A tangle of jurisdictional disputes over the definition of air and sea rights, growing tensions over offshore gas and oil exploration and the militarization of certain Greek Islands in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean seas have been plaguing Turkish-Greek relations. Amid simmering tensions, experts point to the fact that the militarization of islands close to the Turkish mainland poses a threat to Ankara’s national security.
An arm of the Mediterranean, the Aegean Sea is studded with more than 2,000 islands and islets, some of which lie within 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) of the Turkish mainland. However, even though islands close to Turkey were required to have a demilitarized status under international treaties due to the overriding importance of these islands for Turkey's security, Greece has armed 18 out of 23 islands in the Aegean Sea. Sixteen of these; namely Lesvos (Lesbos-Midilli), Chios (Sakız), Samos (Sisam), Icaria (Ahikerya), Lemnos (Limni), Samothrace (Semadirek), Karpathos (Kerpe), Kastellorizo (Megisti-Meis), Rhodes (Rodos), Symi (Sömbeki), Tilos (İleki), Kos (İstanköy), Kalymnos (Kelemez), Leros (İleryöz), Patmos (Batnoz) and Psara (İpsara); have a demilitarized status.
“Greece is illegally militarizing these islands under the pretext of a ‘Turkish threat.' Yet the argument of this threat is completely groundless as Turkey until today neither attacked any island nor occupied these,” Cihat Yaycı, former Turkish navy rear admiral and head of the Maritime and Global Strategies Center at Bahçeşehir University, told Daily Sabah. “These islands are militarized not against a Turkish threat but to threaten Turkey.”
Underlining that Lemnos is just across the Çanakkale Strait, also known as the Dardanelles, Yaycı pointed out that the arming of Lesvos (Midilli), Chios (Sakız), Samos (Sisam), Kos (İstanköy) and Kastellorizo (Megisti-Meis) also poses a serious threat to Turkey.
Starting from the Treaty of London in 1913, the militarization of the eastern Aegean Islands was restricted and their demilitarized status was confirmed in the Treaty of Lausanne signed in 1923. The Lausanne Treaty established a political balance between the two countries by harmonizing vital interests including those in the Aegean.
The 1947 Treaty of Paris, which ceded the Dodecanese islands from Italy to Greece, also confirmed their demilitarized status.
However, Greece argues that the 1936 Montreux Convention on Turkish Straits should be applied in this case, while Ankara says Greece's obligation to disarm the islands remains unchanged under the Montreux Convention as well as there is no provision that differentiates it from the Treaty of Lausanne on the issue.
Greece gradually began to militarize the islands after 1960 and then fastened the pace after the Cyprus crisis of 1974.
“Greece continuously violated the status of non-militarization, which must be considered as a direct threat to Turkish security. The great powers and the signatories of the relevant treaties dictated that those islands should be demilitarized for safeguarding and protecting Turkey’s interests,” Cem Gürdeniz, a retired admiral, told Daily Sabah. “But what we see today, is that 18 out of 23 islands are heavily militarized.”
“These treaties only allow small portions of internal security forces in order to maintain domestic security in the islands. However, the forces already deployed on the islands are not defensive but offensive. Long-range artillery, warplanes deployment, naval bases are the main offensive categories of available military hardware to be used against Turkey’s military security,” Gürdeniz added, elaborating that the treaties requiring a demilitarized status of the islands do not allow military aircraft and warships to be operated or deployed within the airspace and territorial waters of these entities.
“Yet, we know that they are deploying F-16s, guided-missile fast attack craft, and they are supplying their submarines. Their military aircraft can also utilize the islands for takeoffs and landings,” Gürdeniz said, underlining that the islands can also be used for surface-to-surface missile deployment in case of crisis or war, which is a grave threat for Turkey.
Yaycı also pointed out that Athens deployed Russian-made S-300 missiles on the Greek island of Crete (Girit), which are to be upgraded next week by Moscow. “NATO has to see this, yet nobody is raising its voice.” Saying that this was clearly constituting double standards, Yaycı reminded that NATO, the European Union and the United States sided against Ankara when Turkey decided to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defense systems.
According to data from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC)-based Diplomatic Strategy Research Center, Greece has an army division on the islands of Lesvos (Midilli) and Rhodes (Rodos), and a brigade on the islands of Chios (Sakız) and Symi (Sömbeki), as well as several infantry battalions, tank battalions and anti-aircraft battalions on these islands.
