Turkey, Greece at odds over status of Aegean islands

Greece has told the head of the United Nations that Turkey is directly challenging its sovereignty over islands in the eastern Aegean Sea, while on the other hand, Ankara has been criticizing Athens for arming the demilitarized islands in the Aegean, contrary to the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and the 1947 Paris Treaty.

The four-page letter sent by Greece to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, dated May 25 and signed by Greece’s permanent UN representative, Maria Theofili, was seen by The Associated Press (AP) on Thursday.

“Greece solemnly calls upon Turkey to stop questioning Greece’s sovereignty over its Aegean islands, in particular through legally baseless and historically false assertions (and) to abstain from threatening Greece with war,” the letter reads.

On the other hand, Turkey’s top diplomat said Thursday that “Whatever Greece’s justification is, it is not legitimate,” adding that Athens has been arming the islands since the 1960s.

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stressed that Greece’s steps threaten Turkey’s security and underlined that Ankara will be after Athens regarding the violations.

Touching on “increasing provocative actions” by neighboring Greece, the National Security Council also highlighted Thursday that Turkey would maintain its determined stance on protecting its rights and interests.

Greece and Turkey have been at odds for decades over sea boundaries, but the disagreement flared in 2020 as oil and gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean intensified.

The Greek-Turkish dispute largely centers around oil-and-gas drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, specifically around Greek islands near Turkey’s coastline.

A Turkish survey mission two years ago triggered a tense naval stand-off that Western allies had warned of the risk of escalating into a military conflict.

In response to the energy crisis worsened by the war in Ukraine, Greece has pledged to temporarily reverse a coal phase-out and step up hydrocarbon exploration along its western coastline.

Turkey is demanding that Greece demilitarize its eastern islands, maintaining the action is required under 20th-century treaties that ceded sovereignty of the islands to Greece.

The Greek government calls the demand a deliberate misinterpretation and has accused Turkey, a fellow NATO member, of stepping up hostile actions in the area.

“Highly threatening acts by Turkey (include) repeated overflights of Greek territory by fighter jets in contravention to international law,” the letter from Athens said.

Starting from the Treaty of London in 1913, the militarization of the eastern Aegean islands was restricted and their demilitarized status was confirmed with the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. The Lausanne pact established a political balance between the two countries by harmonizing vital interests , including those in the Aegean.

The 1947 Treaty of Paris, which ceded the Dodecanese islands from Italy to Greece, also confirmed their demilitarized status.

However, Greece argues that the 1936 Montreux Convention on Turkish Straits should be applied in this case, while Ankara says Greece’s obligation to disarm the islands remains unchanged under the Montreux Convention, highlighting that there is no provision that differentiates it from the Treaty of Lausanne on the issue.

Greece gradually began to militarize the islands after 1960, quickening the pace after the Cyprus crisis of 1974. Greece has 7,500 soldiers on the islands of Chios (Sakız) and Symi (Sömbeki) and commandos on the island of Rhodes (Rodos) as well as six army bases, two naval bases and two helicopter bases on the islands.

The rearming of the demilitarized Aegean islands has always been a subject of contention between the two countries, especially after the 1960s when relations between Ankara and Athens turned sour over the Cyprus question and Greece’s extended claims over Aegean airspace and territorial waters. Turkey’s first reaction to Greece’s arming of the islands in the Aegean was a diplomatic note given to Athens on June 29, 1964.

Apart from the militarization of eastern Aegean islands, the threat of extending Greek territorial waters beyond their present width of 6 miles (9.6 kilometers), a 10-mile “national air space” over 6 miles of territorial waters and abuse of the flight information region (FIR) responsibility are the main underlying causes of the conflict between Turkey and Greece in the Aegean.

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