“Happy is the man, I thought, who, before dying, has the good fortune to sail the Aegean sea.” ― Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek
“Our country and our nation have again only one message to those who attack us – you will not succeed!” Recep Tayyip Erdogan
In this edition of “More than Meets the Eye,” we are going to look at a series of events that are unfolding on the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. While everybody is supposed to be looking the other way, the littoral nations of Turkey and Greece are playing out an age-old rivalry over the possession of water and rock, scattered randomly across the region known as the Aegean Sea. As the waves of chaos churn, a new conflict is arising. Two significant realities are once again, bringing the importance of this ancient dispute to the forefront. First, President Erdogan of Turkey has lost much of his populist support over the past few years, as a new millennial generation emerges, seeking jobs, freedom, entertainment, and travel. Second, there is the prospect of the discovery of undersea gas. Both, place the eastern Mediterranean in a strategic area for the president’s rescue.
The issues are not simple. The quarrel between Greece and Turkey is mainly about control over the waters, and seabed of the Aegean Sea which separates them. The Aegean is only an average of 200 km. wide, and it would be easy to simply run a line down the middle, except for the chain of Greek islands running down the west coast of Turkey, often within sight of the mainland. Almost all the other islands in the sea are Greek as well.
The islands have been inhabited by Greeks for centuries, even during the Ottoman period. Before that, the Turks ruled these islands for many years, but they lost them when the Ottoman Empire was conquered in the early 20th century.
Greece had been under the Ottoman rule for nearly four centuries since the mid-16th century, and most of the time, Orthodox Christian Greek populations were on good terms with Istanbul, (Constantinople at that time) capital of the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor state of Turkey. Greece became an independent state in 1832.
In actuality, the Aegean Sea is a Greek sea, but Turkey refuses to accept that. In defiance of both traditional maritime law and the 1982 United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea, Ankara insists that the Greek islands do not generate their own territorial waters and seabed rights. It claims half the Aegean Sea as its own, and a big chunk of the Mediterranean beyond it, as well. Their continued argument has fallen mostly on deaf ears within the international community.
In addition to these longstanding disputes between Greece and Turkey, the discovery of gas deposits in the Mediterranean basin and the growing unpopularity of President Erdogan have added tension to the region not seen since the 1974 invasion of Turkey and Greek Cyprus. Let’s explore what events have recently transpired, take a critical look at their ramifications, and discover how diplomatic missteps could lead to an all-out war between Greece and Turkey.
The disagreement between the Turks and the Greeks hinges primarily on what constitutes a countries national sovereignty. There is a fundamental disagreement between these two nations. On Turkey’s side, they believe that the tiny Greek islands which sit just off the coast of Turkey have implications for territorial control because they are so far away from the homeland. For instance, the Turkish foreign ministry said that the Greek island of Meis, (known by the Greeks as Kastellorizo) covering 10 square kilometers, is two kilometers away from the Turkish mainland and 580 kilometers off the Greek coast, making “Greece’s maximalist continental shelf claims incompatible with international law and court decisions.” The Greeks disagree, as does most of the international community. Changing this rule in the international codes would change the anatomy of many littoral states and their possession of islands.
The latest conflict came as a result of Turkey’s declaration, that it will conduct seismic work from July 21 in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey put out a naval alert – known as a Navtex – that it was sending its Oruç Reis research ship to carry out a drilling survey in waters close to the Greek island of Kastellorizo, a short distance from the coast of south-west Turkey. It was accompanied by several Turkish warships. After making various demands and receiving numerous rebuffs from the international community, Turkey has summoned the seismic research ship, the Oruç Reis back to its base in Antalya.
Making the situation even more complex was the reality that the Greeks and the French were already involved in annual joint sea maneuvers with Egypt. The UAE was involved as well. By the end of the month, a joint US/Greek sea maneuver will begin in the Aegean Sea. Turkey is backing off for the moment from fomenting the situation further, without making any concessions to the Greeks. The Greek foreign ministry asked Turkey to “immediately stop its illegal actions that violate Greece’s sovereignty and undermine the region’s peace and security.”
What are some of the ramifications for the dispute? The European Union is preparing sanctions against Turkey that could be discussed at the bloc’s next summit on Sept. 24, in response to the eastern Mediterranean dispute with Greece. In a statement by Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, he commented that “the measures, meant to limit Turkey’s ability to explore for natural gas in contested waters, could affect individuals, ships or the use of European ports. The EU would focus on everything related to “activities we consider illegal.” In Berlin, Borrell said the bloc was ready to sanction Turkish vessels, block their access to EU ports, and cut off supplies. These are serious sanctions that could cripple Turkey in its relationships with any country in the EU, especially since it is a member of NATO and does a lot of business in the EU. Turkey is a formal candidate to join the EU, although its candidacy is at risk and could be withdrawn as a type of sanction, some diplomats have said.
