The Aegean Sea: Disputes between the Greek and Turkish worlds

By André Francischetti Moreno

According to the Hellenic National Defense General Staff (HNFGS), on December 17th of 2019 Turkish fighter jets F-16s invaded the Greek airspace forty times, even entering the Athens Flight Information Region without submitting flight plans or asking for an authorization. These violations led to 16 mock dogfights, which were already proven lethal in other interception attempts by Greek forces in the past 19 years of invasions. The relationship between the two NATO allies went through moments of sympathy and animosity throughout history. Notably, moments of tensions took place during the Turkish War of Independence and the invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Nevertheless, a great feeling of partnership was seen, for instance, in the summer of 1999, when a terrible earthquake hit both countries and several measures of solidarity and reciprocity improved Greco-Turkish relations in what would be known as the earthquake diplomacy. This feeling was extended until the early 2010s, with the approximation between Turkey and the European Union. Nevertheless, from there onwards substantial diplomatic differences came up between Greece and Turkey, and in 2018 the deterioration in their diplomatic relations became rougher.

The delimitation of economic zones, territorial waters and national airspace are at the heart of the tensions. In addition, Turkey claims sovereignty over a myriad of islets off its southwestern coast. The vehemence of the topic is due to the overwhelming number of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. In particular, Turkey´s complaints regard a chain of Greek islands lined up along the Turkish west coast blocking the latter from extending its zone of influence. It is important to highlight that both territorial waters and airspace are measured from the nearest inhabited territory, and thus influence zones are critical when it comes to securing partial control over shipping, full control over the airspace above, and exclusive right to economic exploitation of resources on and under the seabed. Due toTurkey´s strategic importance to the European Union in anti-terrorism policies, migration containment and as a NATO ally, the transcontinental country only suffered mild economic sanctions of the European Union over the past months in protest against President Erdogan´s violations of human rights and over what the EU sees as Turkish interference with Cyprus´ EEZs.

The concern of European leaders regarding Erdogan´s decisions got higher at the end of 2019. In December, the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, accused Turkey of not abiding by the EU 2016 refugee agreement, as the number of migrants coming through Turkey to the already worrisome Greek refugee camps dramatically enlarged. Whereas at a ceremony on the 27th  November in Istanbul, the UN-recognized government of Libya, at odds with its parliament, and Turkey signed a security accord and a memorandum understanding on the demarcation of maritime jurisdiction areas, aiming at gas and oil exploration and production in the region. Moreover, after President Erdogan said that he would send ships to drill for energy off Crete in the coming months, Vice- President Fuat Okay declared that military forces could be sent into the East Mediterranean. The EU Parliament issued a statement arguing that not only the memorandum is arbitrary and geographically questionable, however it also ignores the sovereign rights of Cyprus. Furthermore, as Italy and France have high stakes in the region because of the activities of ENI and Total in the gas drills off Cyprus, they agreed together with the Cypriot army to perform a joint naval exercise in Cyprus´ EEZs.

Hubert Faustmann, professor in the University of Nicosia and Cyprus director of the Bonn-based Friedrich-Ebert Foundation, said that Ankara´s agreement with Libya was a tactic to delay the multi-billion-dollar EastMed gas pipeline project planned by Greece, Israel, Italy and Cyprus, as it would cross maritime zones claimed by Ankara. The EastMed project would make of the involved countries a vital link to Europe’s energy supply chain, and Turkey holds its key as it can block any agreement by fostering its military, navy and air force capabilities in Northern Cyprus. According to the professor, “Turkey´s strategy is to create grey zones and disputes territories within the economic exclusive zones claimed by Cyprus and also Greece.” It is worth remembering that Turkey does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus, and claims Nicosia´s gas and oil exploration areas.

In response to the memorandum, Greece and Egypt are speeding up the demarcation of their territorial waters, while the European Council reaffirmed its solidarity with Greece and Cyprus. The EU issued soft sanctions over Turkish energy ships drilling off Cyprus and the Cypriot government received international warrants for the crews arrest but did not enforce them. Furthermore, Greece is trying to isolate Turkey internationally, forcing the annulment of the Turkish-Libyan accords, expelling Libya´s ambassador, looking at making an official complaint to the UN and requiring a meeting of EU leaders to condemn Turkey´s actions. In spite of being backed by Russia, Israel, Egypt, EU countries and the United States, the Greek Defense Minister stated that “if it came down to a fight in the Aegean, we shall not wait for anyone to come and help us… Whatever we do, we shall do alone.” Turkey, in turn, defends that the memorandum is in accordance with international law and that Cyprus and Egypt issued a similar document in 2015. Moreover, it uses its army, geo-political importance and cooperation towards migration control as leverage against Europe. Charles Ellinas, an Atlantic Council senior associate, however, believes Turkey has nothing to gain from escalating military moves in Cyprus.

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

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