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In 1923, Article 12 of Treaty of Lausanne set the current territorial boundaries between Greece and Turkey, assigning sovereignty to the former “over the islands of the Eastern Mediterranean, other than the islands of Imbros, Tenedos and Rabbit Islands.” Following the Treaty of Paris in 1947, Italy ceded the Dodecanese Islands to Greece, allowing Athens to control most of the Aegean islands off the coast of Anatolia.
Although both Treaties of Lausanne and Paris established the demilitarized status of the islands, Greece justifies its deployments of military contingents in light of what it perceives as a threatening expansionary readiness of Turkey. Athens claims that its actions are also legally grounded in existing international law since the new legal framework introduced by the 1936 Treaty of Montreux gives Greece the right to militarize the northern islands of Limnos and Samothrace while the Article 13 Treaty of Lausanne permits the presence of Greek military forces in the remaining islands – provided that no naval bases or fortifications are built. Turkey also accuses Greece of violating the fundamental provisions in the Treaties of Lausanne and Paris.
The decades-long contraposition has been instrumental in heightening tensions between the two sides, a process that culminated in the recent remarks of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about a possible sudden occupation of certain islands by Turkish forces. With such fervent discourse, is a Greek-Turkish conflict a concrete possibility? Moreover, what challenges may this conflict pose to European security and the functioning of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)?
The Legal Profile of Territorial Disputes
Greco-Turkish territorial disputes over parts of the Aegean Sea can be narrowed down to two fundamental issues: the delimitation of territorial waters of Greek islands located close to Anatolian coasts; and the definition of respective continental shelves and the related rights to the exploitation of maritime resources, oil at the top. In the current arrangement, Greece established 6 nautical miles of territorial waters around its Aegean Islands, reserving a prerogative to extend up to 12 nautical miles as regulated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Turkey, on the other hand, which is not a signatory of UNCLOS, strongly opposes this potential expansion of territorial waters since it would significantly limit Turkish navigation rights to innocent passage in most of the Aegean Sea, thereby limiting Ankara’s military activities in the region.
As for the continental shelf issue, Athens argues that each of its islands has the right to a 200 nautical miles continental shelf in line with the basic provisions of the UNCLOS. In contrast, Turkey claims that some of these islands have no such right as they constitute a natural prolongation of the Anatolian peninsula and, thus, are located on what it considers its own continental shelf.
Although most Greek claims are grounded in the legal framework laid out by UNCLOS, it is worth mentioning how previous jurisprudence stressed the need for a case-by-case analysis of how special circumstances affect the attribution of effects to maritime zones to achieve an equitable result for each state involved. Therefore, while Greece has arguably attained the legal jurisprudence for its territorial claims, it must be noted that the current arrangement, together with Greek expansionary claims, bear clear elements of inequity to the detriment of Turkey. Having said that, there is no reasonable justification for the Turkish questioning of Greek sovereignty on certain islands, which clearly lacks any compelling legal basis.
How Domestic and International Politics Fit into the Contraposition
Alongside territorial disputes, elements of domestic and international politics contribute to feeding into the Turkish-Greek contraposition. With general elections approaching in both countries, reviving historical tensions may prove a successful strategy for leading parties to galvanize their electorates and maximize domestic political support.
This is evident in the case of Mr. Erdogan who continues to struggle with a rather precarious domestic economic situation, the most emblematic trait of which is the 24-year high inflation that officially stands above 83%, but whose real figure is likely to be much higher. The Turkish public has also been increasingly vocal about another element of dissatisfaction, namely the presence of approximately 4 million refugees and asylum seekers in Turkish territory. These are often blamed for the economic difficulties faced by the country and represent an element that bears large potential for social unrest. In this context, the risk of Erdogan being voted out in the next general election in 2023 is now more possible than ever.
In the case of the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, tensions with Turkey may help draw the focus of domestic public opinion away from thorny ongoing scandals. Although his party, New Democracy, has been comfortably leading in the polls for almost one year, Prime Minister Mitsotakis is at the centre of a scandal regarding the use of spyware by the Greek secret service to monitor multiple politicians, businessmen, and journalists in opposition. Mr. Mitsotakis has denied having awareness of the activities of intelligence services. Nevertheless, this seems an unlikely possibility considering that one of his first acts as Prime Minister was to put them under the direct control of his office.
If any responsibility is confirmed, the scandal has the potential to prove lethal for his leadership and, consequently, for the popularity of the party he is leading. Looking at the wider dimension of international politics, the recent direction of Turkish foreign policy has been another driver of tensions with the Western coalition, of which Greece is a part. For example, the relative distancing of Ankara from the U.S. in favour of a policy of balancing based on strengthening the relations with Russia has further deteriorated relationships with Western partners.
On the opposite side, Greece invested its energies in improving defence cooperation with the U.S. since 2017. As a result, the country has outmaneuvered Turkey as a key strategic hub for U.S. military activities in the region, adding another complex layer of tension in the Greco-Turkish relationship. Similarly, the exploitation of migrant flows as a bargaining chip, or even worse as a means of blackmail, by Turkey proved to be an unhealthy move for relations with the European Union and enhanced the already solid European support to Greece and condemnation of Turkish behaviour in the region.
Likelihood of a Greco-Turkish Conflict and Implications for EU security
Notwithstanding the low peaks in Greco-Turkish relations, and the increasingly aggressive narrative coming from Ankara, it seems unlikely that a real military confrontation over the Aegean Sea would occur anytime soon. However, such a risk cannot totally be ruled out. Let us not forget how Greece and Turkey already risked going to war due to previous maritime incidents to the point that, in the aftermath of rising tensions in the summer of 2020, some analysts argued that a “military collision between the NATO allies Greece and Turkey is not a remote possibility”. Furthermore, with the possibility of accidental military clashes there may be room for the legitimization for further military actions from both sides.
It goes without saying that a military conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean would have widespread implications for regional security and would likely require some kind of direct involvement of the EU in support of Greece. Even if a material conflict does not occur, continuous deterioration of EU-Turkish relations may represent a substantial security liability for the bloc as Turkey holds a formidable lever in its hands, namely the release of considerable migrant flows as means of pressuring European borders.
This is a full-fledged unconventional security threat that brings together a variety of consequences, ranging from the potential infiltration of terrorism, the feeding of organized criminal activities to the increased economic, political, and social costs and their destabilizing effect on social stability in the EU.
Consequences of a Greco-Turkish conflict for NATO
One of the major concerns expressed by experts lies in the negative impact this may exercise on the unity of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), especially in the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine. Considering that NATO’s leading decision-making principle is consensus there is no need to emphasise how a radically dissident member would pose a fundamental threat to the effectiveness of the organization. This happened with the recent Turkish opposition to Swedish and Finnish NATO applications – disrupting a historical moment for the Alliance.
Furthermore, having both Greece and Turkey as NATO members creates a paradox in the application of the collective defence principle enshrined in the Article 5, thus challenging the mandate for collective security.
However, looking at the issue from the opposite perspective, NATO can also be interpreted as the most adequate political platform to handle Greco-Turkish tensions. The Alliance is acquainted with such kinds of rhetorical clashes since both countries joined in 1952. These became a matter of ordinary administration rather than posing a fundamental threat to NATO unity and effectiveness. Therefore, intra-alliance diplomacy constitutes one of the most viable negotiation frameworks for conflict management in the Eastern Mediterranean. Overall, this internal conflict surely poses challenges to the unity and effectiveness of NATO’s strategic decision-making. However, while working-level dynamics do not seem to be heavily impacted, NATO remains one of the leading forums for the management of the Greco-Turkish conflict.