Capital Athens
Time Zone EET (GMT+2)
Country Code 30
Mobile Codes 690,693,694,695,697,698,699
ccTLD .gr
Currency Euro
Land Area 131,990 sq km
Population 11.3 million
Language Greek
Major Religion Orthodox Christianity

Review: Greek Military Intelligence and the Crescent

Greek Military Intelligence and the Crescent. Estimating the Turkish Threat- Crises, Leadership and Strategic Analysis, 1974-1996

By Panagiotis Dimitrakis

University of Plymouth Press (2010), 224 pp.

Reviewed by Chris Deliso

This comparative analytical work discusses two memorable showdowns between Greece and Turkey, events that exemplified both countries’ balance of power and political and military strategic capacities and goals in the late 20th-century. These affairs – the first, a war of words accompanied by military buildups in 1987 and the second, the much more serious Imia crisis of January 1996 – occurred in an environment in which some of the same conditions that applied then apply still now.

Analysts will thus find a wealth of useful insight in Greek Military Intelligence and the Crescent, which will help in assessing the Greek-Turkish relationship today. The book is, of course, also an engrossing read for the armchair historian or intelligence buff. The vivid recounting of the decision-making processes of Greek leaders, civilian and military intelligence, and the armed forces (particularly the Navy) is peppered with new commentary from former high-level officials who were active during the period in question, adding to the book’s appeal.


The author, Greek historian Panagiotis Dimitrakis, starts his study with an introduction discussing themes like ‘key concepts in military intelligence,’ ‘leadership and intelligence’ and ‘intelligence and crisis management.’ This is a rather theoretical approach, but unquestionably it elucidates topics that are crucial to the narrative of both the 1987 and 1996 events, and thus informs the rest of the text.

The introduction also gives a broad overview of the following six chapters which constitute the bulk of Greek Military Intelligence and the Crescent. Readers are thus made aware from the beginning of the overarching structure of the narrative, which fleshes out the concepts discussed in the introduction. Thus the book is of value both in the specific context of Greece and Turkey in the late 20th century, and in the general context of military intelligence and diplomacy at work. Conclusions can thus be applied or at least compared to other similar situations from elsewhere in the world. Indeed, the forward to Greek Military Intelligence and the Crescent is written by Sir Lawrence Freedman, Britain’s Official Historian of the Falklands War.

Historical Context: the Importance of Cyprus, the Continental Shelf and Diplomatic Projections

Dimitrakis illustrates from early on the importance Greek military planners gave to specific formative events and to political/diplomatic issues that posed the risk, in their view, of a violent confrontation. The former was of course the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, creating a military occupation that still shows no signs of ending today. The latter refers to diplomatically disputed issues in the eastern Aegean, chiefly concerning the validity of territorial waters as compared to the extent of islands and coastline, as well as the continental shelf. Both Greece and Turkey have made claims for what they believe to be their rightful property based on differing interpretations of the international laws, agreements and principles relating to this issue.

The Cyprus debacle deeply affected Greek military planners. It proved, for the first time, that NATO ally Turkey was prepared to violently take over a Greek-populated country, and could reasonably expect to survive whatever diplomatic fallout such a daring deed might cause. The events of summer 1974 also caught the Greeks totally by surprise. This was an embarrassment of the highest order, and it meant that in future Greek planners considered it necessary to expect large-scale problems, a view that in hindsight led them to incorrectly estimate the nature of Turkish small-scale, ‘surprise attack’ hostile action in 1996.

However, by and large the intelligence assessments (and particularly from the civilian National Intelligence Service) were that Turkey merely sought to make low-level provocations in order to force Greece into bilateral negotiations over ownership of Aegean islands and economic rights, in particular, drilling for offshore oil. Confident that its case was legal and just, and having evidence even from Turkish maps indicating that they had long before accepted the ‘Greekness’ of certain disputed isles, Athens offered several times to resolve the issue according to the verdict of the International Court of Justice. However, Turkey always refused, often resorting to force to advance its territorial ambitions.

Technical Observations and Dogfights

One enduring aspect of this has been the sometimes fatal dogfights between Greek and Turkish pilots that still occur regularly over the Eastern Aegean. The author provides very solid information on the actual technical factors involved in Greek-Turkish military antagonisms. For example, regarding dogfights, he explains how Greek military intelligence estimates evolved over time, from the early 1980s, when Turkish pilots were considered to be mostly below average and not a threat, to the early 1990s, when they began flying in whole squadrons over multiple points simultaneously.

Aware of the gap, Turkish military planners had increased training, which notably involved participation in Israeli and American exercises. Thus “the Greek interception success rate decreased to 60%, compared to the 98% of the mid-1980s” (p. 94). Once again illustrating the shaping factor of Cyprus was the fact that Turkish airspace violations only became truly “massive” following the Greece-Cyprus Joint Defense Space Doctrine of 1993.

