With a Greek-Turkish impasse ongoing since the summer, a new incident has now come out that puts even more tension on the relationship between the two countries. Two Greek citizens — both belonging to the Muslim minority of the country — have been arrested in the island of Rhodes and are being accused of spying on behalf of Ankara; and, as if this was not enough, one of them has also been serving as a Secretary at the Turkish Consulate General in Rhodes.
Greek Authorities Uncover Turkish Spy Operation
As per the latest reports the Greek authorities have put in their radar the two suspects since early August. As Greek-Turkish relations have been swiftly deteriorating since mid-summer, the Greek intelligence community was closely monitoring any suspicious activity near the borders, especially focusing in islands which Ankara has been trying to destabilize through the increase of the migrant flows, like Lesbos.
They were also focused on areas that have been directly targeted by Turkey like the small island of Kastelorizo, and also places like Rhodes. Sebahattin Bayram is one of the two individuals who have been arrested; Bayram comes from Western Thrace and has been serving in the Turkish Consulate of Rhodes for the last few years. Surprisingly, after being initially put in a translator position he was quickly promoted to the high-ranking Secretary of the Consulate. According to the latest information Bayram has been in direct contact with MIT, the Turkish National Intelligence Organization, thus his fast promotion to a key position in such a sensitive location for the Greek-Turkish affairs.
The second suspect has been working as cook for a ship regularly covering the trip between the islands of Rhodes and Kastelorizo. This is a very important detail, as many officers of the Greek army are quite often travelling with this ship.
The investigation from Greek authorities has revealed that the two men have been in regular contact, frequently using mobile encryption applications as an additional layer of protection for their communications. The Turkish Secretary of the Consulate was also likely using the Turkish mobile network — which overlaps the Greek network in specific areas of Rhodes — to provide updates to Turkish intelligence officers. Under Bayram’s guidance, his accomplice was trying to gather information from military personnel traveling on the ship using very basic HUMINT methods, such as overhearing and possibly recording conversations. He is also accused of taking pictures of military facilities and tracking the activity and intercepting codes of the Hellenic Navy as well as collecting data about the numbers and the routine of the Greek Forces based in Kastelorizo.
Why Were the Two Suspected Spies Released?
Both suspects were arrested on charges of espionage and conspiracy. However, after their initial arrest in December 13, the two charged individuals have been set free. Greek intelligence sources have unofficially claimed that this controversial move was made on purpose in order to track the immediate moves of both individuals right after their release, however there is always a risk that Bayram could be able to conceal additional evidence in the meantime.
A few days later, between December 17 and 18, both suspects were again arrested. Within the following days the Prosecutor in charge of the case will collect and asses their testimonies and decide the next steps of the process.
As the story is developing the Greek authorities are worried about the role of the Turkish Consulate in Rhodes and most importantly Thrace; in Greek areas where high numbers of Muslims can be found, the local Turkish diplomatic services are trying to control and manipulate members of the Islamic Community. The fact that both suspects are Muslims from Western Thrace, raises concerns regarding the extent of covert Turkish operations in Greek territory and how such cells could be utilized in the case of a Greek-Turkish confrontation. With this in mind the Greek government could take advantage of the current situation, as described below.
A Bargaining Chip for Athens — or Maybe Not
Let’s recall what happened in 2018 when Turkish authorities arrested two Greek officers over charges of alleged trespassing of the Greek-Turkish border in the area of Evros. Back then the Turkish government kept the two servicemen in custody for more than six months. Even though there was no solid ground for the detention the Greek second lieutenant and sergeant, they were actually used as a bargaining chip in exchange for the extradition to Turkey of the eight Turkish ex-officers who had fled to Greece requesting political asylum after the July 2016 failed coup attempt. Eventually the two Greeks were set free after a tense period, spending all that time under harsh conditions and under close monitoring by Turkish intelligence officers.
In the recent incident of the suspected Turkish spies who were in Rhodes, Greece has a much stronger case considering that the suspects have initially accepted — at least partly — the charges. Furthermore, both of them are Greek citizens, therefore the Turkish capability for any official action is quite limited.
There has already been a formal reaction from the Turkish side through a statement of the Turkish Foreign Ministry; the December 18 press release claims among others that “Greece has violated the provisions of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the right to freedom and security, and the right to respect for private and family life in the European Convention on Human Rights.”
Athens is at a Crucial Crossroads
Athens is now standing at a crossroads. This development could be used in its favor considering that the Greek government has been struggling over the few months to convince other EU countries to take a more rigid stance against Turkey, a strategy that has not been really fruitful so far. The recent espionage revelation could give Greece leverage in the context of antagonism between the two countries; however there is no doubt that Ankara will try to put pressure on the Greek authorities through backchannels regarding the handling of this case. Thus Athens has a choice: move forward strongly or back down.
From what Greece has shown so far, it is questionable if Athens will be able or willing to take advantage of the current conditions and there is a real chance that it will eventually retreat under Turkish demands and threats.