Turkey’s Groundless Claims for Greek Islands in the Aegean

Turkey’s expansionism into the waters of the East Mediterranean over the last year rekindled maritime differences with Greece over the delineation of continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) boundaries. Turkey’s focus has shifted on the Greek islands by either ignoring their right to generate maritime zones or by adopting double standards and diffusing certain myths pertaining to their military status. 

This has been particularly evidenced in the illegal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the demarcation of maritime boundaries that was signed between Turkey and the Libyan Government of National Accord. The MOU ignores the presence of Greek islands in the maritime area including the island of Crete violating their right to an Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf as provided in Article 121 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  In a self-contradictory way, the Turkey-Libya MOU employs Turkish islands and rocks as base points coordinates to construct the equidistance line, thus constituting a clear adoption of double standards and violation of international law. Article 121 of the UNCLOS clearly foresees that only inhabited islands, and not rocks, have the same rights to an EEZ and continental shelf as mainland regions. A representative case is the United Kingdom, an island country, that has the fifth largest EEZ in the world. 

Turkey attempts hypocritically to expand its argument that Greek islands cannot create maritime zones in the Aegean Sea because it is semi-enclosed. The Turkish position is invalid when taking into consideration that Ankara delineated its EEZ with the former Soviet Union in the Black Sea which is semi-enclosed on the equidistance method. In 1986, Turkey unilaterally proclaimed a two-hundred-mile EEZ in the Black Sea in accordance with the UNCLOS, that Ankara paradoxically never signed. One should also take into consideration that Greece has a total of 3,100 islands of which approximately 2,400 are in the Aegean Sea. By comparison, Turkey has only three islands in the Aegean. All this exposes Turkey’s double standards and selective enforcement of international law aggregating the level of Ankara’s unreliability.

Turkey deliberately ignores the existence of Greek islands whose coastline added to that of the mainland amounts for a total of 15.655 km as opposed to 8.368 km of the Turkish coastline. Research institutions like the World Resources Institute and CIA’s “The World Factbook” come to the same conclusion, no matter which metric is used, that Greece has a significantly larger coastline than Turkey, especially in the East Mediterranean. In addition, the Turkish argument regarding the island of Kastelorizo that it is an isolated island about 600 km from mainland Greece linking it to the case of Channel islands is null. The reason is that unlike Channel islands, Kastelorizo is not isolated far from the Greek coastline. In reality, it is part of the Dodecanese islands located only 60 nautical miles away from the Greek island of Rhodes.

On a parallel level, the recent issuance by Turkey of six Navigational Telexes (Navtex) stating that Greek islands are militarized in violation of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne falls within Ankara’s persistent attempts to distort facts on the ground. As known, the status of Greek islands in the Eastern Aegean is governed by three international treaties. The islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos, and Ikaria by the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923.The status of the Dodecanese islands is governed by the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty and that of the islands of Lemnos and Samothrace by the 1936 Montreux Convention.

Turkey deliberately distorts provisions of the Treaty of Lausanne. Notably, the Treaty of Lausanne has been targeted by the Turkish leadership on numerous occasions calling for its revision. On that premise, the Treaty of Lausanne explicitly provides that Greek military forces in the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos, and Ikaria will be limited to the normal contingent called up for military service, which can be trained on the spot. It also foresees a force of gendarmerie and police in proportion to the force of gendarmerie, and police existing in the whole of the Greek territory. Practically, the only country that violates no-fly provisions of the Treaty of Lausanne over the four Greek islands is Turkey. The Turkish Air force systematically violates Greek airspace and flies over Aegean islands.

When it comes to the military status of the islands of Lemnos and Samothrace that is determined by the Montreux Convention of 1936, it is a Greek right that has been recognized by Turkey for decades. On the occasion of the ratification of the Montreux Treaty, then Turkish Foreign Minister Rustu Aras recognized without reservations in his address to the Turkish National Assembly, Greece’s legal right to deploy troops on Lemnos and Samothrace. Then Turkish foreign minister specifically stated as it can be identified in Minutes of the Turkish National Assembly on July 31st, 1936,that “the provisions pertaining to the islands of Limnos and Samothrace, which belong to our neighbour and friendly country Greece and were demilitarized in application of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, were also abolished by the new Montreux Treaty, which gives us great pleasure”.  As known, Turkey approved the Montreux convention’s provisions for home and abroad.

As for the Dodecanese islands, there is Greek National Guard presence in accordance with provisions of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Turkish claims on the demilitarization of the Dodecanese islands are irrelevant as well as null and void for number of reasons. First, Turkey is not a signatory to the Paris Peace Treaty. It is a third state and as such no rights or obligations are created for or against it respectively according to Article 34 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.

Second, Greece has the right to defensively shield the Dodecanese islands, that are Greek territory, in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter. Article 51 foresees that a UN member state has the right to legitimate defence in the event of an armed attack against it, or in the event of a threat of use of force. Greece is entitled to defend itself especially when taking into consideration that Turkey repeatedly violates Greek airspace and maritime waters, has proceeded with the formation of the Aegean Army, and threatens Greece with war (casus belli) approved by Turkey’s Grand National Assembly in 1995, should Athens extend its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles. It is in the context of self-defence that Greece has decided to reinforce its Air Force with French-made Rafale and American F-35 fighter jets as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and drone response systems, possibly within 2021.

The fact that Turkey maintains groundless arguments towards Greece shows the limits of Turkish policies in the region. From the so-called “zero-problems with neighbours’” policy, Turkey has moved to the practice of “problems with almost every single neighbour” and has become increasingly isolated. Turkey’s neo-Ottoman ambitions, promoted through revisionism, endanger peace in the wider region.

Against this backdrop, Greece, a uniquely positioned country and constructive member of the international community, is committed to peaceful resolution of any differences with its neighbours through dialogue and consultation. Greece proved so with the signing of agreements on the delimitation of EEZs with Egypt and Italy and aspires to do the same with Turkey. The ball is in Turkey’s court. Turkey must now decide whether to take the path of international legality or that of adventurism.

Antonia Dimou
Antonia Dimou
Antonia Dimou is Head of the Middle East Unit at the Institute for Security and Defense Analyses, Greece; and, an Associate at the Center for Middle East Development, University of California, Los Angeles