The first Turkish violations of Greek airspace took place in May 1964 and were related to the tension over Cyprus at the time. They were followed by a hiatus of a couple of years and resumed from September to November of 1967, coming in the aftermath of a failed summit meeting in the Greek border region of Evros between the Greek military government and the Turkish political leadership. It was before the deadly clashes in the town of Kofinou in Cyprus and the Turks wanted to gauge the limits of Greek tolerance.
In April 1975, Turkey called on Greece to limit its national airspace to 6 nautical miles, in line with the delimitation of its continental shelf. Ever since, it has actively challenged Greece’s airspace within a range of 6 to 10 nautical miles, though only sporadically at first. The systematic violations began in the 1980s and became an almost daily occurrence in the 1990s. At some point, they started to extend beyond the 6-10-nautical mile belt to encroach deeper into Greece’s airspace.
These were followed by unauthorized overflights, usually at a very high altitude above small islands and more rarely over bigger ones. Three years ago we started seeing violations by unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. In the past few months, meanwhile, we have also seen violations along the Evros River border, something we had not seen for decades.
The root of the problem lies in a reform enacted by Greece in the 1930s to delimit airspace of 6-10 nautical miles above international waters. The 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, however, stipulated that airspace can only exist over land areas and territorial waters, yet no one addressed the issue of Greece’s expansion of its airspace over international waters.
Turkey decided to start taking advantage of this in 1975 and because Greece felt that its footing in international law was not very solid, it did not challenge Turkish aircraft encroaching into the 6-10-nautical mile zone. It did not bring them down when they encroached 6 nautical miles either, because this would have made it look like Greece accepted the 6-nautical mile limit; which is why Greece reacted then and not before.
The solution for Greece was simple: equating Greek airspace to its territorial waters. This could be achieved in two ways: either by reducing Greek airspace to 6 nautical miles, whereby the government would be accused of capitulation, or increasing the country’s territorial waters to 10 miles, which would raise the possibility of war with Turkey.
The option that was chosen was to keep sending Greek fighter jets to chase off the Turkish ones, occasionally with deadly consequences.
Greece never informed the Turkish side that there were some limits that could not be violated without consequences beyond an air chase or a mock dogfight. By maintaining the pressure, the Turks were able over time to expand the limits of Greek tolerance and violations became overflights above major Greek islands.
Today, Turkey knows that it can safely hurt us psychologically (without fear of an armed response).
If we don’t start to understand how the rest of the world works, we will continue to smugly rely on our certainties. We should just take a look at Sweden, which often complains of Russian violations of its airspace. How many were there? Four from 2013 to 2019.
Yet the Greek stance all these years has been indicative of the attitude that got us where we are in Greek-Turkish relations: We have excelled, in many areas, in defending our sovereignty and ensuring the implementation of international law. A country maintains its rights only to the degree that it cares enough to defend them.
Angelos Syrigos is a New Democracy MP and associate professor of international law and foreign policy at Athens’ Panteion University.