BY CENK KAAN ADASOY
OCT 21, 2022 – DAILY SABAH
Following the recent European Political Community summit in Prague, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been in the headlines in the Western press.
This is because the president made it clear, in response to a question from a Greek journalist, that Türkiye could launch a military operation against Greece one night if Athens continues to violate international law and relevant international treaties.
President Erdoğan had already made this statement, which the West previously considered a bluff, several times in the past as Greek provocations, human rights violations, violations of international law and good neighborly relations in the Eastern Mediterranean came to an enormous head.
This article, starting with Greece’s violations of the sovereignty of Türkiye, aims to expose the specific misconduct of Athens and how it opened “casus belli” (an act or situation that provokes or justifies a war).
International maritime law, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in particular, and international law in general clearly regulate the territorial waters and airspace of states. They provide guidelines on how far into the sea the exclusive economic zone of a coastal state may extend and, equally, stipulate that islands generally do not have such an economic zone.
Nevertheless, these legal facts are always challenged by the illegal actions of Greece as Athens claims that its airspace has a radius of 10 nautical miles off the coast, although since 1936 the width of its territorial waters has been 6 nautical miles. Under international law, the limit of a state’s territorial sea also corresponds to the limit of its national airspace, which is why Athens’ view is untenable. Therefore, its claim is neither recognized internationally nor by Türkiye.
Furthermore, Greece occasionally threatens Ankara with increasing its coastal waters from 6 to 12 nautical miles. In coastal water (also called territorial waters), the laws of the respective coastal state apply, which may also mean that ships of other nations may be prohibited from passing through these waters or that passing ships may have to submit to searches. Therefore, the expansion of coastal waters would disproportionately alter the balance of interests in the Aegean Sea to the detriment of Türkiye, which declared such a situation “casus belli” in 1995.
If the breadth of its territorial waters were increased to 12 nautical miles, Greek coastal waters would account for 70% of the Aegean instead of the current 40%, reducing Türkiye’s territorial claim to waters close to the coast. This also means that in such a case, the passage of (Turkish) ships from the Mediterranean to the Marmara Sea or the Black Sea (and vice versa) would depend on Greece’s approval.
To avoid such a conflict of interests, it is a fundamental rule of international law that the boundaries of maritime areas between neighboring or opposite states where maritime areas cross or converge must be established through mutual agreement. Yet, in the Aegean Sea, there is still no such agreement to regulate the maritime border between the two countries. The exploratory talks, which were supposed to work towards this goal, were recently broken off due to Greece’s endless maximum demands.
Within this framework, Greece has so far been unwilling to clarify the legal status of smaller islands and formations in the Aegean, whose sovereignty allocations have not so far been addressed by any agreement. On the contrary, Athens has merely claimed these islands that lie near the Turkish coast for itself without any foundation in a treaty or international law, going as far as to even occupy them militarily by fait accompli. Greece is attempting to further alter the maritime borders in the Aegean Sea in its favor, which in addition to the aforementioned maximum claims, constitutes a reason for war again.
Separately, the problem of boundary demarcation through the so-called Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean should be evaluated, something reported more frequently in the press. In contrast to territorial waters, a state’s EEZ generally extends up to 200 nautical miles out to sea from the baseline (i.e., the low-water area) and no longer grants a coastal state full autonomy over this area, but only certain sovereign powers. The main difference to territorial waters is that national laws no longer apply there, and islands (unless they are exclusive island states) are generally not entitled to EEZs.
The EEZ gains importance concerning the question of the allocation of natural gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean to the respective coastal states, after larger quantities of natural gas have been found there in the last decade. Taking into account the energy crisis in Europe, the issue of EEZ sovereignty allocations in the Eastern Mediterranean proves to be particularly critical and potentially a geopolitical game changer with a high risk of war.
For this reason, international law of the sea requires that neighboring states and states with opposite coasts agree in principle on the delimitation of the EEZs to avoid conflicts of interest. The decisive factor for the width of the EEZ is the size of the mainland of one state in relation to the other.
Consequently, in the case of Greece and Türkiye, after weighing the size of both countries and taking into account the fact that Türkiye has the longest coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean, it is not unreasonable to assume that Ankara is entitled to large parts of the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea (since the Greek islands do not have an EEZ).
