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The Strategic Significance of Greek Thrace: Current Dynamics and Emerging Factors

May 26, 2007


By Ioannis Michaletos and Christopher Deliso

Strategic Geography: an Overview

Greece‘s northeastern province of Thrace has historically played a very significant strategic role in terms of economy and defense. The great Roman trade route, the Via Egnatia, spanning the southern Balkans from east to west, passed across it; for the Byzantines and later the Ottomans, Thrace was the gateway to Constantinople, to be defended at all costs. The extensive and fertile Thracian plains, most of which are now concentrated in Turkish Thrace, were known as “the breadbasket of Constantinople’ for the grains crops they supplied to the capital.

From the perspective of modern Greece, looking from the other direction of course, Thrace is strategically significant as the only land route through which Turkey could attack with infantry in the case of an invasion. During Communism, Greece also had to keep a wary eye on Bulgaria, which lies to the north and also possesses a portion of the geographical region of Thrace. However, with the end of the Soviet threat and the absorption of Bulgaria into the European Union, that threat has evaporated and Greece no longer has to look to secure its northern flank (save for possible infiltration from human traffickers and so on).

In some ways, this strategic geography of Greek Thrace makes it easier to defend, since forces are now concentrated on the eastern front at the long Turkish border, which generally hugs the River Evros. To the north, the rolling Rhodope Mountains make up most of the natural border with Bulgaria. To the south is the north Aegean Sea; south and southwest in this sea lie the strategic islands of Samothraki, Thasos and, further on, Limnos, which has a major military presence. In the west Thrace borders on the Greek province of Macedonia.

Thus while command-and-control and military intelligence operations are staggered throughout western, central and eastern Thrace, the largest concentration of Greek land forces and military equipment are located in the Evros prefecture. Along with the Evros river system and the Arda River, running southwest through Kastanies, and the Erythropotamos, 39 km south and running southwest through the major military town of Didymoteihon. The landscape of Evros consists of rolling hills and plains, much like the Turkish side, and is complemented by a vast swamp — the Evros River Delta — that is a protected environmental refuge for birds, as well as a buffer with Turkey, east of Alexandroupolisand south of Feres. An appreciation of this geography helps to understand the factors at play in any future military confrontation between the two Balkan rivals.

Tensions Rising

At the moment, the perennial tensions between Greece and Turkey have been rising over Turkish opposition to offshore oil drilling in the divided island of Cyprus, a major ally of Greece. In April, reported that the Greek military was preparing for possible Turkish provocations in the eastern Aegean, most probably involving the violation of what Greece perceives to be its airspace, by Turkish fighter jets. The projections then indicated a likely timeframe of May 20-July 20 for such incidents to occur.

New information recently received from Greek sources also attests that the Greek services, particularly signals intelligence, have been working “round the clock to predict the Turkish military’s next move. While much of the government’s attention is obviously being focused on the eastern Aegean islands bordering Anatolia, troops in Thrace have gone on “high alert,” with the usual 30,000-strong troop number having been buttressed by as many as 30,000 additional soldiers, according to one high-level source.

byzantinecastlepythiobalkanalysis350.jpgThe 14th-century Byzantine hilltop castle of Pythio, with its commanding views of the Evros border, attests to the historically strategic nature of the region (Photo: Christopher Deliso)

This source adds that, in the estimation of the Greek military, “Turkey may try a contained conflict — we expect one to three days’ fighting at the most…  they could not sustain a month’s war, because of the certain international outcry.”

Both Turkey and Greece are NATO members and strong American allies, and while the US is more than happy to sell billions of dollars of military equipment to both, it prefers that they do not use them on one another.

Dynamics of any Military Confrontation in Thrace

While Greece is most concerned about the Turkish air force and the Aegean islands, it is, as has been said, also concentrating on bolstering its troop levels in Thrace. Despite the obvious disparities between the two countries, it is interesting to note some factors which make this front advantageous for the smaller country.

