The 214,000sqkm Aegean Sea lying between Greece on its west and Turkey on its east, is known for The Aegean Dispute between these two countries over more than 1400 islands and islets dotting its entire waters.
It is a long-drawn dispute about a set of interrelated controversial issues between them on the question of sovereignty and related rights in the area of the Aegean Sea. More than 1400 islands and islets located in the waters of the Aegean between Turkey and Greece have become the bone of contention between the two nations.
Greece and Turkey are members of NATO, an organization that promises to come to the help of a member state if any country threatens its security.
But when two member states of NATO are at loggerheads and cannot arrive at any solution to the dispute, the question becomes complicated for NATO and the US to deal with. They are reluctant to choose between the two.
A close study of the dispute shows that the US and the European countries – the members of NATO — do not consider the dispute potentially resulting in a naval clash and adversely affecting them. Therefore, they have almost politicized the dispute, as was done in the case of Kashmir. It suits their policy and perception.
History tells us that external powers have tried to find a formula for the solution to the dispute that would be acceptable to Greece and Turkey so that a situation of animosity and hatred is removed.
According to the Treaty of Lausanne concluded in 1923, after WWI, Greece was obliged to keep the islands demilitarized. At the same time, civilian shipping passage in the Turkish Straits mandated Turkey to demilitarize the Straits. The warring countries adhered to the clauses of the treaty. After WWII, another treaty of 1947 gave 12 islands to Greece with the condition of their total demilitarization.
Hindsight shows that Greece has agreed to be a member of NATO because it believed that would provide her security against the belligerent neighbor who does not stop short of claiming its right to most islands and islets in the Aegean Sea.
While Turkey recognized both treaties, the stand of Greece was that Turkey gave the wrong interpretation of various clauses of the treaty. Greece argues that the 1936 Montreux Convention on the regime of the Straits supersedes the Lausanne Treaty (on the Straits) as it gives Turkey the power to militarize the Turkish Straits.
Greece has a very valid point. Turkey cannot enjoy the right to militarize the Straits through the Montreux Convention and then ask Greece to stick to the Lausanne Treaty stipulating the non-militarization of islands.
In 1995 Greece ratified the UN Convention on Law of the Sea called UNCLOS. It provided a legal framework to recognize the limits of maritime zones of coastal nations. One hundred sixty countries, except Turkey, became a party to the UNCLOS.
Now UNCLOS stipulates that the sovereignty of the coastal nation extends beyond its land territory and internal waters to an adjacent belt of Sea described as the Territorial Sea to 12 nautical miles from the baseline of its coast with sovereign rights over it. The Parliament of Greece adopted UNCLOS in 1995.
Turkey objected to it. She questioned the sovereignty of Greece over several islands in the Aegean Sea, like Rhodes, Lesbas, Samos, and Kos.
Turkey’s Aggressive Attitude
Trading accusations and counter-accusations have become almost the daily routine of the two countries. But the Turkish authorities have become used to issuing threats and warnings to Greece day in and day out, alleging that Greek airplanes violate the air space of Turkey.
On July 9, President Erdogan of Turkey warned Greece “to stay away from dreams and actions as it would later regret.” He urged Greece “to come to its senses and demilitarize the islands in the Aegean Sea.”
Turkey authorized its government to take necessary action if Greece extended its right to 12 nautical miles. It formally said that if Greece extended its territorial waters, it would have control over two-thirds of the Aegean Sea, thus depriving Turkey of its primary access to international waters and trader routes.
Turkey, trying its hand at veiled threats, said, “if Greece extended its territorial waters, it would count as causes belli meaning a cause for war.”
In 2020 Turkey sent a seismic research vessel Oruc Rais to map potential drilling for oil and natural gas near the Greek island of Kashellorizon. A Turkish naval ship collided with a Greek naval ship because both were shadowing Turkey’s research vessel, which, however, returned to the base after the collision.
Taking recourse to Lausanne and Paris treaties, Turkey argues that Greece is violating them by increasing its military presence in the Aegean Sea, which threatens her security.
Greece takes the position that some islands have been garrisoned because these are close to the Izmir coast, where Turkey has deployed a large landing force called The Fourth Army, which makes it “capable of seizing the Greek island.” Greece admits its military presence in these islands but only for self-defense.
In 1970 Turkey invaded Cyprus. This became the catalyst for Greece to militarize the Dodecanese islands close to Turkey for defensive purposes. UNCLOS says that a country has the right over its territorial sea and air space.
Currently, Greece claims six nautical miles of the Aegean Sea; its air space is up to six nautical miles. As there have been regular violations of Greek air space by Turkish airplanes, Greece has taken its complaint to NATO.
Remember that the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 refined the boundaries, and several islands and islets beyond three miles were ceded to Greece except for three groups of islets. Presently Turkey claims the Territorial Sea of six nautical miles.
Turkey has converted the 1500-year-old Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque. Greece considers it an indirect assault on the history of her rich culture. Erdogan achieved two-fold objectives by making this anti-civilizational decision.
Firstly, he served the pro-Islamist constituency with an eye on the next parliamentary elections. Secondly, he blocked the appreciation of the Turks for the glorious Greek civilization and its service to mankind.
The rivalry boils down to who gets to explore hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. There are competing claims over maritime frontiers and precious oil and gas resources.
The Imia episode of 1996 had brought the two countries close to the brink of war. A Turkish drilling ship was noticed near the island of Imia, exploring oil and gas in the region.
Role Of The US And NATO
As Turkey and Greece are members of NATO, it is natural that the US and NATO would play a conciliatory and advisory role, beseeching both to observe restraint and resolve the issue through dialogue. But the fact is that their words do not match their actions.
