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Turkish-Greek Aegean Dispute

The Turkish-Greek dispute over territorial claims in the continental shelf areas in the Northeastern and Southwestern Aegean Sea began in November, 1973, when the Turkish government conceded part of the Northeastern shelf to the Turkish Petroleum Company for development, and continued when the Turkish government later conceded a part of the Southwestern Aegean seabed to the same company. At the center of the dispute is the definition of boundaries of the continental shelf and a rule of international law that holds that islands have continental shelves as well as continental territories.

In Turkey’s view, the fundamental source of the tension is Greece’s conviction that the Aegean Sea is Greek. Greece’s determination to expand the limit of territorial waters from six to twelve miles would diminish the Turkish and international share to an unacceptably low level, as would Greece’s claim to a ten-mile national air-space limit. The Turks believe they are seeking only to ensure Turkey’s freedom of access to the high seas and international airspace.

Greece claims that several international treaties have provided an acceptable territorial regime in the Aegean and that Turkish actions in the 1970s challenged this status quo by claiming additional airspace and seabed rights. The January 1996 crisis over the islet of Imia/Kardak intensified Greek apprehensions about Turkey’s aims to undermine the territorial integrity of Greece. The Greeks believe that all the Aegean issues are legal matters that can best be arbitrated in international courts; the Turks insist on viewing them as political matters requiring bilateral negotiations.

These claims were longstanding, but did not gain serious dimensions until early in 1974 after oil was found off the Greek island of Thassos, suggesting that the Aegean might overlie other significant deposits. The Turks had long been frustrated by seeing valuable oil reserves discovered near their borders (in lands formerly part of the Ottoman Empire), while Turkey has had only minor success in finding oil in commercial quantities within its own boundaries.

New tensions over the Aegean surfaced in November 1994, precipitated by Greece's ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty and its ensuing statement that it reserved the right to declare a 12-mile territorial sea boundary around its Aegean islands as permitted by the treaty. Turkey stated that it would consider any such action a cause for war. New technical-level bilateral discussions began in 1994 but quickly fizzled.

1. Maritime Jurisdiction

The first category of the outstanding Aegean issues is related to the maritime jurisdiction areas, including the territorial waters and the continental shelf and their delimitation.

The maritime boundaries between Turkey and Greece have yet to be delimited by agreement. At present, the breadth of territorial sea of both Turkey and Greece in the Aegean is 6 nautical miles. The geographical relationship of the coasts of Turkey and Greece in the Aegean is adjacent and at the same time opposite which requires boundary delimitation.

It is a fundamental rule of international law that delimitation of maritime boundaries between adjacent and opposite states in locations where maritime areas overlap or converge should be effected by agreement on the basis of international law.

In the case of the Aegean, however, there exists no maritime delimitation between Turkey and Greece with respect to the territorial sea in the area of adjacent coasts as well as between opposite coasts.

Extension of territorial waters to 12 nautical miles will disproportionately alter the balance of interests in the Aegean Sea to the detriment of Turkey. At present, due to its many islands, Greek territorial waters make up about 40% of the Aegean Sea. In the case of 12 nautical miles wide territorial waters, the ratio rises to over 70%. In the case of extension of territorial waters to 12 nautical miles, Turkey’s territorial waters remain less than 10% of the Aegean Sea while the size of the high seas falls from 51% to 19%.

The second aspect of the outstanding Aegean issues over the maritime jurisdiction areas in the Aegean is the delimitation of the continental shelf between Turkey and Greece.

The Continental Shelf areas in the Aegean that appertain to Turkey and Greece have yet to be delimited. At present neither country possesses delimited maritime jurisdiction area on the Aegean continental shelf beyond their 6 nautical miles territorial sea.

The subject of the dispute is “delimitation as between Turkey and Greece of the continental shelf areas of the Aegean Sea, beyond the respective 6 nautical miles territorial sea of the two littoral states, which appertain to each of them”.

2. Aegean airspace

The second category of the outstanding Aegean disputes is related to Aegean airspace the core causes of which are both the Greek claim to 10 nautical miles national airspace and the F.I.R. (Flight Information Region) responsibility by Greece.

Greece’s claim to 10 NM national airspace constitutes the reason behind the Aegean airspace disagreement. The core aspects of this dispute are the “Flight Information Region” (FIR) responsibility by Greece and the unique Greek claim of 10 NM national airspace while the breadth of its territorial waters is 6 NM. In international law, the boundary of territorial sea of a state also forms the boundary of its national airspace.

Greece exercises sovereignty in the air within 10 nautical miles of its coasts (by force of the Decree of 6 September 1931, in combination with laws 5017/1931, 230/1936 and 1815/1988). As a sovereign state, Greece chose to exercise sovereignty in the air within the 10 nautical miles of territorial waters it declared in 1931, regarding issues of aviation and its policing, whereas it decided to exercise sovereignty on the sea to 6 nautical miles (law 230/1936 and legislative decree 187/1973).

