Rifts in Greek-Turkish Rapprochement: Part II

Konstantinos K
Konstantinos Khttps://substack.com/@polity21hq
Konstantinos is a postgraduate student, researcher, and founder of the Polity21 brand. He specializes in Greek-Turkish relations, conflict and power politics in the Aegean, and the Eastern Mediterranean. His academic and journalistic interests also include Astropolitics, Remote Warfare, and U.S. Grand Strategy.

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The Greek Prime Minister’s visit to Turkey’s capital, Ankara, on May 13 came four months after Erdogan’s visit to Athens last December, where both sides agreed to politically entrench the sustained calm over the Aegean in the Athens Declaration of Friendly Relations and Good Neighborliness. Ankara and Athens have sought to promote this engagement through bilateral dialogue which has been developing like a centrifugal spiral in which both sides have agreed to talk but thus far avoided addressing the core issues that have fueled the Greek-Turkish conflict for 50 years now.

The Athens Declaration has no binding legal status but outlines four guiding principles and measures to normalize bilateral relations. These include 1) the pursuit of exploratory and consultative dialogue in addressing disputes, 2) the promotion of cooperation in areas of low politics that make the scope of the so-called “positive agenda,” such as business-economy, tourism, transportation, energy, environmental protection, health, and education, among others, 3) a commitment to refrain from unilateral actions that may undermine the “maintenance of peace and stability in their region, and 4) to resolve disputes “in an amicable manner through direct consultations between them or through other means of mutual choice as provided for in the United Nations Charter.”

Greek PM Mitsotakis’s visit and joint statements with President Erdogan before the press fell squarely within the loose framework set by the Athens declaration, notwithstanding Ankara’s unilateral actions and statements in the run-up to the meeting.

Despite Ankara’s protest in April against the establishment of marine parks in the Central Aegean and the conversion of a Byzantine Greek-Orthodox monastery into a mosque on May 6, a decision that primarily aims at undermining the Republic’s secular Kemalist foundations, the Greek premier’s visit proceeded with a commitment to maintaining a semblance of normalcy in bilateral relations.

Both sides agreed to sign agreements expanding cooperation within the positive agenda on matters of civil protection, emergency and disaster management, health, medical science, and business. Notably, the head of the Greek National Intelligence Agency (???) accompanied the Greek PM and held discussions with his Turkish counterpart, Ibrahim Kalin.

Notably, however, no joint public statement was made on the Aegean dispute and neither leader received any questions on the matter from the press.


Latest Developments

?hroughout this period of sustained détente, Turkish attempts at encroaching upon the Aegean status quo have steadily continued.

Ankara’s objections to proposed Greek maritime parks signaled yet again the extensive scope of Turkish claims that since 1996 have disputed the internationally recognized Geek sovereignty over some 150 islets and rocks in the Aegean.

Most recently, Ankara protested Greek oil surveys in the northern Aegean, which are taking place until June 22 off the coast of Alexandroupolis and within Greek territorial waters. This marks yet another first for Ankara’s ever-expanding unilateral claims, which have steadily multiplied since the original dispute in 1973.

Never before had any Turkish government disputed the maritime delimitation between adjacent Greek and Turkish territorial waters in the North Aegean.

Turkey’s Office of Navigation, Hydrography and Oceanography in Izmir issued a NAVTEX (Navigational Telex) disputing Greek sovereignty and jurisdiction in the area reserved for Greek oil exploration surveys by the scientific vessel, “R/V Alkyon”.

The NAVTEX published on June 11 reads the following:


Such delimitations are established according to customary international law and the equidistance principle in the absence of a bilateral agreement. Nevertheless, the Athens Protocol signed by both countries in 1926 has for decades provided the basis for territorial delimitation across the Evros/Maritsa river, the natural boundary through which the Greek-Turkish border cuts between Western and Eastern Thrace and up to the river’s mouth at the North Aegean Sea.

As recently as 2021, Greek and Turkish expert teams had jointly mapped the “existing boundary line in the area of the river Evros, as it has been defined by the Athens Protocol of 1926, using modern technology.”


