can you explain his relative silence on Greece while he has been bashing other countries for not extraditing Gülenists? After all, the strongest case Turkey has is with these soldiers, who in the eyes of Turkish authorities have left the crime scene and turned themselves into Greece with a smoking gun in their hands.
Even the decision of the Greek supreme court’s ruling against the extradition in January 2017 did not strain relations as much as one would expect. In fact, this issue did not even overshadow Erdoğan’s visit to Greece in the first week of last December.
Yet the decision to grant asylum to one of the soldiers on the last week of December was not something the Greek or Turkish authorities wanted to hear. His release and departure from Greece for another country, like Germany, would have caused irreparable damage on bilateral ties. That’s why the Tsipras government acted quickly and requested the suspension of the decision, which was upheld by an appeals court.
The Greek government has said the issue is politically too important to be adjudicated by an administrative body.
Greece’s justice minister said Athens was looking into whether the soldiers could be tried in Greece.
Justice Minister Stavros Kontonis said Turkey would first need to make an official request for such a trial.
But the position of the Turkish government is clear; there will never be such request.
So what is going to happen next? “The Greek government bought some time,” a Turkish official familiar with the issue told me. But if trying the soldiers becomes the only way to prevent granting asylum, it will lead to a severe strain in relations. Can you imagine a Greek judge making a convincing case against Turkish soldiers? It will be perceived to be a charade by the Turks.
No doubt the mess has become messier for Athens.