Turkey has not honored the UNCLOS, a landmark proposal of silencing shrill voices on both sides and reducing tension. It has, at least, laid a fair policy of each coastal country claiming 12 nautical miles as the rightful territorial limit with the respective airspace to be taken care of for no intrusion or overflights.
Turkey’s refusal to accept this formula, which Greece has adopted through a motion in the parliament, indicates her ulterior designs in the dispute.
Neither the US nor NATO is taking the Aegean dispute very seriously. Their policy is conditioned by the imperative of NATO seeking the goodwill of both of its Aegean Sea members. They take no notice of the threats doled out by Ankara day in and day out.
They ignore Turkey’s “Fourth Army” stationed at Izmir to grab more islands in the Aegean Sea. Turkey has a substantial naval shipyard, and she is strengthening her maritime power and demonstrating an aggressive stance against Greece.
Both countries are indeed seeking backing from Washington. But how Washington is behaving is of much interest. Greek foreign minister Kyriakos Mitsotak addressed both houses of the US Congress in May 2022.
He said, “NATO could not allow a further source of instability on its south-eastern flank.” During that trip, he finalized the purchase of F-35 jet fighters. But only a few weeks later, on the fringe of the NATO summit in Madrid, President Biden held out the prospect of fighter jet delivery to secure Turkey’s support for Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO.
The Turkish government has profited from the war in Ukraine, and the US has forgotten that Turkey purchased Russian-built anti-aircraft missiles.
Turkey’s threats to Greece are on the rise. Alleged violation of air space is the oft-repeated accusation against Greece. For example, the dangers slapped are: “Greece would pay a heavy price if it keeps harassing Turkish fighters to get into the Aegean Sea.”
Referring to a crushing defeat of the Greek forces in the western city of Izmir in 1922, he thundered, “If you go further, you will pay a heavy price.” Quoting the Associated Press, the ABC News of July 11, 2022, wrote: “Greece’s prime minister called Monday on Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to clarify whether a map displayed by a nationalist ally of Erdogan’s that showed several major, inhabited Greek islands as Turkish is official Turkish policy?”
Al Jazeera, on September 26, wrote that Ankara summoned the Greek Ambassador and protested deploying US armored vehicles on two Aegean islands near the Turkish coast. Repudiating the claim, Greece said the report was “completely unfounded” and accused Ankara of aggressive designs.
Their maritime feud is several decades old. The Turkish foreign minister told the Greek Ambassador that Athens should stop violations and respect the islands’ non–military status.
Erdogan separately accused Greece of strong provocation and “playing perilous games.” Greek Ambassador Christodoulou Lazarus wrote two letters to the UN Secretary-General explaining his country’s stand when Erdogan hinted at a possible military operation in the Aegean earlier this month. Finally, Greece filed a complaint with the EU, NATO, and the US after Erdogan hinted at a possible military operation in the Aegean Sea.
Erdogan’s Islamic Caliphate Ambition
President Erdogan is not confident of his party returning to power in the parliamentary elections to be held in 2023. Therefore he has shifted attention from domestic to foreign policy, where he can play the Islamic card.
He finds pretexts to bring pressure on Greece and force her to surrender many islands and islets in the Aegean Sea, which also is the policy of the coalition partners in his government. Erdogan was the prime conspirator in the anti-Saudi clique of four wanting to wrest the warden-ship of the twin holy shrines of Mecca and Medina from the hands of the Saudi monarchs and establish a new powerhouse of the Islamists to work for the Islamic Caliphate.
In the last two years, Erdogan has been behaving aggressively in Syria and Yemen crises. Turkey raked up the Kashmir issue at the behest of Pakistan on various platforms, including the United Nations. Erdogan feels his belligerent posturing will not be challenged because of Turkey’s membership in NATO. Lately, Turkey has come closer to Pakistan and is building ships and submarines for her navy.
Turkey’s military support to Azerbaijan during the fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia, particularly the supply of Bayraktar drones, resulted in the defeat of Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.
Turkey’s active interference in Cyprus, first by whipping up anti-Greek sentiments among the Turkish Cypriots in the north and finally demanding a re-union of the island and ultimately ending up in forced occupation of Cyprus, compelled Greece to militarize her Dodecanese islands.
Onus On The Free World
Turkey’s belligerent posture towards Greece coveting her islands in the Aegean Sea, building its strong-armed presence called The Fourth Army close to the strategic port city of Izmir, her ambition of revival of the Ottoman Empire of the 19th century under the banner of Islamic Caliphate and interference in internal affairs of sovereign countries (as India or Saudi Arabia), etc. cannot be allowed to have its way.
The free world must preserve and protect Greece and its right over the Aegean Sea islands and islets. The world community must pressure Turkey to stop anti-Greece sword-rattling and contain anti-Greece euphoria, which bursts out intermittently among the Turkish population when prompted by its leadership.
India, the world’s largest democracy, cannot tolerate interference from any foreign country, much less by one trying to sell a religious commodity. India has amicable and cordial relations with Greece and, like the rest of the civilized world, acknowledges the historical contribution of Greece to world civilization.
India should welcome any movement intending to support Greece against Turkish bullying, including an offer of military assistance. India will be providing a range of weapons to Armenia to protect itself against the military threats from the “Three Brothers.”
It will be in the interests of the free world if India provides adequate military aid to Greece, including the powerful BrahMos missiles so that the recurring threats issued by Ankara are silenced.
- Padma Shri KN Pandita is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies at Kashmir University. Views expressed here are of the author’s.
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