 The 50-Year Crisis

Athens has traditionally sought to redress the sole bilateral dispute it recognizes as outstanding vis-a-vis Turkey, the delimitation of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean continental shelf, to the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

The root of the 50-year crisis in the Aegean traces back to this fundamental bilateral disagreement over maritime sovereign rights that emerged in 1973 when conflicting claims over drilling rights in the north Aegean were first officially communicated by both sides.

Turkey favours direct bilateral negotiations, not on the basis of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which, notwithstanding Ankara’s non-accession, holds the status of binding customary international law between the two rivals, but on principles of equity and geographical conditions. Since 1973, it steadily expanded the agenda of the Greek-Turkish conflict, in a manner that has most notably abrasively contravened the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, the “birth certificate” that set the boundaries of the modern Turkish state, succeeding the Ottoman Empire.

The subsequent Turkish invasion of Cyprus, framed by Ankara as a “peacekeeping intervention” in defense of the island’s Turkish Cypriot minority was a defining moment in the construction of a geostrategic dimension in the Greek-Turkish conflict. The occupation of 40 per cent of the island signalled in the most profound way that Ankara’s strategic control of the entire island was a grand strategic imperative of the first order for Ankara. In the words of former Foreign Affairs minister, Ahmet Davutoglu: “Even if there was not one single Muslim Turk over there, Turkey would have to maintain a Cyprus question. No country could possibly be indifferent to an island like this, placed in the heart of its vital space.” The Aegean Sea was next in line in the aftermath of the “Attila” invasions.

The signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 marked the dawn of the contemporary legal and political status quo across the Aegean. Turkey had relinquished territorial claims and control of all islands beyond three miles from the Anatolian coastline, except for the then-Greek majority islands of Imvros and Tenedos (Gokceada and Bozcaada):

Courtesy of the Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs


Agree To Disagree?

To date, Greece and Turkey maintain radically different positions and understandings over what constitutes part of the 50-year-old conflict. While Greece has traditionally maintained that resolving the pending delimitation of the Aegean continental shelf is the sole point of contention, Turkey’s claims have grown exponentially since 1973 when conflict over the continental shelf first emerged. Below is a compact overview of Turkey’s claims to date as presented by both countries’ foreign affairs ministries:

  1. The Continental Shelf Dispute:It is recognised by Greece as the sole bilateral dispute with Turkey.
  2. The Extent of Greek Territorial Waters: Greece has been successfully deterred from exercising its unilaterally lawful right of expanding its territorial sea from six to 12 nautical miles, as per the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, due to a standing casus belli, issued by Turkey’s Grand National Assembly in 1998. The resolution authorizes the Turkish Armed Forces to “use all means necessary,” effectively threatening Athens with all-out war if it expands its territorial waters beyond six nautical miles.
  3. The Extent of Greek Air Space and the Athens Flight Information Region (FIR).
  1. The partially demilitarized status of the Eastern Aegean islands.
  2. Disputing Greek sovereignty over small Aegean islets and rocks that are not explicitly named in international treaties.

With the exception of the Aegean continental shelf dispute, Ankara’s legal rationale in support of the aforementioned claims is legally dubious and in contravention of UNCLOS and customary international law. The extension of Greek air space at 10 nautical miles over international waters, which begins when the Greek sovereign territorial sea ends at six nautical miles, is a paradox that has come about due to the Turkish threat of war on any extension above six. International law requires that national airspace overlaps with its territorial sea.

Hence, this Greek inconsistency has also been challenged by the US which maintains that “Greece and the US do not share a view on the extent of Greece’s airspace.”

“Lack of such delimitation means there is no clarity on the extent of Greece’s territorial sea and corresponding airspace in these areas rendering any assessment of total violations not feasible.”

It should nevertheless be noted that the Hellenic National Defence General Staff maintains a comprehensive public database of all airspace and FIR violations by Turkish aircraft to this date that also includes overflights over sovereign Greek territory. Notably, 48 Turkish overflights over national territory were recorded in 2021 out of a total of 2,744 violations of national airspace.

Throughout the ongoing Greek-Turkish rapprochement, beginning in February 2023, 21 overflights were recorded in 2023 and zero so far this year.