Legal disputes in such complex cases are weighed in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a treaty defining rights on the world’s oceans. Turkey was not a signatory when it was ratified in 1982. Nevertheless, legal experts are virtually unanimous in the belief that the treaty’s rules reflect standing international law, and thus bind all nations to abide by them.
But Turkey isn’t interested in any of that. Rather, Ankara is using a bilateral agreement signed with Libya as justification for its right to drill for natural gas off the coasts of Cyprus and Crete. In 2019, Turkey and Libya declared that the waters between Cyprus and Libya, including the Greek island of Crete, were their ‘exclusive economic zone.’ Turkey also intends to drill for oil off Rhodes.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands, normally mediates between the conflicting parties of these kinds of disputes, provided both countries recognize the court’s jurisdiction and declare themselves willing to accept its decision. The Turks are not signatories of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; neither is the United States. The situation almost escalated to this point around the turn of the millennium in 2004, but Athens backed down when it seemed the newly elected conservatives feared that the court may not have decided in a way wholly to Greece’s liking.
That example alone shows that Athens will have to relinquish one or the other of its ideals. One may be the concept that the entire Aegean Sea is a closed maritime area belonging exclusively to Greece. This could be a tough pill to swallow.
In 1982 after a decade of work, most of the world’s countries signed the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III), creating the body of work that still governs the majority of the world maritime regime. The signers, after much compromise, agreed-upon such varied topics as, pollution control and economic exclusion zones, that prior to the signing had not been uniform around the world, and thus had been under much dispute between the world’s capitals. Others, such as the breadth of territorial waters, ownership of continental shelf, and control of airspace were directly relevant to the dispute in the Aegean Sea. Greece signed and ratified UNCLOS III, but even after it was finalized Turkey did not agree with many of the regimes that UNCLOS III set up. Turkey, therefore, did not (and has not to this day) signed UNCLOS III, and her opposition to many of the facets of UNCLOS III has been another root cause of the rift between Greece and Turkey.
How serious is this threat by Turkey? Journalist Abdullah Bozkurt believes Turkey’s president Erdogan is planning to annex the Greek islands which are close to Turkey. This would mean invasion and occupation of those islands. Although Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inflammatory speech may prove to be empty rhetoric, aimed at his domestic audience, there’s plentiful evidence that his threat to “invade,” as Bozkurt puts it, should not be ignored.
The idea of a war in the Mediterranean, and between NATO partners to boot, seems utterly absurd. The problem is, however, that a lot of absurd things happen in this corner of the world. Neither Greece nor Turkey can afford these rising tensions in the Mediterranean. Both depend on their coastlines for billions of dollars from tourism. The few foreigners considering a trip to a Turkish or Greek resort later this year may be willing to risk COVID-19, but not war.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, after telephone talks with US President, Donald Trump that Athens was “ready for a significant de-escalation—but on condition that Turkey immediately stops its provocative actions.”
The resolution has not been attained though, mainly because of each country’s intense nationalism and pervasive mistrust of the other country. This must be overcome if a resolution is to be reached. Fortunately, the current governments of both Greece and Turkey are much more moderate and pro-resolution than their predecessors, and an ironic amelioration of relations, thanks to devastating earthquakes in both Greece and Turkey in 1999, indicate that the time is ripe for a push toward resolution.
For now, tensions are high, and there is a lot of “shuttle diplomacy” as well as subterfuge going on behind the scenes throughout the halls of Europe, Greece, and Turkey. It remains to be seen how serious the player’s appetites are for diplomacy. Are the Greeks and the Turks ready and willing to make some compromises that will move the peace deal forward? Or, are their historical rivalries so strong that their nationalistic tendencies take over and they gamble with the soul of the entire region?
Stay abreast of the situation in the eastern Mediterranean. Resist the temptation to take a simplistic approach to understanding a very complex global security problem. Do not allow yourself to disregard the opinions on either side of this issue. Though Greece clearly has the international rule of law on their side, some of these UN Convention rules on the Law of the Sea may be a bit antiquated, but still may need to be considered.
Watch the French, Israelis, and the Emiratis. They are serious players in this “cat and mouse” game, and will certainly have some significant skin in it. Right now it is clear which side they are taking, but President Erdogan has proven to be quite the statesman. He is willing to go to great lengths to get his way, especially when it comes to swaying the allegiances of other nations to his cause. Take a look at how he maneuvered his way with the Russians in Syria and with the forces in Libya.
U.S. Bans Cotton, Other Products from Xinjiang, Citing Forced Uyghur Labor… https://www.nationalreview.com/news/u-s-bans-cotton-other-products-from-xinjiang-citing-forced-uyghur-labor/?utm_source=email&utm_medium=breaking&utm_campaign=newstrack&utm_term=21504407
The Air Force’s ‘Connect Everything’ Project Just Had a Big Success… https://www.defenseone.com/technology/2020/09/air-forces-connect-everything-project-just-had-big-success/168407/
For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at: [email protected]