Ankara, Turkey – From geopolitical and geostrategic point of view, increasing tensions between Greece and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Aegean have resurfaced other unsolved problems rooted in the Aegean Sea, including the threat raised against Turkey by the militarization of eastern Aegean Islands as an open violation of the 1923 Lausanne Peace Treaty.
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, the militarization of islands close to the Turkish mainland poses a threat to Turkey’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. There are about 152 islands, islets and rocky formations that were not ceded to Greece. 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. 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, 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 Turkey 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. 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. 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. 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.
Greece deployed upgraded Russian-made S-300 missiles on the Greek island of Crete (Girit). NATO has to see this, yet nobody is raising its voice. This was clearly constituting double standards, NATO, the European Union and the United States sided against Turkey when Turkey decided to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defense systems.
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.
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 Turkey and Greece 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 Greece 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.
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, EU has been expressing “full solidarity” with Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration against Turkey’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean. The EU’s decision is taken solely for the sake of solidarity among EU members and to serve the “selfish” interests of some member countries.
Claiming Turkey’s intimidation of Greece and Cyprus in the region, EU already condemned Turkey. It is clear that the EU sides 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.
Greece 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.
Greeces’ 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. 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. Greece 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. If Greece does not negotiate on these issues, Turkey either should not sit at the table for maritime zones.
In 1976, Greece unilaterally brought the dispute over the continental shelf before the ICJ and the UN Security Council (UNSC), the court rejected the Greek application. 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.
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, one 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. 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.