The lack of diplomacy exacerbates the latest dispute between Greece and Turkey over the Aegean islands. The eastern Mediterranean and Aegean islands, where Greek and Turkish claims overlap, are back in the spotlight amid the latest maritime dispute between Greece and Turkey, reports Aljazeera.
The complexity of the issue under international law is now further exacerbated by the lack of diplomacy. The two NATO allies are still in dispute over islands in the Aegean Sea. In particular, Turkey rejects what it calls a “militarization” of some islands by Greece.
Hasan Gogus, a former Turkish ambassador to Greece and Austria, told Al Jazeera that Turkey’s position is valid. “We have several disputes with Greece in the Aegean Sea, such as the width of the territorial waters, the delimitation of the continental shelf, the demilitarization of islands or the length of the airspace. While all the issues are interrelated, Greece only acknowledges the existence of the continental shelf dispute,” he told Aljazeera.
“Most of the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea are very close to the Turkish mainland, like Kastellorizo or Kos. Those islands were handed over to Greece [under the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty] on the condition of demilitarization. However, Greece violates this provision,” Gogus said.
Meanwhile, from the Greek point of view, Turkey is making claims that are not supported by either the status quo or international law.
“Greece considers the Aegean Sea to be a fundamental part of the Greek territory given the thousands of islands and the Greeks who live there,” Sotirios Zartaloudis, associate professor of comparative European politics at the University of Birmingham, told Al Jazeera.
“In addition, the Aegean Sea is for Greece of great geopolitical and strategic importance as the southeastern border of Europe to the east and the Middle East together with the Black Sea,” he said.
The legal bases are found in the treaties of Lausanne (1923), Montreux (1936) and Paris (1947), so the treaties signed in Lausanne and Paris regulate which island belongs to which country.
However, the Montreux treaty was intended to partially replace the Lausanne treaty, and Turkey has essentially derived its claims from the latter.
Therefore, Ankara’s interpretation creates a complex situation regarding sovereign rights in the Eastern Aegean, Dimitris Papadimitriou, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester, told Al Jazeera.
“The status of the Aegean islands with regard to their ‘demilitarization’ is a complex legal issue, and the two parties have very different interpretations regarding the obligations emanating from these treaties. Given the current climate of mistrust, it is hard to imagine how a bilateral negotiation to find a common language could succeed,” he told Aljazeera.
On the brink of armed conflict
Two years ago, the parties were on the verge of a military conflict when tensions rose over energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, even a diplomatic rapprochement seemed conceivable.
However, Ankara’s rhetoric changed dramatically after Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited the United States last month and called on Washington to reconsider arms sales to Turkey.
An affront, in the opinion of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish leader announced that he would not meet the Greek side again until an “honest politician” was in front of him.
Since then, the dispute has escalated, including a large-scale Turkish military maneuver, which Erdogan attended. In fact, his appearance made world headlines when he indirectly threatened war.
Erdogan not only warned Greece of “catastrophic consequences”, but urged his neighbor to “avoid dreams, statements and actions that he regrets”. “I’m not kidding,” Erdogan said.
Despite Ankara’s rhetoric, Greece has so far not ceased its diplomatic efforts. “Although the general media discourse in Greece remains very hostile towards Turkey, the Greek government’s response was relatively silent,” Papadimitriou said.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias stressed during the summit of southeastern European countries last week that Greece would not contribute to the escalation by engaging in “insulting statements, demands and illegal and inappropriate accusations.”
At the same time, the Greek Foreign Ministry published 16 maps intended to document “the extent of Turkish revisionism”, intended to show Turkish territorial claims from 1923 to the present.
“Greek government officials continue to accuse Turkey of suffering from ‘delusions of imperialist grandeur,'” Papadimitriou said.
“Mitsotakis, when asked if he would meet President Erdogan again, replied: ‘Of course I would.’ This shows that the Greek government does not want to cut off all channels of communication with Turkey although, in terms of political content, the gulf between the two countries remains huge,” he said.
However, given Erdogan’s rhetoric, Athens will be even less inclined to demilitarize the islands.
“Greece argues that any military presence/equipment on the islands is there for training and deterrence/defense reasons. Greece also argues that any military presence on the Greek islands is not directed towards/against Turkey unless Turkey attacks Greece,” Zartaloudis said.
Greece considers the military presence to be its right of self-defense, alluding to the numerous landing craft on Turkey’s west coast and the regular violations of Greek airspace by Turkish warplanes.
“Greek governments say they are concerned about Turkey’s heavy military presence near the Greek border and the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, which Greece says is a reserve expeditionary force. A compromise could be a mutually agreed de-escalation, which is unlikely in my opinion,” Zartaloudis said.
The EU and NATO
Faced with this apparent conundrum, the EU urged Turkey to behave “constructively”
“Escalation of steps and rhetoric” should be avoided and replaced with “good neighborly relations”, Brussels urged.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg encouraged Greece and Turkey to resolve their differences and avoid any action or rhetoric that could aggravate the situation.
However, the current situation raises several questions in Greece and, as is often the case, the future is difficult to predict.
“Public opinion in Greece is well versed in hostile rhetoric from both sides of the Aegean. However, the general public does not realize how quickly an ‘accident’ in the Aegean can turn into a full-scale war,” Papadimitriou said.
“Many people speculated that the war in Ukraine would only last a few days. We are now in the fourth month of conflict with no signs that the war will end soon. A similar scenario for Greece and Turkey is not science fiction. That is why it is important that the rhetoric calms down and that the channels of communication between the two sides remain open,” he added.
Most hope that Erdogan’s war rhetoric is simply part of his campaign strategy. With a presidential election just around the corner and a painful economic situation in Turkey (inflation is currently running at 70 percent), some analysts are sure that the internal situation in Turkey could have an impact on the development of the conflict.
“The possibility of a Greek-Turkish conflict also arises from internal dynamics in Turkey, if, for example, Greek-Turkish relations become prominent among Turkish voters. Forces for or against Erdogan may want to use the conflict to raise or lower his popularity.
“However, the hope is that NATO, the US, military deterrence on both sides, coupled with Erdogan’s rationalism about his own political survival, will prevent open conflict,” Zartaloudis said.