ALISON STEWART: But first: In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pushing NATO allies to return hundreds of officers and soldiers who’ve sought asylum in other countries following the coup attempt last July aimed at toppling his government.
In Greece, eight wanted Turkish military personnel are fighting extradition. And since the coup, President Erdogan has disputed a longstanding border treaty between the two countries.
Military analysts warn that relations between Greece and Turkey are at their lowest point in more than 20 years.
From Greece, Malcolm Brabant reports.
MALCOLM BRABANT: The attempted coup against President Erdogan only lasted a few hours in July. But the clashes left about 300 dead and more than 2,000 injured.
MALCOLM BRABANT: Within hours of President Erdogan wrestling back control, eight Turkish military personnel flew to Northern Greece and sought political asylum.
They went to court on charges of entering the country illegally amid Turkish claims that they were terrorists. Since then, they have been fighting extradition, arguing that they risk a death sentence if returned.
The eight Turkish soldiers and pilots are currently being held at this police station on the outskirts of Athens.
STAVROULA TOMARA, Attorney: They realize that they are held here as prisoners, basically as prisoners of war. This is how I would name them. They have been extremely depressed. They are anxious. And they are frightened, scared, extremely scared about what’s going to happen.
MALCOLM BRABANT: Stavroula Tomara is one of the lawyers trying to prevent their extradition. She insists their claims for asylum are entirely justified.
STAVROULA TOMARA: These people were persecuted due to the reasons of political opinions and social status they had. They were Kemalists. They are Kemalists. And they were in a social group that is being persecuted.
MALCOLM BRABANT: Kemalists uphold the ideals of Kemal Ataturk, the First World War hero who modernized Turkey by turning it into a secular, Westward-oriented state.
The army’s traditional role, buttressing secularism, has been eroded under President Erdogan and his vision of Turkey as a regional superpower with conservative Islam at its core.
Erdogan alleges that this man orchestrated the coup. His name is Fethullah Gulen. And he is living in exile in Pennsylvania, where he runs an organization that purports to promote moderate Islamic values.
Erdogan accuses him of running a terrorist group. On several occasions, he’s expressed anger that Turkey’s NATO allies refuse to extradite military personnel seeking asylum in countries across the alliance, from the United States to Belgium.
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, Turkey (through translator): Belgium is now an important center for militants. While important things happen, while our mosques are set on fire, nobody seems to care. Instead of saying thank you to my state, which put down the attempted coup in my country, you are standing by the plotters. The mutineers are already in your country.
MALCOLM BRABANT: Turkey’s President Erdogan has been ramping up the rhetoric in relation to the military personnel accused of complicity in the coup and seeking asylum in NATO countries.
Erdogan has said it is simply inexcusable to give shelter to people he calls terrorist soldiers. Despite international concerns about Turkey’s attitude towards human rights, NATO has been at pains not to upset Turkey and its unpredictable president. Such is its strategic importance.
At a recent news conference, the NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, expressed solidarity with Turkey.
JENS STOLTENBERG, Secretary-General, NATO: It was shocking to visit the National Assembly in Ankara, where I saw the damage caused by bombs from F-16s. And, of course, Turkey has the right to prosecute those behind the failed coup attempt.
MALCOLM BRABANT: And Stoltenberg avoided taking sides over the extradition question.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Regarding the Turkish officers, it is up to the nations to assess and to make decisions on requests for asylum. That’s not a NATO decision.
MALCOLM BRABANT: It’s estimated that 70,000 people have been arrested in what critics describe as a post-coup purge. As a result, hundreds of Turkish officers serving in NATO countries have defied orders to return and have sought asylum.
The highest-ranking asylum seeker to go public was stationed at the giant Ramstein Base in Germany. He is air force Brigadier Mehmet Yalinalp.
MEHMET YALINALP, Accused Turkish Air Force General: What I see is, the number of people who have this common denominator, like having firm belief in Ataturk’s founding principles of our state, democracy, freedom of speech, openness, integration with the West in values, of course, have been pulled into a list of purge, and they are pushed away from the government.
MALCOLM BRABANT: Vice President Joe Biden tasted Erdogan’s anger during a visit to Ankara in August, when he was urged to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the man Turkey’s president blames for the coup.
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (through translator): According to the extradition of criminals treaty between the two countries, people like Gulen would be at least taken under custody, arrested and remain under arrest throughout the trial. This person continues to manage this terrorist organization from where he is.
VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: We are determined to listen to every scrap of evidence that Turkey can provide or that we can find out about. But, again, I say to the people of Turkey, what possible motive could we have to in fact harbor a terrorist?
MALCOLM BRABANT: But of all the NATO countries resisting Turkey’s will, it is Greece that is facing greatest pressure in a region popular with European vacationers.
Turkish mainland resorts like Bodrum are just five miles or so from the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. Greek airspace above the islands is frequently breached by Turkish warplanes probing defenses and testing Athens’ resolve.
Greece and Turkey almost went to war 20 years ago over a small uninhabited islet called Imia, which is not very far away from here. Military analysts say that the hostile atmosphere that prevailed then has returned since President Erdogan announced that he’s not happy with the Treaty of Lausanne, which defines Greek and Turkish territory.
That treaty was signed in 1923. And so, for almost a century, it has been the guarantor of peaceful, if antagonistic, coexistence. But there are genuine fears here that these islands are about to become less tranquil.
Military analyst Athanasios Drougas is concerned that disputes over the Turkish soldiers and territory in the eastern Aegean Sea could whip up into a perfect storm.
ATHANASIOS DROUGAS, Military Analyst: We would probably see, as a scenario, Turks to be on a Greek island or some rocks in the Aegean Sea. I’m talking about skirmishes, not, of course, a total war, because, as you know, Greece and Turkey are members of NATO, and then we will have American or NATO diplomatic intervention.
MALCOLM BRABANT: NATO warships are currently patrolling the Aegean to discourage migrants from attempting to reach the Greek islands. Following a turbulent 2016, and a potentially dangerous 2017, the last thing NATO wants is serious trouble between so-called allies.
For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Malcolm Brabant in Greece.