Greece has 7,500 soldiers on the islands of Chios (Sakız) and Symi (Sömbeki), commandos on the island of Rhodes (Rodos), six army bases, two naval bases and two helicopter bases on the islands.
Yaycı argued that Turkey through both diplomatic and legal channels had to declare to the United Nations, NATO and the signatories of the Lausanne and Paris treaties that it is being threatened by the militarization of these islands, that treaties are being violated and that the ceding conditions were removed. Accordingly, Turkey also must demand that the status of the islands be reverted in line with the conditions of the treaties.
The rearming of the demilitarized Aegean islands has always been a subject of contention between the two countries, especially after the 1960s when relations between Ankara and Athens turned sour over the Cyprus question and Greece's extended 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 given to Athens on June 29, 1964.
Apart from the militarization of eastern Aegean islands, the threat of extending Greek territorial waters beyond their present width of 6 miles, a 10-mile "national air space" over territorial waters of 6 miles and abuse of the flight information region (FIR) responsibility are the main underlying causes of the Turko-Greek conflict in the Aegean.
‘EU will side with Greece against Turkey’
Turkey says the EU unfairly backs Greece in a maritime dispute that stretches back decades but only gained added importance with the discovery of large natural gas deposits in recent years in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Disregarding Turkey’s arguments and concerns, members of the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Thursday expressing "full solidarity" with Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration against Turkey's actions in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish Foreign Ministry in a written statement on the same day said the decision was taken solely for the sake of solidarity among EU members and to serve the "selfish" interests of some member countries. EU leaders are set to hold a summit on Sept. 24-25 to discuss the regional tensions.
Recounting the words of European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen on Sept. 16 that nothing could justify “Turkey’s intimidation of Greece and Cyprus” in the region, Yaycı said that the EU already condemned Turkey. “It is clear that the EU will side with Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration; Turkey should ... not expect a fair solution but rather focus on its own national interests while adopting a national policy for the region,” Yaycı stressed.
He also touched upon the "Sevilla Map," which provides the basis for Greece's maximalist claim and was named by a professor from Sevilla University. The map asserts that Turkey has maritime jurisdiction in the Eastern Mediterranean only around the Gulf of Antalya, a tiny area.
He said that although it was confirmed by the EU that the map has no official value and was not prepared by the union, the map is often being used by EU-related sources as a basis for Greek claims and by several European agencies. Saying that this is unacceptable, Yaycı urged the bloc to leave behind this contradiction and to openly declare that the EU does not recognize the Sevilla Map.
ICJ no solution
After calling on the EU to issue sanctions against Turkey, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in August during an interview with CNN reiterated a proposal to refer the issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, if bilateral dialogue and negotiations do not yield any results.
Saying that Athens’ recent call to resort to the court is only for the dispute over the continental shelf and not to solve issues threatening Turkey’s security and protecting its rights, Yaycı underlined that there is a large range of other issues besides the continental shelf that need to be resolved.
“Greece does not want to go to court for the militarized islands, it does not want to go to court for the territorial waters or the airspace disputes. Athens wants to go to court for the issues it prefers and ignores issues it does not prefer. It does not even sit at the negotiating table for issues that are contradicting its interests,” Yaycı said, arguing that if Greece does not negotiate on these issues, Turkey either should not sit at the table for maritime zones.
“This is Turkey’s right, why should it be an issue of bargain?” he added.
In 1976, Greece unilaterally brought the dispute over the continental shelf before the ICJ and the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), Yaycı noted, saying that the court rejected the Greek application. He explained that the consent of both parties is needed to apply to the court and that a series of negotiations had to be made priorly. The court expected the parties to have agreed on some issues and to put forth their thesis.
The UNSC in its Resolution 395, adopted in 1976, called upon both countries to do everything in their power to reduce tensions in the Aegean and asked them to resume direct negotiations over their differences and appealed to them to ensure that these negotiations result in mutually acceptable solutions while the court in the same year determined the Aegean continental shelf beyond the territorial waters of the two littoral states as "areas in dispute" to which both countries claim rights of exploration and exploitation.
The former admiral highlighted that one of the problems of the court is that decisions do not prove jurisprudence, which means that past court decisions do not serve as an example. “Therefore, we cannot say that a similar decision was given previously and that the same would apply for Turkey’s cause. These are political courts, not judicial ones,” he said, stating that Greece with its diplomacy in the international arena could easily influence these courts while international maritime law similarly provides little help in the dispute.
“There are no established norms; those who raise their voice more than the other, are accepted to be right,” Yaycı added.