Despite the relevant UNCLOS articles, nonetheless, Greece rejects even this fact and shows reluctance to undertake bilateral boundary demarcation in accordance with international law. Instead, Athens says that Türkiye is entitled to an EEZ only in its near-shore waters due to its geographical delimitation by the Greek islands and Cyprus. This is also why it has in the past advocated for the development of natural gas deposits in Turkish EEZs, which in itself is a major provocation.
Violation of neighborly norms
In the course of the maritime law discussions that have been coming to a head for years, Greece has taken every step to isolate Türkiye in the Eastern Mediterranean from its naval rights, the natural gas reserves to which it is entitled, and the community of Mediterranean littoral states.
On the one hand, it has created new regional counter-alliances against Türkiye through bilateral and multilateral cooperation with, for example, Greek Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, as well as conducted joint maneuvers near Turkish waters. On the other hand, it has not permitted Türkiye’s natural membership in the East Med Gas Forum.
As if this were not enough, Greece has rejected the transportation of natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe via the largely existing pipeline structures through Türkiye and has advanced the proposal to lay undersea pipelines through Cyprus and the Peloponnese, which ultimately could not be implemented so far due to technical and economic difficulties. Even though the realization of the project is expected to start next week, the difficulties involved probably make it one of the main reasons why Europe is still largely dependent on Russian gas to this day.
At this point, it should also be noted that the laying of the subsea pipelines is expected to take place through the Turkish EEZ, which in turn, without the granting of a permit by Ankara, is a violation of Turkish sovereignty.
But Greece’s offenses in this context do not end here: When Türkiye signed an EEZ maritime boundary agreement with Libya in 2019, Athens initially questioned the validity of this agreement as the two states did not have opposite coasts. However, shortly thereafter, it signed a maritime boundary agreement with Egypt, which is equally distant from it.
In response to Türkiye’s maritime border agreement with Libya, Greece had also expelled the Libyan ambassador as persona non grata while pledging its support to warlord Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who is internationally considered a war criminal.
What is likely Greece’s greatest offense takes place in Western Thrace and the Dodecanese.
The Turks in Western Thrace, as descendants of the Ottomans whose minority rights were protected in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, are subject to a radical assimilation policy. In the treaty, they were granted the right to choose their spiritual leader, receive education in their mother tongue and control organizations important to them. In recent years, however, Athens has circumvented the norms of the Treaty of Lausanne through internal legal reforms and reorganizations that, given their purpose, are superfluous as they violate international treaty law.
These include that the spiritual leader is now appointed by Athens, numerous minority schools have been closed so that of the original 330 Turkish schools, only about 110 remain today, and the Greek government is deliberately not further investing in Western Thrace in the hope that Turks will leave the region.
Besides, Turks in Western Thrace are referred to as a Muslim minority rather than Turks, and their origins are denied in order to weaken their emotional ties to Türkiye. In addition, today it is even forbidden to put Turkish names and the word “Turkish” on signs at minority schools or in other public institutions, although they used to bear Turkish names. For the same reason, several Turkish associations were closed, including the Xanthi Turkish Association (XTA) in 1983, which took this decision to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in 2005.
While in 2008 the ECtHR found Greece guilty of violating freedom of assembly and association, the XTA’s right to associate was not restored. To make matters worse, it was announced in 2020 that the United States would establish a permanent U.S. naval base in Alexandroupolis, thus creating a buffer zone between Türkiye and the Turkish minority.
The casus belli, unfortunately, was also opened by Greece’s repeated militarization of the Dodecanese. The Dodecanese, still Ottoman at that time, was granted to Italy with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. With the Treaty of Paris of 1947, Italy ceded the archipelago to Greece, but only the right of possession was transferred, not the right of sovereignty. So, the responsibility for the Dodecanese under international law still lies with Rome. But despite this fact, Greek officials visited Türkiye several times in the 1950s and proposed starting negotiations on the definition of the maritime boundary between the archipelago and the Turkish mainland.
Ankara, however, rejected these proposals, since entering talks with Greece would be tantamount to recognizing Greece’s sovereignty over the islands. To make things more difficult, Greece took advantage of the 1960 Turkish military coup and militarized the Dodecanese islands, which are located a few kilometers off the Turkish coast. In recent years, Greece has also increased militarization on these islands by supplying heavy armaments.
