Located on the crossroads of three continents, the Eastern Mediterranean is of great strategic significance. The area is host to crucial maritime lines of communication and important straits such as the Suez Canal to the southeast and the Bosporus-Dardanelles to the northeast. It is also quite heterogeneous from an ethnic and religious standpoint, a fact that is also the cause of numerous national disputes. The prospect of significant new energy deposits being discovered in the area – potentially allowing Europe to wean itself off Russian natural gas – has emerged as a new field of competition.
Peace and friendship in the Eastern Mediterranean are in the interest of all the countries in the region – and beyond. But for this to happen, international laws and treaties need to be observed by everyone. However, the situation that has evolved over recent months affects a series of existing disputes and hastens the need to act.
The Cyprus issue
The Cyprus issue continues to affect Greek-Turkish relations, even though technically it is not a Greek-Turkish issue but an issue between the island’s Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities. The occupation of Cyprus, however, is a major national issue for Greece and, as such, a key aspect of its foreign policy. Even though a succession of Greek governments have adopted the opinion that, as an independent state, Cyprus must be free to negotiate its own resolution, Greece has made a commitment at every level to provide material and moral support to Nicosia until a permanent, sustainable and mutually accepted solution is found. As a result, Greece’s stance, and that of the Greek-Cypriot side, has always been constructive.
The same, however, cannot be said for Turkey. As far as Ankara is concerned, the Cyprus issue is a part of its revisionist and expansionist ambitions in the broader Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean region. The occupied north is controlled by Turkey, resulting, with a few exceptions, in an unproductive and recalcitrant stance from the Turkish-Cypriot side toward every effort and proposal for a solution. Given the support for proposals that would lead to division and Turkey’s obsession with maintaining an occupation force on the island, it is clear that Ankara does not want a sustainable and realistic resolution to the Cyprus issue, but is instead seeking the division of the island and the gradual integration of the occupied part.
As of 1974, Turkey started implementing a policy of challenges and demands, which came to include:
– Challenging, with the threat of war (casus belli), Greece’s legal and sovereign right to extend its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles. The threat of war is absolutely absurd, given that Turkey’s territorial waters in the Black Sea and along its southern coast extend to 12 nautical miles.
– Challenging the extent of Greece’s national airspace.
– Challenging Greek sovereignty over its islands (what Turkey calls “gray zones”).
– Challenging Greece’s jurisdiction within the Athens Flight Information Region (FIR), which is based on decisions of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that have been approved by Turkey.
– Challenging Greece’s jurisdiction over search-and-rescue operations within its area of responsibility.
– Demanding the demilitarization of the eastern Aegean islands.
Over the past months, Turkey has chosen the path of escalation, leading to an impasse. Violations, in combination with the provocative rhetoric of Turkish officials, are increasing tensions and stoking the likelihood of a heated incident or even an accident. The tension between the two countries has, as is well known, already spiked dangerously on several occasions in the past, most notably over the Aegean in 1976, 1987 and 1996, over Cyprus in 1997-98 and over the affair with Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.
Greece’s position has always been one of respect for international laws and for the sovereign rights of all the countries in the region. It consistently displays the composure and restraint that is expected of any serious, democratic European country that respects its citizens and its neighbors. We try to strengthen cooperation with other countries in the region not out of opportunism, but because we sincerely believe in the power of cooperation and diplomatic solutions. But Greece’s moderate stance should not be mistaken for weakness. Our country is prepared at every level and will not hesitate to use all the means at its disposal in the defense of its national interests and sovereign rights. We proved this recently with our response to Turkey’s attempt to blackmail Europe by exploiting the migration crisis and manipulating asylum seekers.
The memorandums of understanding concerning defense and maritime borders signed between Turkey and the Libyan government of Fayez al-Sarraj are invalid, fabricated and completely outside the framework of international law, a fact that has been noted by all international forums and acknowledged at every level. The recent joint declaration issued by Cyprus, France, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Greece, a string of announcements and official statements by American officials and the clear position expressed by the European Union, leave no doubt as to the international community’s opinion.
This opinion coincides with that of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which states that the Turkish-Libyan agreement does not produce legal effects. As far as the delimitation of our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is concerned, it is obvious that Greece needs to move swiftly on talks with Egypt. The recent maritime border agreement with Italy is a good start. If we could also complete maritime border delimitation talks with Albania (even if it comes in the form of a political agreement), thereby extending our territorial waters in the Ionian Sea, the development would mark a key step in the implementation of international law (UNCLOS 1982) with regard to our outstanding differences with Turkey.
Libya is in the grips of a war of representatives. The two sides (the Government of National Accord and the Libyan National Army) enjoy support from different countries, the most blatant of which is the military support provided by Turkey to Sarraj’s GNA. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has invested heavily in Libya. By aiding Sarraj, he is – apart from showing support for his Muslim brethren (with the help of Qatar) – attempting to also make a play for Greece’s continental shelf. Under the current circumstances, Sarraj is an Ankara pawn and is not serving the interests of the people of Libya, which has become a playground of mercenaries and Islamic State fighters. The continuing war, meanwhile, is exacerbating migration flows, causing problems for Europe.
Our country, in short, is facing a period of intense international challenges and fluid balances. It is a situation that demands an intense diplomatic push, as well as an acceleration of procedures for resolving pending issues that relate to the function and operational capabilities of the Hellenic Armed Forces. And in all of the above, the country’s political forces must support and adopt a common position within the framework of the national strategy.
Evangelos Apostolakis is a retired admiral of the Hellenic Navy and former minister of defense.