Eastern Mediterranean Hub: what confrontation between Turkey and Greece in the Aegean Sea to lead to?
Since the establishment of the independent Turkish state in 1923, the relations between the two Mediterranean countries, Turkey and Greece, have always been tense. There are a lot of unresolved issues between them, mainly related to the waters of the Aegean Sea — this is the ownership of 13 islands, and the issues of the sea and air borders, as well as the population of East Thrace, and so on. However, today this tension is expanding by leaps and bounds towards the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean and risks developing into a direct military clash, which may involve other countries in the region.
The escalation of tension
On 27 November 2019, Turkey and the Libyan Government of National Accord signed a memorandum on the delimitation of maritime zones and registered it in the UN. According to this memorandum, Turkey considers the area south of the Islands of Crete, Karpathos and Rhodes as part of its continental shelf.
Greece claims that the memorandum is invalid, since under the international agreement on the law of the sea of 1982, the islands also have the right to the continental shelf, so Turkey's claims to the maritime space mentioned in the Turkish-Libyan memorandum are an attack attempt on Greek independence. Turkey, in turn, is not a party to the agreement on the law of the sea, but more on this below.
At the end of July 2020, Turkey, in accordance with the provisions of the Turkish-Libyan memorandum, began seismic exploration in the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, which immediately caused a protest from Greece and increased tension between the two countries. Greece sent warships to the area of operation of the Turkish ship, Oruch Reis, which conducted seismic exploration. In response, Turkey reinforced the corps of military vessels that provide security for the Oruch Reis. The two countries once again found themselves on the verge of a military clash.
Settlement attempts and the military's provocations
However, with the mediation of Germany, the conflict situation was somehow resolved. Angela Merkel held telephone talks with President Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis, after which Turkey, as part of a demonstration of good intentions, agreed to postpone seismic exploration for 3-4 weeks and return to the negotiation process that began between the countries back in 2002.
At this time, the signing of the memorandum on the delimitation of maritime zones in the Eastern Mediterranean region between Greece and Egypt on August 6 was completely unexpected, especially for Germany. Turkey said that the agreement had no legal force, since there was no maritime border between Greece and Egypt. Turkey also announced that the moratorium on postponing seismic exploration came to an end, and on August 10, via NAVTEX system, it announced the start of seismic exploration.
Against this background, France called on Turkey to stop destructive and unilateral steps in the region (seismic exploration) and announced that in order to de-escalate tensions between Greece and Turkey, it would send Lafayette frigate and two accompanying Rafale fighter aircraft to the Eastern Mediterranean.
Although this move was enthusiastically received in Greece, many political and military experts on both sides of the Aegean Sea say that one should not be too deluded by France's spontaneous acts of friendliness towards its Mediterranean neighbour Greece. The thing is that these actions disguise an attempt to exert pressure on Turkey in the framework of the Libyan and Syrian issues, in which Paris and Ankara are known to be antagonists.
In Turkey itself, they generally tend to perceive this step of Paris solely as a domestic political one, designed to satisfy the aspirations of the right-national part of French society, as well as as an attempt by France to take a leading position in the formation of the EU armed forces, which, according to some Turkish experts, should take the place of the NATO armed forces.
This was followed by an extraordinary meeting of the EU on Foreign Affairs, in which the EU expressed full solidarity with Greece and Cyprus and called on Turkey to immediately de-escalate the conflict and resume dialogue. Turkey's Foreign Ministry responded that Turkey supported the resumption of dialogue but was determined to protect its legitimate rights and interests, and that the EU's call should be directed not to them but to those who take unilateral provocative steps in the Eastern Mediterranean and to those who do not respect the interests of Turkey and the Cypriots of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).
After that, Greece sent a military contingent to the island of Meis (Kastellorizo), which, according to the Paris Agreement of 1947, is part of the demilitarised zone and should remain so in the future. It should be noted that the island of Meis is located at a distance of 580 kilometres from the Greek mainland and at a distance of only 2 kilometres from Turkey. Although the landing of the soldiers was carried out on tourist liners, the action is still provocative and violates an international agreement. Besides, it should be noted that for many years Turkey has drawn the attention of the international community to the illegal militarisation of the islands located in the immediate vicinity of Turkey, and Greece declares that Turkey, not being a party to the 1947 agreement, has no right to comment on its provisions.
The situation is also exacerbated by that both countries are members of NATO, and informal negotiations held through this organisation in early September did not yield any results.
Meanwhile, the pilots of the two countries continue to tease each other in the air. In this regard, the flight of the Turkish minister of the armed forces over the Aegean Sea was very remarkable. Warships continue to be mobilised into the region, and both countries alternately, and sometimes simultaneously, announce military exercises with shooting, while the Turkish ship Oruch Reis continues its work in extreme conditions. Besides, the recent announcement by Greece to expand its exclusive maritime zone in the Aegean Sea from 3 miles to 12 further aggravates the situation. Meanwhile, the US decision to lift the arms embargo on Cyprus, which had been in effect since 1987, came in time.
Greece and Cyprus are trying to force the EU to adopt a package of economic sanctions against Turkey at the next summit scheduled for the end of September. In this situation, it is also noteworthy that Cyprus threatens to block the EU decision on sanctions against Belarus if similar measures are not taken against Turkey. Thus, the EU faces the dilemma: either to act unanimously against Turkey and face a new influx of Syrian refugees held by this country, or to face a new wave of centrifugal forces, risking the unity of the organisation.
Legal side of the issue
If we consider the legal side of the differences between Turkey and Greece regarding the maritime border between these countries, at the moment the situation is being almost at an impasse. The two countries' approaches to the continental shelf differ. According to Greek experts, the Greek Islands in the Aegean Sea may have their own continental shelf. This idea is also enshrined in the provisions of the international law of the sea of 1982. If we follow this logic, then the islands, according to their continental shelf, also receive an exclusive marine zone.
For example, the 10-square-kilometre island of Meis, which we've mentioned, would have received an exclusive sea zone of 40,000 square kilometres under this provision. Turkish experts are of the opinion that islands can have the continental shelf only when they are independent states, such as Malta. And if there are islands between countries that are close to each other, they cannot have their own continental shelf and disputes about the shelf should be resolved as it was in the case of Ukraine and Romania in 2009.
Of course, to solve the problem of the shelf, it is first necessary to resolve the issue of ownership of the islands located in the Aegean Sea. But this is a rather lengthy process that requires a balanced and constructive approach, and at the moment, the parties are increasingly choosing to demonstrate muscle-flexing rather than of minds.