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Greek militarism in the East Aegean Islands disregards major treaty obligations

April 23, 2020 at 1:00 pm

Turkish navy forces in Istanbul, Turkey on 12 July 2019 [Muhammed Enes Yıldırım/Anadolu Agency]

The people of Greece and Turkey argue over many things. Food, for example; both claim “baklava” as their own, and prepare it in their own way. It would have been better for all concerned if this was the most serious of their disagreements, but it isn’t.

Unfortunately, the “demilitarisation of the Aegean Sea” is one of the most contentious disputes between the two countries. This was demonstrated recently in Turkish Admiral Cihat Yaycı’s new book, Requirements of Greece: The problems in the Aegean with questions and answers. The admiral is a familiar figure, as he is regarded widely as the architect of the maritime agreement signed last year between Turkey and the UN-recognised Government of National Accord in Libya in a move designed to counter Greek’s exploratory drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Historically, there is more to the demilitarisation issue than meets the eye. In 1983, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) prepared a contingency study to secure NATO’s interests in the military confrontation between two of its member states.

In fact, the “demilitarised status of the Eastern Aegean Islands” has been the accepted legal status quo in the long-running dispute between Greece and Turkey. The islands were demilitarised by several international agreements which imposed legal obligations upon the Greek government in Athens.

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Starting from the Treaty of London in 1913, the militarisation of the islands was restricted and their demilitarised status was confirmed in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. Subsequently, the 1947 Treaty of Paris, which ceded the Dodecanese Islands, including the largest, Rhodes, from Italy to Greece, also confirmed their demilitarised status.

Members of the Greek army on 2 July 2019 []

Members of the Greek army on 2 July 2019 []

However, Greece argues that the 1936 Montreux Convention on the Turkish Straits should be applied regarding militarisation. Ankara insists that Greece’s obligation to disarm the islands remains unchanged under the Montreux Convention, since there is no provision that is different from the Treaty of Lausanne on the issue.

Hence, the re-arming of the Aegean islands has always been a hot issue between the two countries, especially since the 1960s when relations between Ankara and Athens soured over the Cyprus question and extended to Greek 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 passed to Athens on 29 June, 1964.

Map of Aegean Sea [Wikipedia]

Map of Aegean Sea [Wikipedia]

According to Admiral Yaycı, Greece destroyed the demilitarised status of the islands and this affected the relevant sections of the Lausanne and Paris agreements. “With the 1936 Royal Decree in Greece, which declared that the territorial water borders were increased to six miles instead of three, the status quo held by the two countries was changed. In that way, the Greek government destroyed the balance of the Lausanne Treaty,” he wrote in his book. [Translated from Turkish.]

In January, Turkey’s Minister of Defence, former General Hulusi Akar, warned that Greece had violated international law by arming “16 of 23 Aegean islands” supposed to be held under demilitarised status. Moreover, in 2018, Greek armed forces conducted a military exercise on the Mediterranean island of Kastellorizo, which lies just two kilometres from the Turkish coast of the Kaş district of Antalya Province. The exercise was not only provocative but also a clear violation of the demilitarised status of the island.

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In retrospect, it is obvious that the demilitarisation of the Eastern Aegean Islands was recognised internationally because of their overriding importance for Turkey’s security. In fact, there was and remains a direct link between sovereignty over the islands and their demilitarised status. In this respect alone, Greece has no right to reverse this status unilaterally under any pretext.

Some of the islands affected:

  • Samothrace
  • Lemnos
  • Thasos
  • Agios Efstratios
  • Lesbos
  • Chios
  • Samos
  • Kefken Island
  • Symi
  • Kos

However, despite Turkish objections, the Greek government has been violating the status of the islands in the Eastern Aegean since the 1960s in clear contravention of its treaty obligations. Such illegal acts have increased considerably in recent years and have become a major source of tension between the two countries. Turkey’s appeals to Greece to respect the demilitarised status have all been disregarded. Joint membership of NATO has not enabled them to resolve the issue amicably.

Today, 23 April, Turkey celebrates National Sovereignty Day and the 100th anniversary of the Grand National Assembly. Although this marked the establishment of the secular, modern republic, the Turks have not forgotten that as a consequence of the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War they were coerced into signing the Treaty of Sevres in 1920. Worse still, under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne they were forced to surrender a lot of former Ottoman territory. As it moves toward the centenary of the Lausanne Treaty, Turkey will, no doubt, prepare itself to protect its sovereign rights post-2023.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.