First of all, Greek Thrace is encircled by high mountains and numerous hills, where observation for the movement of the opponent is easier, as well as launching an attack. Since it seems unlikely that Greece would attack first, the Turkish army must first cross the River Evros, and pass through the long line of trees that flank it. Even during summer, when the river is low, it is still 3-6 meters in depth and up to 150 meters in width. Therefore, the Turkish Army would have great difficulty in crossing the river without being locked down by the entrenched Greek artillery, and of course without being severely damaged during the operation.

Secondly, Greek soldiers serving in Thrace, far from the comforts of major urban areas, are considered to be the most hardened, because of the pressure of being on a hostile border and the constant exercises and troop movements this entails. By contrast, the Turkish troops serving across the River Evros are considered among the more privileged, because Istanbul is just a few hours distant and the major alternatives to service on the Greek border- fighting the Kurdish anti-guerrilla war in the southeast or being stationed on the Iranian, Iraqi or Syrian borders — are seen as far less desirable.

In many respects, the Thracian frontier in relation to military operations is similar to that of the WWII Eastern European front between Germany and Russia. It is composed of rivers, swamps, plains and some hills and mountains. The decisive factor for a victory would thus be tank units and the artillery. Both armies are heavily equipped, and there are more Greek and Turkish soldiers in both sides of the border (30-60,000 Greeks and 80,000 Turks) than the forces of all the other Balkan states put together. ) In essence, Thrace must be the most heavily militarized region in the Balkans, even more than Kosovo. The sheer size of armaments is overwhelming for such a small area. As such, the Greek military and related contractors provide enormous economic benefit for a rural hinterland that would otherwise be forgotten and that does not figure strongly on the tourist map.

Fighting between Greece and Turkey in Thrace would be more likely during spring and summer, as during autumn there is heavy flooding, while winters are especially snowy and cold. It is unlikely troops could be easily mobilized in such weather, and especially tanks and vehicles.

Key Non-Military Emerging Factors in the Strategic Geography of Greek Thrace

In addition to the pre-existing north-south road and rail network hugging the River Evros, Greece has undertaken two major infrastructure projects designed to enhance the prominence of Thrace and to make securing its future an issue of shared international concern.

The first key project was the re-creation of the ancient Via Egnatia, a modern, 680-km Egnatia Odos highway which runs from the Turkish border to the Ionian Sea port of Igoumenitsa, a major ferry and shipping hub to Italy and the West. Along the way, the highway passes through the Greek provinces of Thrace, Macedonia and Epiros. All in all, it serves six airports, four ports and 322 communities. Owing to the very serious engineering challenges presented by formidable mountain ranges along the route, however, the highway is still not completed. Optimistic projections have the Via Egnatia as being completed by October 2008, though this may well turn out to be impossible.

The Egnatia Odos highway project will halve the driving time across northern Greece, making the drive from Turkey to the Ionian Sea possible in under seven hours. In the process, the geographically challenging region will become more closely integrated within the rest of Greece, ending its relative isolation, bolstering local economies and enhancing tourism. In the new northern Greece, military confrontation will become incrementally less acceptable to an international community that will have a greater stake in its security.

A more specific project carried out at the level of high-stakes international politics is the proposed 279-km Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline, connecting the former, a Bulgarian Black Sea port, with the latter port on the northeastern Aegean. The key third party in the one-billion-dollar project is oil supplier Russia. Despite the controversy this project has sparked, particularly among image-conscious tourism operators and environmentalists concerned about the pipeline’s proximity to the environmentally sensitive Evros Delta and several forests, the Greek government has pushed hard for the pipeline. To a certain kind of thinking, getting major oil internationals and superpowers like Russia financially involved in a petroleum route that hugs the Thracian border with Turkey would be a major deterrent to any future Turkish invasion.

didymoteihonbalkanalysis300.jpgDidymoteihon, situated near the confluence of the rivers Erythropotamos and Evros (behind the dark row of trees) is a vital border military garrison (Photo: Christopher Deliso)

If Greece can achieve the Burgas-Alexandroupoli pipeline, and if Cyprus can at the same time get oil majors committed to offshore oil projects near its disputed territory, it will be a major double blow to the Turkish military’s current ability to threaten destabilization on its western border.