As of 2022, Ankara’s objections over the militarization of Eastern Aegean islands have included yet another novel claim that disputes the Greek ownership of the islands, viewing their demilitarization as per the 1923 Lausanne Treaty and the 1947 Paris Peace Treaties as a conditional parameter for Greek sovereignty. The argument lacks legal foundations as the Treaty itself does not impose or recognize any such notions of conditional sovereignty. Additionally, Turkey is not a signatory of the 1947 Paris Treaty and, hence, by definition, is not in a position to call Greek actions that fall under the Treaty’s purview into dispute.


Moving Forward

The path to lasting Greek-Turkish rapprochement is doubtful and full of obstacles. Historical memory, experience and national narratives are only reflective of the deeper reality of the specifics of Greek-Turkish conflict and power politics in general is often not professed in earnest on the diplomatic stage.

This reality dictates that the Greek-Turkish conflict is diplomatically an inherently unsolvable conundrum, not defined by the supposedly defensive security concerns of both actors, but rather by the explicitly expansionist goals of one of them. Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus marked the first time since 1945 that territorial conquest, ethnic cleansing, and occupation made the headlines once again, threatening the livelihood of the majority of Cypriots in what socialist Turkish PM, Bullen Ecevit, claimed was just a “humanitarian intervention” aimed at protecting the Turkish-Cypriot minority amounting to a 20 per cent of Cyprus’s population. Civilians trapped in the occupied areas were not spared by the Turkish onslaught that systematically weaponized rape and sexual violence as a means of crushing the will and resistance of the civilian population.

Since the summer of 1974, the escalatory ante only increased more dangerously across the Aegean as Greece was compelled to remilitarise its eastern Aegean islands in response to Turkey’s subsequent formation of the largest landing force command in the entire Mediterranean in Izmir in July 1975. The National Guard Higher Commands, stationed in Lesbos, Chios, Samos and Rodos, opposite the Turkish coast constitute powerful deterrents and defensive bulwarks against any amphibious threats.

The Greek forces, on the other hand, maintain no serious landing capabilities that could pose any considerable threat to the Turkish coast and Anatolian landmass whose strategic depth proved decisive in the Greek expeditionary army’s defeat in the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish war. Since 1922, Athens has never expressed any irredentist claims or aspirations at the expense of Turkish sovereignty, unlike the multitude of Turkish claims that seem to exponentially increase decade by decade. Both facts are of course to military and civilian policy and decision-makers in Ankara.

Historically, politically, and legally, Turkey’s aggression in Cyprus and the Aegean has been the driving force of the 50-year crisis. There would have simply been no Cyprus problem, no casus belli, and no ever-expanding unilaterally raised disputes but for the pending delimitation of the Aegean continental shelf between the two coastal states. In other words, there would have been conflict and war preparations had Turkey been content with the international legal and political status quo of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. But as President Erdogan himself declared in his tumultuous 2017 visit to Athens: “There are outstanding issues with the Treaty of Lausanne and matters that have not been addressed correctly”. Much to the dismay of his Greek hosts, Erdogan suggested that the Treaty needed to be “updated,” in perhaps what has since been the most official and blatant admission of Ankara’s revisionist intentions.

Aggressive negotiations and coercive manoeuvres have been the name of the game in the Aegean. Geographically destined to live side-by-side, the two states have found themselves on the brink of war in four notable crisis scenarios in the past 50 years in 1974, 1987, 1996, and 2020.

At this point, the following questions need to be addressed. What is Turkey’s endgame in the Aegean? What is at stake for Greece? How does the ongoing Greek-Turkish rapprochement fit into all this?

Ankara has been clear about its grand strategic endgame in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. The “Blue Homeland” (Mavi Vatan) vision for regional hegemony denies Greece’s maritime strategic depth up to the 25th meridian line, disputes Greek sovereignty over a large number of islets and attempts to impose conditionality on the Greek sovereignty of Lesbos, Chios, Samos and Ikaria unless Athens desist from boosting their defenses and demilitarises. It writes off the influence of Greek islands Greece’s prospective Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in contravention of customary international maritime law. It threatens war if Greece exercises its lawful unilaterally exercised right of territorial sea expansion up to 12 nautical miles. For Turkish hegemony and primacy over the Aegean to flounder, Ankara seeks to decisively undermine the Greek state and power to the degree that Athens abrogates all self-regard, self-help means for its defense and agency, living in the shadow of Neo-Ottoman imperialism in search of its own “living space.”