Assessing Hostile Intent

A key aspect of the book is its discussion throughout of Greek security planners’ understanding of Turkish intentions, on both the political and the military level. The author notes that “Greek intelligence had to assess the wording of hundreds of seemingly aggressive public statements and articles by Ankara’s active and retired politicians as well as by its military and diplomatic personnel and to try and make some real sense out of them”  (p. 82). This led on occasion to some exaggerations, particularly in the more heated moments between the two countries, but findings from other, secret intelligence often balanced these views.

The cumulative assessment of Turkey’s likely military actions depended on factors such as arms procurement programs, force deployment, violation of Greek air and sea space and hostile propaganda from Turkish officials or media. The likelihood of military adventurism tended to be pointed out by the military, but downplayed by the civilian intelligence officers and diplomats, something that is probably true in most countries.

Indeed, Dimitrakis quotes a former NIS officer who stated in the early 1980s that although Turkey had real offensive capabilities, it did not intend to use them “despite the high nationalist and semi-fascist rhetoric of Turkish politicians and generals” (p. 86). There was a sentiment that NATO or the US would step in at the last minute of any conflict, thus leading to an estimation based on Turkish reaction to any crisis, “and not on the hypothesis of a strategic surprise” (p. 86). This belief would be proven incorrect in 1996, when Turkish commandos briefly occupied the uninhabited Greek islet of Imia.

The Role of Turkish Domestic and Foreign Policy

Another of the historic Greek intelligence estimates was that Turkey’s internal politics often dictated its rhetoric and military footing against Greece. By 1991, Prime Minister Turgut Özal was calling for a foreign policy akin to a “New Ottoman Empire” and “claimed that the Dodecanese should not have been called ‘Greek’ but ‘Aegean’ islands” (p. 100). The construction of new military bases on the Aegean coast opposite Greece seemed to confirm the Greek military’s suspicions over such rhetoric. However, at the same time it appeared that the Turks’ desire to preserve good relations with Washington would prevent them from provoking a serious conflict.

One galvanizing factor (again, dating to the 1974 Cyprus experience) was the temporary imposition of an arms embargo on Turkey as a form of punishment for the invasion. Ankara attributed this to the power of the Greek-American lobby, and thus during the 1980s and particularly the 1990s built up a lobby of its own that today is possibly the second-most powerful in the US, after that of Israel. The embargo also led to a policy in Ankara to gain military superiority as soon as possible, and to develop an internal industry of its own. Both were to happen. As the author notes, “from 1992-1996, Turkey was second only to Saudi Arabia in arms procurement and first among the NATO countries (p. 83).”

The internal political factors that Greece perceived to be a threat included the Kurdish insurgency, which Turkey believed Athens to be supporting. But the major internal issue that the author notes is the animosity between the nationalist regime of Tansu Çiller, Turkey’s first female prime minister, and her Islamist adversary, Necmettin Erbakan. On December 24, 1995, Çiller won re-election and, seeking to build a coalition that did not include his Islamist Welfare Party, turned up the volume on the “Islamist threat” to the traditional secular state, while murky conspiracy theories were spread that Greece had a secret plan to divide Turkey. During this period of political gamesmanship, a crisis situation was being prepared that might popularize the prime minister and the military, with Greece as the target.

The 1987 Incident and the Imia Crisis of 1996: Fundamental Differences

Although both major incidents recounted in Greek Military Intelligence and the Crescent are too complex to be fully discussed, a basic outline of the differences between them can be presented. The first, in March 1987, was largely a war of words that began when Turkish exploratory vessels, escorted by warships, conducted ‘scientific work’ in international waters, but also circled several Greek islands very far from Turkey. Such a provocation had occurred previously, in 1976, when Athens perceived it to have been meant to damage Greek EEC ambitions, while in 1987 it came as a direct response to Greek plans for oil drilling with a US company, Denison.

While the author devotes considerable attention to the tactical and strategic intelligence work that helped Greek planners get through the crisis, he also notes the qualities of then-Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, who was capable of pleasing the public with speeches condemning Turkey, and the US for allegedly supporting it, while at the same time keeping channels open with Washington, with which he cooperated more often than not. At the same time, his practically authoritarian leadership streamlined the decision-making process, making disagreement and failures in the chain of command less likely than in a more democratic regime.

By contrast, the political setting for the Imia crisis came when Papandreou was on his deathbed and considerable infighting between prospective PASOK successors was gong on. The new prime minister, Costas Simitis, was frequently not informed on time of key developments in the crisis and was distracted by party leadership battles. Further, Simitis seemed to have suspicions of his own intelligence officials, which sometimes manifested in disinterest or just discounting of advice. He was thus caught by surprise when events overtook him, unlike Papandreou.

Without central leadership, Greek reactions became more susceptible to intelligence failures, which were exacerbated by weather and other tactical conditions affecting the timely flow of information. Following a war of rhetoric and flag-planting on the uninhabited islets of Imia, the Greek government was thus surprised when Turkish commandos occupied one of the islands, considerably upping the ante. (However, the author notes cryptically that a Greek-American lobbyist, perhaps informed by US intelligence, had accurately predicted the hour and place of the landing).

