Turkey opens new dispute over sovereignty of eastern Aegean islands | News

Athens, Greece – As NATO confronts Russia over security in Europe, renewed tension between Greece and Turkey is eating away at the alliance’s eastern heel.

In letters sent to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last July and September, Turkey for the first time challenged Greece’s sovereignty over its eastern Aegean islands, “over which sovereignty has been ceded to Greece on the specific and strict condition that they be kept demilitarised”. in the words of the permanent representative of Turkey, Feridun Sinirlioglu.

Greece absorbed the islands of Limnos, Samothrace, Lesvos, Samos, Chios and Ikaria from the Ottoman Empire in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. He formally gained sovereignty over them in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

Another treaty drafted in London in 1914 made Greek possession of the islands conditional on their demilitarization.

Turkey says that since the Lausanne Treaty refers to the 1914 Treaty, it implies the same conditionality. Greece rejects this interpretation.

Did Greece militarize the islands?

The Treaty of Lausanne stipulated that Greece could not build naval bases, fortifications or large concentrations of troops on the islands.

Greece has never built naval bases on the islands and has denied placing disproportionate forces there.

But Greece began deploying forces on the islands in the 1960s, when communal relations broke down in Cyprus between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, complicating Greek-Turkish relations.

In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus after a Greek-backed coup attempt on the island. Greece responded by reinforcing troops on its Aegean islands.

“You have a revisionist neighbor who has invaded all adjacent states. He has been sitting in Cyprus for 48 years. He illegally invaded Syria and Iraq. I don’t think Turkey’s record suggests we can let go of any fears that it might do the same [in the Aegean] if he thinks he can get away with it,” Konstantinos Filis, director of the American College of Greece’s Institute of Global Affairs, told Al Jazeera.

According to Lieutenant General Andreas Iliopoulos, former commander of the Supreme Military Command for the Interior and the Islands (ASDEN), “Turkey is annoyed that Greece has forces on the islands and has not left them vulnerable to invasion. .

“The only weapons there are the short-range defensive weapons of the national guard in accordance with the Treaty of Lausanne, which cannot harm anything in Turkey. Greece cannot launch any offensive action against Turkey from the islands.

Iliopoulos says it is Greece that has reason to worry.

“Turkey formed the 4th army in [Izmir], with landing units capable of invading islands. This created an obvious threat. Greece must have enough security forces to ensure there is a deterrent against a Turkish invasion.

Is it really a security issue?

The Greek-Turkish differences currently do not concern land, but water.

They currently each have six nautical miles (11 km) of territorial waters in the Aegean Sea, but the United Nations Convention on the International Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), concluded in 1982 and ratified by 158 countries, stipulates that States can claim up to 12 miles (about 20 km).

Greece, with its thousands of islands, would find itself in possession of 71.5% of the Aegean Sea.

“Any extension by Greece of its territorial waters beyond the six [nautical] miles into the Aegean would have serious consequences for Turkey. As such, any decision by Greece in this direction cannot be taken in a vacuum, as if Turkey does not exist,” Turkish Ambassador to Athens Burak Özügergin said in written responses for this item.

Greece said territorial water is a sovereign right under UNCLOS and not subject to negotiation with third parties.

What Greece will talk about is the continental shelf, which grants a country sovereign rights beyond territorial waters to exploit underwater mineral wealth.

It’s been a bone of contention since 1973, when Greece discovered the Prinos oilfield in the northern Aegean.

Tension rose again in 2014, when a seismic survey in the Ionian Sea and south of Crete suggested that Greece could be sitting on 70 to 90 trillion cubic feet (2 to 2.5 trillion cubic meters ) of natural gas, with recoverable reserves estimated at $250 billion. at today’s high prices.

In 2016, Greece leased four large offshore and three onshore concessions to oil majors ExxonMobil, Total and Repsol, with Greece’s Energean and Hellenic Petroleum as partners.

Over the same period, Turkey has spent almost a billion dollars to buy or build two seismic vessels and three drillships – a clear indication that it was not going to be left behind in the race to hydrocarbon wealth.

Greece’s proposal is to settle the borders by arbitration at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. Turkey rejected the proposal, because the ICJ applies UNCLOS, and Turkey is one of a handful of countries that have not signed it and do not respect it.

Turkey has claimed that since Greek sovereignty over the islands is disputed, Greece cannot claim a continental shelf for them either.

“Greece cannot, vis-à-vis Turkey, take advantage of its title under the [Lausanne Treaty] for the purpose of maritime boundary delimitation,” Sinirlioglu wrote.

Greek observers believe challenging Turkey’s sovereignty is an elaborate way to avoid Hague arbitration.

“The issue of the demilitarization of the Aegean islands is being put forward for the first time as a precondition for going to The Hague. It is also linked to sovereignty for the first time,” former Greek foreign minister Yiorgos Katrougalos told Al Jazeera.

“Turkey is piling up problems to avoid talking about the real problem, which is that of maritime areas,” Katrougalos said. “Turkey has an irregular view of international law, and because it knows it is in the minority…it spends its time exerting pressure through power moves.”

One such power move happened on January 31, 2020, when the Turkish seismic exploration vessel Oruc Reis entered what Greece considers to be its continental shelf, northeast of Crete. A Greek frigate watched him for about 24 hours before he left.

The government downplayed the incident, saying bad weather caused the Oruc Reis to deviate from its course, but the Oruc Reis returned several times during the summer of that year, performing what the experts considered a complete survey of the seabed between Crete and Kastellorizo.

The Turkish decision had military consequences.

The full Greek and Turkish navies deployed across the Aegean Sea and a collision of frigates in August of that year could have sparked a conflict.

Since then, Greece and Turkey have pursued mutually incompatible agreements with third parties.

In 2019, Turkey and Libya claimed maritime jurisdiction over the seabed between them, claiming part of what Greece considers to be its continental shelf – a deal the US has denounced as “unnecessary” and “ provocative”.

The following year, Greece and Egypt entered into a maritime boundary agreement on the same waters. While following the precepts of international law, Ankara claimed that this decision was “null and void”.

A senior Greek diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity said Turkey’s bet on the eastern Aegean is a legal stalemate with a political objective.

“Turkey is trying to redefine its relationship with Greece in a way that suits its interests. Greece seeks to settle maritime borders. In return, Turkey is trying to create a suffocating situation for Greece by challenging Greek sovereignty in the eastern Aegean,” the diplomat told Al Jazeera.

As long as maritime borders remain an open issue subject to political and military grandstanding, the potential for a Greek-Turkish conflagration, deliberate or accidental, is also likely to remain.

Comments are closed.