Turkish statecraft operates in deeply geostrategic terms and with a living memory of its historical past guiding its strategic goals for the future. The so-called “Blue Homeland” weighs heavily upon Greek and Cypriot sovereignty, posing grave existential threats to the survival of both states.

With 40,000 occupation troops in Cyprus, the Greek Cypriot National Guard stands little chance on its own regardless of how much punitive costs it imposes upon renewed Turkish encroachments and aggression. Strategic success for Turkey on Cyprus is predicated upon cutting off Greece from the island, as the map proscribes, and coercing a weak and isolated Republic of Cyprus into further concessions under the ever-present threat of renewing hostilities. Ankara’s success in achieving full strategic control through occupation in the north and coercion over the free south is not a foregone conclusion. Greek capabilities for power projection across the southeastern Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean basin will be enlisting at least 20 F-35 5th generation multi-role fighter aircraft in its arsenal by 2028 and at least three French-built Belharra-class frigates by 2026. Yet more hard power capabilities across air, land, and sea will be needed to counter Turkey’s quantitive advantage and burgeoning homemade defense production.

Amongst Greece’s most pressing defense needs are the imperative necessity to mass-produce unmanned surface and aerial vehicles, procure new surface units and submarines for its ageing fleet, and develop the political will to assert itself politically and militarily across the aeronautically interconnected spaces of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. The order is tall but the costs are exponentially far greater for Greek sovereignty in the Aegean, let alone Cyprus’s survival.

Failure to succeed in its internal and external balancing attempts at thwarting Ankara’s “Mavi Vatan” hegemonic plans, would most likely result in a bloodless surrender and defeat in the face of ever-growing Turkish power, coercion and encroachment across the region.

Thus far, it remains unclear what Greece’s national goals are in this mode of engagement and dialogue with an economically and militarily more powerful neighbour who for the past 50 years has steadily maintained and expanded a revisionist agenda that seeks to enhance Turkish power and influence in absolute terms, outside of the legal and geopolitical confines of the 1923 Peace Treaty of Lausanne and the 1947 Paris Treaty which collectively put all matters of sovereignty in the Aegean to rest.

Greek Foreign Minister, Giorgos Gerapetritis, has outlined the Greek government’s perceived interests in the ongoing Greek-Turkish rapprochement as the following:

“We are aware of this. But I want to add something. Is there a Greek today who believes we should be standing against Turkey? […] There is a historic opportunity today. I perceive it, within the scope of my capacity and responsibilities, as a historic chance. What is this historic opportunity? To explore possibilities for us to live with Türkiye in a state of good neighbourliness. If I do not act, and if the current government does not act to this end, we will be accountable to history. I’m not saying that this effort will necessarily succeed. But I want to exhaust all avenues.”

“And I want to do so because I feel obliged to my children, to future generations, who should not have to live with their fingers on the trigger.”

The fact that international politics is a dangerous business where a war amongst states is very much the norm should be no revelation to the reader. Yet curiously, Mr Gerapretritis harbors remarkably idealistic aspirations for the future of Greek-Turkish relations and conflict, a stance that appears even more inexplicable in light of the ever-growing body of Turkish claims and relative power throughout the 50-year historiography of the Aegean dispute. As the gap in the balance of latent demographic and economic power between the two rivals expands further in light of Turkey’s ever-growing population and GDP growth, Greece faces an increasingly greater challenge, albeit not insurmountable, challenge in pursuit of the qualitative superiority that Kamaras and Storunaras prescribe. For all of Mr. Gerapretitis’s idealism, a coherent and non-partisan Greek grand strategy for containing Turkey’s hegemonic aspirations appears to be still missing.

A breakthrough will remain perenially elusive unless a compromise is reached. Neither side as of now has officially retreated from their long-entrenched positions. Lacking a viable and rationalist path towards normalisation, the conflict’s predominant escalatory logic will eventually resurface in the form of renewed Turkish militancy and aggressive encroachments, much like in 2020. To this date, there appears to be no interim, let alone long-term substantial progress, in rapproaching the two NATO allies’ inherently irreconcilable positions.

Time will tell if the Greco-Turkish rapprochement was earnest or merely a pause in the conflict allowing both sides to modernize and boost their military power in preparation for a seemingly inevitable war that has for so long cast its shadow over Homer’s wine-dark sea.