The Aegean isles have been sovereign Greek territory under international law since the early 1900s with an ancestral Greek population that has lineage dating back 3,000 years. The Republic of Turkey continues to dispute the isles and Greece’s maritime borders and to challenge international law. Recently, Turkey had severed talks with Athens over the militarization of the Dodecanese, which brings both nations closer to war in the Mediterranean. The EU has placated Turkey and has rarely done anything in regards to air and maritime violations against a member state, which has emboldened Ankara. As U.S.-Turkish relations have reached an historical low, Washington can no longer sit idly and just watch these violations if it wishes to continue growing relations with Athens.
Ankara was emboldened to violate Greek air and naval space. This has included illegal offshore drilling, dozens of daily airspace violations, and ramming and intercepting Greek ships on Greek territorial water. These constant violations have shown the government of Turkey, regardless of treaties Mustafa Kemal signed and principles he wrote about, cannot be trusted in international law.
A brief history follows of the status of the Aegean after the Great War.
In the aftermath of the Greek Genocide perpetrated by Turkey and Greece’s failed Asia Minor campaign, the Treaty of Lausanne replaced the Treaty of Sevres. This treaty was largely written by Mustafa Kemal ‘Ataturk’ himself, in which all Aegean isles three miles from the Turkish border went to Greece aside from the Dodecanese island group, which was transferred to Italy. During WWII, the British took over administration from the axis powers, including Italy, and transferred the historically Greek isles to the Hellenic Kingdom in 1947.
When the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was ratified, the member states of the United Nations ratified maritime boundaries; almost all nations aside from Turkey. UNCLOS helped define Greece’s maritime borders and its right to extend its seabed to 12 nautical miles, something which Turkey vehemently rejects. Ankara, which had now essentially gone back on Kemal’s principles, has stated they have a casus belli against Athens for exercising rights in its own maritime space and states, only Greece is bound by UN law due to Turkey not signing the UNCLOS. Since the rise of the AKP party, led by Tayyip Erdogan, rhetoric has ramped up to where both Greece and Turkey have come to blows. Erdogan has dreamt about a neo-Ottoman Turkish state, in which the party has displayed maps every year showing annexations in the Aegean, along with other territory in sovereign nations such as Cyprus, Syria, Armenia, and Iraq. Using his connections and lobbyists inside the United States and EU, Erdogan had made the most out of the renewed tensions knowing there is little resolve by the world powers to impose punitive measures on Turkey.
Erdogan has used Greece’s military buildup in the Dodecanese as a sort of casus belli to prepare for a potential conflict. What Turkey has failed to realize is that if it weren’t for its daily maritime and air violations, there would be no need to militarize the easternmost Aegean isles which are under constant threat of invasion. There have been numerous attempts at talks by the Greek government with Turkey, including a formal meeting in Ankara in which the Greek defense minister, Nikos Dendias respectfully and tactfully stated Greece’s maritime rights in international law. These talks have fallen on deaf ears as Erdogan openly announced he had cut all ties with the current Greek government, stoking flames for a potential war. Since 2020, Turkey has used its proxy government in Libya, that largely came to power thanks to failed American foreign policy, to try to legitimize Turkish illegal claims in the East Med, which also includes extensions of EEZ into Crete. This, of course is illegal under UNCLOS. Meanwhile, Erdogan has threatened war against Greece if Athens wishes to extend their rightful EEZ further into the East Med, which Greece has the legal right to do under international law. As Greek-Turkish Relations have broken down, so have U.S.-Turkish relations, and this may be the time the United States can be on right side of Greek history after WWII.
U.S.-Turkish relations has soured for various reasons, including Turkey’s 2020 decision to purchase the Russian S400 system, which is illegal per NATO membership. The Turkish government brushed objections off and has even gone as far as to state they will continue to buy more from Russia.
As most Turkish military bases are in Western Asia Minor, it’s pretty clear the Hellenic Air Force are the targets of the missile system, especially since Greece has one of the top ranked air forces in the world today.
Using their geopolitical and strategic position in NATO, Turkey has gone from a reliable member state to a reckless and rogue nation, using its location, and well-known favoritism towards Turkey in the West to antagonize Greece. Whereas Athens has abided with blocking maritime and airspace to Russian aircraft and ships in accordance to the sanctions against Moscow over its Ukraine invasion, Turkey has opened up its airspace and has done nothing to block Russian ships freely moving through the Black Sea. Erdogan has gone as far as to block NATO membership for Finland and Sweden, the reasons being more for ego than logic. Indeed, Erdogan’s rhetoric now approaches paranoia, seeing the increased U.S. bases in Greece as a ‘threat’, even though the United States has just as many bases in Turkey along with Cold War era nuclear missiles. Clearly aligning with Russia, while playing cavalierly with NATO, Erdogan now wishes to position himself as devil’s advocate, scoring election points with the hardliners who approve of the renewed hostilities with Greece and NATO as a whole.
As peace talks and rapprochement by New Democracy to the AKP have fallen on deaf ears, it’s now time for the United States to stop being cavalier and use its influence to persuade Turkey to adhere to international law. Washington for decades has tried to listen to ‘both sides’ of the Mediterranean dispute, but in truth, there is no dispute. International law for decades had defined Greece’s maritime space while Turkey has ignored this.
A war would be extremely devastating to both sides, but Greece in 2022 is not the same country tha was caught off guard Greece in 1974 when Turkey invaded Cyprus. If the international community were as strict with Turkey and their plans for annexation of sovereign Greek territory as they were with Russia, the situation would never have exploded this far today. The EU has been indifferent to Greece’s concerns, but there is a slim hope the United States may listen. It’s time Washington paid greater attention to international law if it wishes to avoid another 1974.
Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York.