A total of 18 mock dogfights were recorded between Greek and Turkish fighter jets in just a single day on August 27. This is a very high number, even by the standards of Aegean airspace, where borders can’t be signposted (a reality that we need to acknowledge if we wish to deal with it).
Meanwhile, according to military officials, Turkish jets flew over Greek islands 11 times on the same day. Two overflights were reported on the same date last year. These may only last a few seconds, but they are still overflights of Greek territory.
Finally, 550 migrants and refugees landed on the country’s eastern Aegean islands after traveling from the Turkish coast on August 29. It was the largest number of arrivals in one day since the signing of the EU-Turkey statement aimed stemming irregular migration in March 2016.
All that could be a foretaste of the tension that Greek-Turkish relations could experience as the summer holiday season comes to a close. In the coming months, we will be faced with the entire range of Turkey’s territorial claims, as these have been put forward after 1974.
It is inconsequential whether these claims were first expressed by the secularist establishment or the country’s strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In Turkey, territorial claims sooner or later become set in stone. It is extremely difficult for any Turkish politician to differentiate himself from the national policy line, to maneuver and come up with solutions on the basis of the country’s genuine interests and potential gains, rather than on the grounds of inflexible, nationalist dogmas.
Hence support for the nation’s territorial claims cuts across political parties and ideologies. In that sense, Turkey’s policy on Greece is state policy. This is also because of the fact that despite their differences, all Turkish parties are animated by a sense of the country’s imperial past.
When we speak of Turkey’s territorial claims, we usually refer to a specific set of claims. However, Turkey’s ties with Greece are underpinned by a specific ideological narrative which could be summed up as follows:
1. In the Aegean, since 1931, Greece has gradually sought to undermine the equilibrium between the two countries which had been safeguarded by the Treaty of Lausanne.
2. Because of Greece’s stance in the Aegean, too many disputes have accumulated between the two countries. The delineation of the continental shelf, as this is understood by the Greek side, is only one of the many disputes.
3. Disputes are mostly political, which may also contain legal aspects. However, any solution will have to be a political one. For this reason, any extension of Greek territorial waters will be a cause for war (casus belli). Greece is trying to solve a political problem by using legal means.
4. For these reasons, none of the differences in the Aegean can be dealt in isolation. The two sides have to reach a package deal that will cover all issues. This comprehensive agreement will have to take into account, on the one hand, Turkey’s vital interests in the region and, on the other, the fact that the Aegean has special geographic properties which are globally unique. As a result, rules and solutions that were applied to problems in other areas around the world are not applicable here.
5. As far as the Eastern Mediterranean is concerned, Greece and Cyprus are making an effort to confine Turkey to a narrow zone along the Turkish coastline. This Greek campaign has to be countered with concepts such as Blue Homeland, which envisages a Turkey that stretches across half the Eastern Mediterranean.
6. The Cyprus problem was solved in 1974. The only issue to be discussed with the Greek side concerns the distribution of hydrocarbon reserves south of the Mediterranean island. Otherwise, Turkey risks losing its hegemonic position in plans to solve the Cyprus issue.
7. Thrace is occupied by a Turkish (or Muslim-Turkish) minority which is systematically oppressed by the Greek state. At the same time, Greece does not recognize the existence of a minority in the Dodecanese islands.
Turkey shares a land border with volatile regions. It runs the risk of seeing crises spilling over inside its borders and making it part of the problem. We should not get ahead of ourselves however. Any threats on Turkey’s southeast borders are not, for the time being, serious enough to overturn its aforementioned positions on relations with Greece.
Angelos Syrigos is an associate professor of international law and foreign policy at Athens’ Panteion University. He is also a New Democracy MP.