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Tensions “a Little High” in the EastMed
By Aleyna Baki '21
(Image Credit: BBC)
Pictures from the Aegean usually feature alluring turquoise waters, ionic columns, olive trees, bougainvilleas, white villas and yachts. This summer, things have been a little different. There has been a new addition to this captivating view: warships.
The tensions between Greece and Turkey have escalated after Turkey sent its seismic research ship, Oruc Reis, protected by five frigates into the disputed waters to look for undersea oil and gas. On Aug. 12, 2020, a Greek frigate protecting Greece’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) collided with a Turkish frigate near the Greek island Kastellorizo. Turkey argues that such a small island, 10km² in size, 350 miles from mainland Greece and 1.2 miles from Turkey (a distance Turkish ministers say a mediocre swimmer can easily swim) should not possess a continental shelf and an EEZ of 40.000 km². On the other hand, Greece argues that each island is entitled to have a continental shelf regardless of its size. Naturally, Turkey is the big villain in the western media, breaking international law. Yet, legally, politically and geographically, things may not be so black and white this time.
Once upon a time in the Mediterranean
When we revisit history, we see that the tensions between Greece and Turkey are nothing new, as it can be traced back to their first war in 1048. In 1453, Constantinople (Istanbul) fell into the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Yet, Greeks resided in Anatolia until the end of the Greco-Turkish war of 1922. Following that, 20th-century Greece-Turkey relations were characterized by population exchanges, the ethnic killings of Turks by the National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters (EOKA), the 1955 Istanbul Pogrom, and the invasion of Cyprus in 1974 after the coup by EOKA that divided the country into a Greek south and Turkish north (though nobody except Turkey officially recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), and a final fist-fight over “tiny islets” that nearly took the two nations to war in 1996.
What about international law?
The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne transferred 23 islands to Greece, on the condition that they remain demilitarized, and territorial waters remain 3 miles from shore. However, the islands are militarized today, and Greece extended this to 6 miles in 1936. And in 1982 the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)–which Turkey did not sign–gave the right to extend territorial seas yet again to 12 miles from shore. According to articles 46 and 47 of the 1982 Convention, the EEZ of a peninsular state may not be extended beyond the 200-mile radius from the continent, which weakens Greece’s Kastellorizo argument. The convention also says any problem with the continental shelf’s delimitation must be settled by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), not with bilateral negotiations or warships. All island disputes brought to the ICJ, from the Channel Islands between France and the UK to the Libya-Malta dispute, have resulted in smaller EEZs for islands far from the mainland. International law also follows principles like proportionality and the principle of domination. According to the “blue homeland” doctrine, since Turkey is the country with the longest coast (1870 km) in the Eastern Mediterranean, “[its] maritime jurisdiction should be congruent with such ratio.”
This is not just a Greece-Turkey problem, but more of a Mediterranean problem. In 2004, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt and Greece established an EEZ. Of course, Turkey was excluded. The Mediterraneans also disagreed on the Libya issue: Turkey supports the U.N.-backed government in Libya, whereas France, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt support General Haftar’s government. For their support, the Turks got a maritime agreement with Libya in 2019 for an EEZ overlapping those of Greece and Cyprus that pretends Crete is just like Kastellorizo. To make matters worse, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel signed an agreement to build a 1,900km undersea pipeline without Turkey. The pipeline will transport natural gas from the Levante to Greece and from there to the rest of Europe, covering one-tenth of the EU’s gas needs. Turkey is also excluded from future plans, including the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, whose members include Italy, Jordan, Israel, Greece, Palestine, and Cyprus.
Road to Peace
Throughout this summer, Germany tried to act as a mediator between the two nations, probably to risk neither flock of refugees to Europe nor unpaid loans. During this “timeout” process, Turkey stopped its research activity. At the same time, Greece made a delimitation agreement with Egypt, which is considered a breach of the principle of good faith, according to article 300 of UNCLOS. Consequently, Turkey announced Oruc Reis would resume its activities.
The media has also begun to compare the navies of both nations. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the Turkish Navy is newer and stronger than the Greek Navy. It’s not surprising considering Greece spends less than one-third of what Turkey spends for defense. Though, many allies including France, Cyprus and the UAE, have increased their military presence in Greece to accommodate for this difference, France as far as sending two fighter jets and warships.
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou said, “if you want to have peace, you must always be better prepared for war.” Though that does not seem like the best attitude for peace. At the same time, Turkish President Erdogan thunders around, saying, “Those who are asserting themselves to us, when the time comes, I hope they do not pay a heavy price.” The EU has warned that Turkey can face sanctions if it does not cease its “provocations and pressures.” So, if Turkey pursued legal channels like going to the ICJ and signing UNCLOS rather than acting jingoistically, they might actually achieve something. Sending warships did not do any good for Turkey, even if it meant promoting a “blue homeland” as a rallying cry that distracted people from seeing bigger problems with the economy.
As Alfred Thayer Mahan said: “Those who rule the waves rule the world.” But in the case of Greece and Turkey, any conflict between the two nations could cripple the economies of both countries that heavily depend on coastal tourism. One thing is crystal clear, however: war in the Eastern Mediterranean will be catastrophic for everyone, and there will only be losers.
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