In this context, the anticipated brief military confrontation this summer might well be Turkey’s final opportunity to use its military machine as a lever of power, and could indeed signal the decline of the army in affairs of state- something which the European Union has long been calling for, and which is once again an issue as Turkey prepares for July 22 parliamentary elections.

Appendix: Greek Military Forces in Thrace (from official published sources)

In contrast with the rest of Greece; Thrace is always on high military alert, even more so than the eastern Aegean islands. ) Some 7-8 percent of male civilians residing permanently in Thrace are called up each year for a short period, usually of 10 days or so; the call-up rate is 2 percent in the rest of the country. Further, Thrace sees a continuous flow of personnel and equipment from the other parts of Greece, and every 2 months all units exit the barracks for major training in the countryside, along with regular weekly training programs.

While conscripts usually serve in Thrace for around 9 months, over the past decade professional soldiers have more and more frequently been sent there for at least three years. Around 20-25% of the total personnel of privates are professional, while 70% of the NCO’s and of 90% of the officers are also.

Interestingly, young conscripts from the indigenous Muslim Turk and Pomak minorities tend to be sent elsewhere in Greece for their military service, such as Crete or Athens. The Pomaks serve traditionally in the navy, most of them based in Athens.

Force Strengths and Locations

4th Army Corps: contains around 30,000 personnel, with capacity to triple in numbers in case of mobilization; based in Xanthi.

12th Mechanized Infantry Division (XII ˆšÃ©Â¬Ãº/ˆšÃ©Â¬Ã¶ ˆšÃ©Â¬ÃºˆšÃ©  ), based at Alexandroupoli. Operational Staff which includes:

7th Mechanized Infantry Brigade Sarantaporos; based at Lykofos

31st Mechanized Infantry Brigade Kamia: based at Feres

Tactical Command/41st Infantry Regiment: based on Samothraki Island, North Aegean

3rd Armored Cavalry Battalion Division Artillery Command and units

16th Mechanized Infantry Division: based at Didimoteiho

Operational Staff includes:

3rd Mechanized Infantry Brigade Rimini:  based at Orestiada

30th Mechanized Infantry Brigade Tomoritsa: based at Lagos

Tactical Command/21st Infantry Regiment Drama: based at Orestiada

4th Armored Cavalry Battalion Division Artillery Command and units

20th Armored Division: based at Kavala (province of Macedonia)

Op. Staff which includes:

21st Armored Brigade Cavalry Brigade Pindus: based at Komotini

23rd Armored Brigade 3rd Cavalry Regiment Dorylaeon: based at Alexandroupoli

25th Armored Brigade 2nd Cavalry Regiment Ephesus: based at Xanthi

Division Artillery Command and units

50th Independent Mechanised Infantry Brigade: based at Soufli

29th Infantry Brigade Pogradets: based at Komotini

1st Artillery Regiment-MLRS: based at Drama (province of Macedonia)

1st Communications, EW Surveillance Regiment: based at Xanthi

Corps Field and Air Defense Artillery Command and units

Corps Engineer Command and units

Tanks: Leopard 2A4, Leopard 1A5, Leopard 1GR, M48MOLF, approximately 200 units and Leopard 2HEL on delivery


Thrace‘s rolling Rhodope Mountains make up the natural border with Bulgaria to the north (Photo: Christopher Deliso)

Armored vehicles: Marder1A3, BMP-1, Leonidas-2, M113, M109, VBL Panhard, Hummer, some 500 units

Artillery: 18 M270 MLRS (12x227mm) and an unknown number of RM-70 (40x122mm), 12? PzH 2000 (155mm) and an unknown number of other artillery units of 155, 105 and 203mm.

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