Turkey opens new dispute over sovereignty of east Aegean islands

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

In letters sent to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last July and September, Turkey for the first time disputed Greece’s sovereignty over its east Aegean islands, “over which sovereignty was ceded to Greece on the specific and strict condition that they be kept demilitarised,” in the words of Turkey’s permanent representative, 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. It was officially awarded sovereignty over them in the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923.

Another treaty drawn up in London in 1914 had made Greek possession of the islands conditional on their demilitarisation.Get a quote, your way.Ad by Co-operators See More

Turkey says that since the Lausanne Treaty makes reference to the 1914 treaty, it implies the same conditionality. Greece rejects that interpretation.

Has Greece militarised the islands?

The Lausanne Treaty said 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 it has placed disproportionate forces there.

But Greece did start putting forces on the islands in the 1960s, as inter-communal relations broke down on Cyprus between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, complicating Greek-Turkish relations.Get a quote, your way.Ad by Co-operators See More

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

“You have a revisionist neighbour who’s invaded every adjacent state. It’s sat in Cyprus for 48 years. It’s illegally invaded Syria and Iraq. I don’t think Turkey’s record suggests we can drop all concern that it can do the same [in the Aegean] if it thinks it can get away with it,” Konstantinos Filis, director of the Institute of Global Affairs at the American College of Greece, told Al Jazeera.

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

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

Iliopoulos says it is Greece that has reason to worry.

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

Is it really about security?

Greek-Turkish differences are not presently about land, but water.

They currently each have six nautical miles (11km) of territorial water in the Aegean, but the UN Convention on the International Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), concluded in 1982 and ratified by 158 countries, says states may claim up to 12 miles (about 20km).Get a quote, your way.Ad by Co-operators See More

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

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

Greece has 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 mine undersea mineral wealth.

This has been a bone of contention since 1973, when Greece discovered the Prinos oilfield in the north 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 70-90 trillion cubic feet (2-2.5 trillion cubic metres)  of natural gas, with recoverable reserves estimated at $250bn at today’s high prices.

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

During the same period, Turkey spent almost a billion dollars buying or building two seismic survey ships and three drill-ships – a clear indication that it was not going to be left behind in the race to hydrocarbon wealth.

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

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

“Greece cannot, vis-à-vis Turkey, rely on its title under the [Lausanne Treaty] for the purposes of a maritime boundary delimitation,” wrote Sinirlioglu.

Greek observers believe Turkey’s disputation of sovereignty is an elaborate way of avoiding a Hague arbitration.

“The issue of demilitarisation of Aegean islands is being put forward for the first time as a precondition to go to The Hague. It is also being connected to sovereignty for the first time,” Greek former Foreign Minister Yiorgos Katrougalos told Al Jazeera.

“Turkey is piling on the issues in order to avoid talking about the real issue, which is maritime zones,” Katrougalos says. “Turkey has an irregular view of international law, and because it knows it’s in a minority of one … it spends its time exerting pressure through power moves.”

Such a power move came on on January 31, 2020, when the Turkish seismic exploration ship Oruc Reis entered what Greece considers its continental shelf, northeast of Crete. A Greek frigate monitored it for about 24 hours before it left.

The government downplayed the incident, saying foul weather had caused the Oruc Reis to veer off course, but the Oruc Reis returned repeatedly in the summer of that year, conducting what experts considered a comprehensive sounding of the seafloor between Crete and Kastellorizo.

The Turkish move had military consequences.

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

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

In 2019, Turkey and Libya claimed maritime jurisdiction over the sea bed between them, claiming a swath of what Greece considers its continental shelf – a deal the United States denounced as “unhelpful” and “provocative”.

The following year, Greece and Egypt concluded a maritime boundary agreement over the same waters. While it followed the precepts of international law, Ankara claimed the move was “null and void”.

A senior Greek diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity said Turkey’s east Aegean gambit is a legal dead-end with a political aim.

“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 attempting to create an asphyxiating situation for Greece by disputing Greek sovereignty in the east 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.

By John Psaropoulos


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