On top of all this, Greece has allowed the U.S. to open numerous military bases in Greece, which pose a major threat to Türkiye. Furthermore, Athens has declared a military alliance with France (which is displeased by Türkiye’s rise as a regional power and its increasing influence in Africa) to collectively fight against Ankara in the event of war and has signed arms deals worth billions of dollars, raising its armament to a whole new level.
The Hellenic Coast Guard and Navy have repeatedly illegally entered Turkish territorial waters in recent years, including over 200 times in the first two months of 2022 alone, even harassing the Turkish Coast Guard Command and firing on commercial vessels en route to Istanbul. Most recently, Athens has raised its provocations to an entirely new level by placing a lock on Turkish fighter jets that were on a NATO mission, something usually done just before a fighter is shot down.
The Cyprus issue
Greece also regularly provokes Türkiye on the Cyprus issue. This is because it accuses Ankara of illegally occupying the north of the island and calls for the enforcement of European Union sanctions against Ankara. It has also recently pushed for and succeeded in lifting the U.S. arms embargo on Greek Cyprus, which will allow the island to rearm. According to the latest statements of the Greek Defense Ministry, it seems that the U.S. is already planning to open a naval base on the island soon, posing an existential threat to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).
The division of Cyprus dates back to the intended genocide of the island’s Turks by the Greek Cypriots, the failed military coup through the dicta regime in Athens in 1974 and Greece’s accompanying annexation attempt, which was ultimately prevented by Türkiye’s peacekeeping operation. As a result of this operation, Turks settled in the north as part of a population exchange agreement with the island’s Greeks. In the aftermath, the TRNC was established in 1983.
After all, the peacekeeping operation by Türkiye did not violate international law, since the Zurich and London Agreements of 1959 and 1960 gave Ankara the guaranteed power to conduct an operation in such cases. Moreover, the Council of Europe with Resolution 573 (1974) and the Athens Supreme Court (1979) confirmed the legality of this mission. However, despite the misconduct of the Greek Cypriots and the Greek diktat, the Turkish Cypriots have lived in isolation for more than 50 years, as the TRNC is not recognized today by any state except Türkiye.
Despite all attempts to reunify the two parts of the island, a joint state solution has so far failed as the Greeks on the island and mainland are insistent on their maximalist demands. As a result, the Annan Plan was rejected by a majority of Greek Cypriots in a referendum in 2004. This led to only Greek Cyprus joining the EU, with a claim to the entire territory of the island. This accession was carried out despite the constitutional prohibition clause for a partial accession of the island to a union and the Copenhagen Acquis Communautaire criterion, which does not apply to the TRNC.
Also, the last rounds of negotiations in Crans Montana failed in 2017 after the Greek party demanded that Türkiye renounce its guarantee power over Cyprus, which had saved the Turks on the island from genocide. Given the assimilation policies to which the Turks in Western Thrace are now subjected, it is clear what the consequences of reunification would be under these circumstances.
It is also morally indefensible that Greece tramples on human rights and literally pushes refugees to their deaths as Athens has forced several hundred refugee boats back into the open sea in 2022 alone, which is why hundreds of people have drowned this year. Refugees are also treated in an undignified manner in Greek asylum camps.
Greece has even partially shot refugees down when they tried to cross the Turkish-Greek border in Thrace by foot. The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis himself had previously given the order to do so, when he called on the border police to stop all illegal crossings, if necessary, by force of arms. So, it is clear that Greece despises not only international law, but also human rights. All its activities are a great danger to the stability as well as peace in Europe and the Mediterranean.
Finally, it should be pointed out that Greece is masking all its offenses with the narrative of “being the origin of democracy” and is always hiding behind the EU in all matters. But it is also clear that as long as Greece is not clearly shown its borders, Athens will continue with all its provocations.
Despite all of Greece’s misconduct, Türkiye was still willing to engage in an open dialogue with the Greek government until the beginning of this year. Since Mitsotakis and his Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias have cultivated a positive agenda in the dialogue rounds but then accused Türkiye of false facts to the public, the last channels of dialogue have been hijacked by Ankara.
However, events have shown that Greece has misread this resigned attitude on Ankara’s part. Given the casus belli that has already been opened several times and the great danger that Greece poses to the region, it is now no longer doubtful and illegitimate that Türkiye could launch an operation one night.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Author, MA holder from Friedrich Alexander University in Erlangen, Germany