Greek-Turkish dispute over Aegean Sea may lead the two-NATO states towards military confrontation

April 27, 2020 - 10:39

Demilitarized statues of the Aegean Sea's islands has in recent years been a source of serious tensions between the two NATO member states of Greece and Turkey, causing regional states to start getting worried about a possible military confrontation between Ankara and Athena if the relevant international bodies do not mediate in time.   

Ankara's continuous that Athena has violated international law by arming 16 of 23 Aegean islands placed under demilitarized status which

Elif Selin Calik, a journalist, independent researcher, and expert in global diplomacy field explained the current concerning the situation in the Aegean Sea in her report published by the Middle East Monitor.  

She stated that the people of Greece and Turkey argue over many things. Food, for example; both claim “baklava” as their own, and prepare it in their own way. It would have been better for all concerned if this was the most serious of their disagreements, but it isn’t.

Unfortunately, the “demilitarization of the Aegean Sea” is one of the most contentious disputes between the two countries. This was demonstrated recently in Turkish Admiral Cihat Yaycı’s new book, Requirements of Greece: The problems in the Aegean with questions and answers. The admiral is a familiar figure, as he is regarded widely as the architect of the maritime agreement signed last year between Turkey and the UN-recognized Government of National Accord in Libya in a move designed to counter Greek’s exploratory drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Historically, there is more to the demilitarization issue than meets the eye. In 1983, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) prepared a contingency study to secure NATO’s interests in the military confrontation between two of its member states.

In fact, the “demilitarized status of the Eastern Aegean Islands” has been the accepted legal status quo in the long-running dispute between Greece and Turkey. The islands were demilitarized by several international agreements that imposed legal obligations upon the Greek government in Athens.

Starting from the Treaty of London in 1913, the militarization of the islands was restricted and their demilitarized status was confirmed in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. Subsequently, the 1947 Treaty of Paris, which ceded the Dodecanese Islands, including the largest, Rhodes, from Italy to Greece, also confirmed their demilitarized status.

However, Greece argues that the 1936 Montreux Convention on the Turkish Straits should be applied regarding militarization. Ankara insists that Greece’s obligation to disarm the islands remains unchanged under the Montreux Convention since there is no provision that is different from the Treaty of Lausanne on the issue.

Hence, the re-arming of the Aegean islands has always been a hot issue between the two countries, especially since the 1960s when relations between Ankara and Athens soured over the Cyprus question and extended to Greek claims over Aegean airspace and territorial waters. Turkey’s first reaction to Greece’s arming of the islands in the Aegean was a diplomatic note passed to Athens on 29 June 1964.

According to Admiral Yaycı, Greece destroyed the demilitarized status of the islands and this affected the relevant sections of the Lausanne and Paris agreements. “With the 1936 Royal Decree in Greece, which declared that the territorial water borders were increased to six miles instead of three, the status quo held by the two countries was changed. In that way, the Greek government destroyed the balance of the Lausanne Treaty,” he wrote in his book. [Translated from Turkish]

In January, Turkey’s Minister of Defense, former General Hulusi Akar, warned that Greece had violated international law by arming “16 of 23 Aegean islands” supposed to be held under demilitarized status. Moreover, in 2018, Greek armed forces conducted a military exercise on the Mediterranean island of Kastellorizo, which lies just two kilometers from the Turkish coast of the Kaş district of Antalya Province. The exercise was not only provocative but also a clear violation of the demilitarized status of the island.

In retrospect, it is obvious that the demilitarization of the Eastern Aegean Islands was recognized internationally because of their overriding importance for Turkey’s security. In fact, there was and remains a direct link between sovereignty over the islands and their demilitarized status. In this respect alone, Greece has no right to reverse this status unilaterally under any pretext.

However, despite Turkish objections, the Greek government has been violating the status of the islands in the Eastern Aegean since the 1960s in clear contravention of its treaty obligations. Such illegal acts have increased considerably in recent years and have become a major source of tension between the two countries. Turkey’s appeals to Greece to respect the demilitarized status have all been disregarded. Joint membership of NATO has not enabled them to resolve the issue amicably.

On April 23, Turkey celebrated National Sovereignty Day and the 100th anniversary of the Grand National Assembly. Although this marked the establishment of the secular, modern republic, the Turks have not forgotten that as a consequence of the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War they were coerced into signing the Treaty of Sevres in 1920. Worse still, under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, they were forced to surrender a lot of former Ottoman territory. As it moves toward the centenary of the Lausanne Treaty, Turkey will, no doubt, prepare itself to protect its sovereign rights post-2023.

Earlier this year, Greece pushed back against Turkish demands that it demilitarized 16 Aegean islands.

"Greece does not provoke, does not violate the sovereign rights of others, but it doesn't like to see its own rights violated," said Greek Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos in January, according to the VOA.

The dispute dates back to 1974 when Athens started to militarize the islands off the Turkish coast in response to Turkey's invasion of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus after a pro-Greek coup.

It should be added that the race for hydrocarbon resources around Cyprus has brought tensions between Greece and Turkey to a peak as Ankara claims areas of the sea that Athens says is in its exclusive economic zone. Dogfights and naval confrontations in the Aegean have accompanied the sparring over Mediterranean territories.

Greek-Turkish relations have for decades experienced regular crises over disputes about their maritime jurisdictions, and the close proximity of their warships in disputed seas raises the risk of confrontation.

The two countries almost came to blows in 1996 over the uninhabited Kardak islets, known as Imia in Greece, after three Greek military officers were killed when their helicopter crashed over the islets during a patrol.

Exploitation of natural gas resources has been a source of tension in the eastern Mediterranean between Ankara and Athens since 2019, as all parties have stepped up their gas exploration and drilling efforts.


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