Another key difference, on the tactical level, between 1987 and 1996 was weather conditions. In the latter case, this hampered accurate intelligence collection and communications for both countries and thus knowledge of what was going on in ‘the field.’ An example of Dimitrakis’ depth of detail in providing context for this is his technical discussion of typical geographic, climatic and sea conditions that tend to effect SIGINT technology in the Eastern Aegean. Such background information gives the reader a better appreciation of the operative conditions.

The 1996 incident reinforced Greek suspicions that Turkey was following a strategy of exploiting ‘grey zones,’ maritime areas where the ownership of similar islets could be questioned, and by force if necessary. This seemed to be confirmed when Omer Akbel, MFA spokesman, stated that the Imia example could be extended to “hundreds of little islands, islets and rocks” the status of which remained unclear due to the lack of a supposedly necessary “bilateral agreement.” A few days later, on February 3, outgoing Prime Minister Çiller (who had failed to form a government) raised this number to 1,000 islands and rocks that Turkey should claim.

Another part of the reason why a hostile confrontation was not expected, and definitely not from Europe, was that it had partially been caused by morbid Turkish suspicions that an innocuous EU conservation project in the Eastern Aegean islands was really a covert means of advancing Greek and European interests against Turkey. For intelligence prediction in general, this reaffirms the need to consider local realities and mentalities in assessing possible triggers: in this case, the chronic Turkish tendency to indulge in dark conspiracy theories was forgotten, with unfortunate results.

As in 1987, Turkish actions in 1996 resulted in a massive naval mobilization from the Greek side, and the media in both countries increasingly whipped up a frenzy, making it harder for diplomacy to succeed. The tense standoff was only resolved due to heavy US pressure on both sides, after President Clinton was made to realize that the future of NATO and the whole Western alliance system was in jeopardy.

Indeed, on January 30, Prime Minister Simitis was handed, but “seemed uninterested” in, a personal letter from CIA Director George Tenet. It had been passed on to NIS Director Leonidas Vasikiopoulos from the Athens CIA station chief. The letter stated Tenet’s view that “it would be disastrous for Greece, Turkey and NATO if war broke out due to escalation of the [Imia] incident” (p. 159).

Conclusions: Applicability for Today’s Situation

What can analysts today learn from the lessons given in Greek Military Intelligence and the Crescent? While much has changed in relations between Greece and Turkey since 1996, as well as in the world in general, the number of factors remaining the same is almost uncanny.

Dogfights, for example, continue to this day and still present a possibility for spawning larger conflict. In 2006, one such event had deadly consequences when a Greek pilot died after a collision with a Turkish warplane. This occurred very far from Turkey, near Karpathos, and the suspicion was that the Turks were actually seeking to photograph mobile air defense systems in Crete. The irony is that the placement of these arms – originally, supposedly to have been installed by Cyprus – had been decided through international agreement, due to Turkish pressure on the Cypriots.

Cyprus remains a factor today too in current resemblances to the 1987 oil exploration cases. Just like then, an American company is now seeking to explore for oil in the Eastern Mediterranean, and once again the Turks have responded by deploying their own exploratory vessels, and by threatening the other side that it has no right to drill. The only difference is that the current high-stakes disagreement is with the Cypriot, rather than with the Greek government, but it remains essentially a Turkish-Greek standoff. And Turkey’s relations with Cyprus are sure to worsen further in 2012, as Ankara has said it will freeze certain EU-related processes when the Cyprus Republic takes over the EU honorary presidency in June.

Another intriguing similarity between the 1996 crisis and the situation today involves domestic politics. In 1996, the Çiller government was in a weakened state that made shows of nationalism an appealing option for self-preservation, while the Simitis government in Athens was weak and larger leadership struggles in the background clearly affected the country’s ability to react in an organized fashion.

Today, just as was the case 16 years ago, the interim Greek government is weak (distracted by the financial crisis), with the political leadership clearly undergoing internal challenges. And, on the Turkish side, Prime Minister Erdogan’s health is the subject of persistent rumors, and the influence of powerful Foreign Minister Davutoglu seems to be waning due to the perceived failure of his ‘zero problems with neighbors’ foreign policy brought on by factors like Syria’s disintegration.

The military, which sees itself as preserving secularism and which deposed the Islamist forerunner of today’s AKP government in 1997, has been on the defensive since 2002, and could seize the initiative to return to power if internal political confusion arises in the government. The AKP’s robust ‘Ergenekon’ case against the military accused it of planning a provocation with Greece (among other things) to justify a military coup; though the veracity of this is still not clear, it shows at least that the Turkish establishment still sees the same dynamics as in the past believable enough to sell to their public.

While many other factors in regional and global politics have changed since 1987 and 1996, it is thus clear that many have also stayed the same. If any new altercations occur between Turkey and Greece due to the ‘traditional issues,’ intelligence practitioners and politicians alike would be wise to pay close attention to the tactical lessons presented in Greek Military Intelligence and the Crescent, as this might help to prevent past mistakes from happening again, and thus minimize the chances of needless conflict.


Click here for Greek Military Intelligence and the Crescent from the publisher (in hardback and in paperback)

Click here for Greek Military Intelligence and the Crescent on

Click here for Greek Military Intelligence and the Crescent on