Why Turkey and Greece remain on a collision course over the Aegean islands | Conflict

The eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean islands, where Greek and Turkish claims overlap, are again at the center of the latest dispute between Greece and Turkey.

The complexity of the issue in international law is now further exacerbated by a lack of diplomacy.

The two NATO allies are still in conflict over the Aegean islands. In particular, Turkey rejects what it calls a “militarization” of certain islands by Greece.

Hasan Gogus, Turkey’s former ambassador to Greece and Austria, told Al Jazeera that Turkey’s position was 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 the islands or the length of the airspace. While all issues are interrelated, Greece does not than recognize the existence of the continental shelf dispute,” he said.

“Most of the Greek Aegean islands are close to the Turkish mainland, like Kastellorizo ​​or Kos. These islands were given to Greece [under the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty] subject to demilitarization. However, Greece violates this provision,” Gogus said.

Meanwhile, from a Greek perspective, Turkey is making claims that are unsupported by the status quo or international law.

“Greece considers the Aegean Sea to be a fundamental part of Greek territory given the thousands of islands and Greeks living 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 in the East and in the Middle East with the Black Sea,” he said. declared.

The legal bases are found in the treaties of Lausanne (1923), Montreux (1936) and Paris (1947), the treaties signed in Lausanne and Paris regulating which island belongs to which country.

However, the Treaty of Montreux was intended to partially replace the Treaty of Lausanne, and Turkey essentially derived its claims from the latter.

Ankara’s interpretation therefore creates a complex situation regarding sovereign rights in the eastern Aegean, Dimitris Papadimitriou, a politics professor at the University of Manchester, told Al Jazeera.

“The status of the Aegean islands regarding their ‘demilitarization’ is a complex legal issue, and the two sides have very different interpretations regarding the obligations that arise from these treaties. Given the current climate of mistrust, it is difficult to imagine how a bilateral negotiation to find a common language could succeed,” he said.

On the brink of armed conflict

Two years ago, the sides were on the brink of military conflict as tensions mounted over energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, even a diplomatic rapprochement seemed possible.

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, according to 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 row has escalated, including a full-scale Turkish military maneuver, which Erdogan witnessed. In fact, his appearance made world headlines when he indirectly threatened war.

Not only did Erdogan warn Greece of “catastrophic consequences”, but urged his neighbor to “avoid dreams, statements and actions that he would regret”.

“I’m not kidding,” Erdogan said.

Despite Ankara’s rhetoric, Greece, so far, has not ceased its diplomatic efforts.

“Although the general media rhetoric in Greece remains very hostile towards Turkey, the Greek government’s response has been relatively muted,” Papadimitriou said.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu during a press conference in Athens [File: Costas Baltas/Reuters]

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias stressed at the summit of south-eastern European countries last week that Greece would not contribute to the escalation by participating in “insulting statements, demands and accusations unlawful and inappropriate”.

At the same time, the Greek Foreign Ministry released 16 maps intended to document “the extent of Turkish revisionism”, intended to display Turkish territorial claims from 1923 to the present day.

“Greek government officials continue to accuse Turkey of suffering from an ‘imperialist delusion of grandeur’,” Papadimitriou said.

“Mitsotakis, when asked if he would meet President Erdogan again, replied: ‘Of course I will.’ This shows that the Greek government does not want to cut off all communication channels with Turkey even though, in terms of political substance, the chasm between the two countries remains wide,” he said.

However, given Erdogan’s rhetoric, Athens will be even less inclined to demilitarize the islands.

“Greece maintains that any military presence/equipment on the islands is there for training and deterrence/defense purposes. Greece also maintains that any military presence on the Greek islands is not directed towards/against Turkey unless Turkey attacks Greece,” Zartaloudis said.

Greece sees the military presence as a right of self-defense, referring to the many landing craft on Turkey’s west coast and the regular violations of Greek airspace by Turkish fighter jets.

“Greek governments say they are concerned about Turkey’s heavy military presence near the Greek border and the Greek Aegean islands, which Greece says is an expeditionary standby force. A compromise could be a mutually agreed de-escalation – unlikely in my view,” Zartaloudis said.

The EU and NATO

Faced with this apparent conundrum, the EU called on Turkey to behave “constructively”.

“Escalation and rhetoric” must be avoided and replaced by “good neighborly relations”, urged Brussels.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg encouraged Greece and Turkey to settle their differences and avoid any action or rhetoric that could escalate the situation.

Nevertheless, the current situation raises various questions in Greece and, as often in these cases, the future is complicated to predict.

“Greek public opinion is well aware of the hostile rhetoric on both sides of the Aegean Sea. However, the general public does not realize how quickly an ‘accident’ in the Aegean Sea can escalate into a full-scale war,” Papadimitriou said.

“A lot of people speculated that the war in Ukraine would only last a few days. We are now entering the fourth month of conflict with no sign of the end of the war 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 communication channels between the two parties remain open,” he added.

Most hope that Erdogan’s war rhetoric is simply part of his campaign strategy. With a presidential election looming and a painful economic situation in Turkey – inflation is currently at 70% – some analysts are convinced that the domestic situation in Turkey could have an impact on how the conflict unfolds.

“The possibility of a Greek-Turkish conflict also arises from the internal dynamics in Turkey, if, for example, Greek-Turkish relations become predominant among Turkish voters. Forces for or against Erdogan may want to use the conflict to increase or reduce his popularity.

“However, the hope is that NATO, the United States, military deterrence on both sides as well as Erdogan’s rationalism about his own political survival will prevent open conflict,” Zartaloudis said.

Denise W. Whigham