The Greek-Turkish relationship is back in troubled waters as a mutual promise for calm founders on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s usual tactic of unproductive confrontation. He is obviously annoyed by the resounding success – on every level – of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ recent trip to Washington and the promise for a consignment of F-35 fighter jets in five years’ time. And this came as the Biden administration continues to keep the door closed to Erdogan and the US Congress hesitates over the F-16 upgrade program.
President Erdogan’s annoyance with these developments is expressing itself in many different ways. He is on the attack against Greece with aggressive rhetoric, misinterpreting the purchase of warships and warplanes as a threat to Turkish national security. He is giving the United States and the European Union the cold shoulder, and any leaders who acknowledge Greece’s positions are also given a tongue-lashing. At the same time, he is locked in negotiations with NATO and its member-states for the inclusion of Sweden and Finland into the Alliance, while continuing to exempt Turkey from the sanctions being imposed on Russia.
Ankara’s aggression toward Greece is – for the time being – manifested in rhetoric and legal arguments. The aim all along – which is also evident from its letters – has been to challenge the sovereignty of the islands via the argument for their demilitarization. The legal pretext was outlined in the first letter sent by Turkey’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Feridun Sinirlioglu, to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in July 2021. In it, Turkey claims that Greece’s partial noncompliance with the demilitarization clause that was part of the agreement giving it sovereignty over the islands in question, allows Turkey to challenge their sovereignty. All the letters that followed that one have stressed the particular issue, backing the argument with case law from the International Court of Justice in the second letter, sent in September 2021.
In its two letters of response – in July 2021 and May 2022 – Greece started by countering the validity of the demilitarization clause and arguing that it is obsolete, while going on to shoot down Turkish claims that the islands’ sovereignty depends on whether that status is maintained or not. It invoked its inalienable right to defend itself, the temporary character of demilitarization – which ceased being an obligation once “stability and finality” were achieved – as well as the threat of casus belli and Turkey’s Aegean Army, as reasons constituting a fundamental change in the circumstances which may lead to the termination of the status of demilitarization.
The demilitarization of Limnos and Samothraki had been abolished by the more recent (1936) Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits. Also, Turkey cannot invoke the militarization of the Dodecanese islands because it was not a party in the Paris Peace Treaty between Italy and the Allies (1947) which provided for that demilitarization. Moreover, the demilitarization provision is not part of a legal regime and Turkey cannot invoke it, including for security reasons. It should be noted that the countries that signed the treaty, the only ones that can invoke it, have not objected.
Erdogan is on the attack against Greece, misinterpreting the purchase of warships and warplanes as a threat to Turkish national security
Such legal antics are obviously part of Turkey’s effort to expand its theory of “gray zones” to include the bigger islands as well and to cancel the claims generated by virtue of their sovereignty in all the maritime zones – in contrast to the rocks and islets whose status has been challenged since 1996 and whose rights stretch only to the nearest coastal zone. The dilemma Turkey is posing Greece with is: demilitarize or have the sovereignty of those islands challenged.
We had noted in an article that Turkey’s claims can be challenged. The Lausanne Treaty leaves no room for doubt, because it affirms the islands’ sovereignty unconditionally, while Turkey’s renunciation of claims on these islands and islets and those not mentioned but lying beyond 3 nautical miles from the Asia Minor coast is explicit. Besides, in the 57 years since it first raised the issue of their demilitarization, Turkey has consented that it is not also challenging their sovereignty.
In its most recent official letter, Greece – albeit with a delay – responded to the Turkish claims with powerful legal evidence stemming from the International Court as well as the relevant treaties. It underlined that the aim of an agreement like the Lausanne Treaty, which established permanent boundaries and territorial legal titles, is stability and finality. The result is a legal fact with a legal life of its own that is no longer dependent on the treaty. As argued by citing the 1994 territorial dispute between Libya and Chad, “a boundary established by treaty thus achieves a permanence which the treaty itself does not necessarily enjoy.” It is clear that the 3-nautical mile limit set by the Lausanne Treaty is a permanent and final border, and clearly defines the sovereignty of the respective island territories.
In recent comments, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu openly said that Greece will either have to withdraw the military from the islands or face “a debate” over their sovereignty. He reiterated the same position in an interview with Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency, also presenting maps outlining the expansionist “Blue Homeland” doctrine.
Likewise, Erdogan’s aggressive rhetoric toward Greece is contributing to an extremely tense climate. Despite his extreme rhetoric, though, the Turkish president – a master manipulator of messaging – has said he is stopping all high-level talks with Greece and no longer recognizes Mitsotakis, but is keeping a back door open for interpersonal contacts. It is hard to predict what Erdogan will do going forward but we do know that it will take a cool head and prudence. Greece must continue to refrain from becoming embroiled in a war of words that will only serve to heighten the tension even further and prevent efforts for a de-escalation.
Professor Petros Liakouras teaches international law and is director of the International and European Studies postgraduate program at the University of Piraeus.