Turkey constantly violates claimed Greek national airspace with military aircraft – often armed – that also carry out low flights over inhabited islands. This conduct on the part of Turkey – beyond being a violation of Greek national airspace and having the potential to provoke heated incidents – creates hazards for civil aviation.

The exercising of sovereignty over airspace up to 10 nautical miles is implicitly legal, as it does not exceed the 12 nautical miles stipulated by the law of the sea as the greatest boundary of the breadth of territorial waters and national airspace.

From 1931 and for many decades Turkey accepted the breadth of Greek national airspace at 10 nautical miles without any objection or dispute, which qualifies under international law as tacit agreement. The 10-nautical mile status has been in force since 1931, when the relevant presidential decree was issued and implemented uniformly, without any protest as to its legal basis.

Turkey disputes the regime by invoking the non-coincidence of boundaries of sovereignty in the air and on the sea. Greece declared a 10 NM wide national airspace in 1931 even though the width of its territorial sea was 3 NM at that time. Greece later extended its territorial waters to the present 6 NM in 1936. Therefore, Turkey argues that Greece’s claim to 10 NM national airspace is against the rules of international law and the airspace between Greece’s 6 NM territorial waters and its declared 10 NM national airspace is part of the international airspace. Greece’s 6-10 NM airspace claim is not recognized internationally. Nor is it recognized by Turkey.

Turkey refuses to recognize a 10-mile airspace zone around Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, which led to over 1,200 airspace violations in 2015, 31 of which took place over Greek territory. On 24 November 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian jet over Syria for an alleged airspace violation. "The Turkish F-16 fighter jet was conducting a training flight over neutral waters. During its mission, two Greek air force F-16s began pursuing our fighter jet, holding it as a target on the radar for three minutes and 40 seconds," the Turkish General Staff said in a statement.

Turkey had a long history of intruding Greek airspace, with incidents rising over the past several years, to 1,269 in 2014. Intruding flights over Greek territory more than doubled in 2015, compared to the previous year.

3. Legal Status of Certain Geographical Features

The disagreement over the legal status of certain geographical features in the Aegean, in essence, is a dispute related to treaty interpretation. It concerns the legal status of certain geographical features and attribution of territorial sovereignty over them under treaty provisions governing the territorial status quo in the Aegean.

The dispute, thus, has arisen as a result of contesting claims of the parties emanating from differing interpretations related to the meaning, scope, intent and legal effect of the territorial provisions of the relevant and valid international instruments in this respect.

Turkey does not have any claim over the islands, islets or such features which were unambiguously ceded to Greece by internationally valid instruments. Yet, it is an incontestable fact that there are many islets and geographical features in the Aegean Sea whose sovereignty is not indisputably given to Greece. Some of those disputed geographical features lay very close to Turkey’s coast in the in the Aegean Sea. Actually this issue is one of the stumbling blocks before reaching a settlement as regards the delineation of maritime boundaries between the two countries.

4. Demilitarized Status of the Eastern Aegean Islands

The fourth category of the outstanding Aegean issues is the demilitarized status of the Eastern Aegean Islands under relevant international instruments, including the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 and the Paris Treaty of 1947.

The Eastern Aegean Islands are demilitarized by several international agreements, including but not limited to the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 and the Paris Treaty of 1947. These international treaties which are in force and thus binding upon Greece strictly forbid the militarization of Eastern Aegean Islands and bring legal obligations and responsibilities to Greece to this end.

However, despite the protests of Turkey, Greece has been violating the status of the Eastern Aegean Islands by militarizing them since the 1960's in contravention of its contractual commitments and treaty obligations under international law.

On the other hand, Greece also introduced a reservation to the compulsory jurisdiction of International Court of Justice on matters deriving from military measures concerning her "national security interests" when she accepted the Court’s jurisdiction in 1993. In so doing, Greece aimed to prevent a dispute concerning the militarization of the islands to be referred to the International Court of Justice. In the Turkish view, this is a tacit acceptance by Greece that she is violating her treaty obligations.

5. Search and Rescue (SAR)

Search and Rescue services concerning maritime areas are regulated by the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue of 1979 (Hamburg Convention).

According to the Hamburg Convention, in case a search and rescue region cannot be established by agreement among Parties concerned, those Parties shall use their best endeavors to reach an agreement upon appropriate arrangements under which the equivalent overall co-ordination of search and rescue services is provided in the area. Such coordination has not been established in the Aegean despite Turkey’s repeated calls to this end.

Furthermore, stipulating that search and rescue regions should, in so far as practicable, be coincident with maritime search and rescue regions with respect to those over the high seas, Annex 12 of the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation makes a clear distinction between maritime and air search and rescue regions, and underlines the prevalence of the maritime dimension with regard to search and rescue operations conducted on high seas. Besides, search and rescue operations either they pertain to aircraft or vessels in distress are conducted at sea.

Against this background, Turkey has declared its search and rescue region and registered it in the relevant IMO documents, namely the IMO Global SAR Plan, and it continues to effectively conduct SAR activities/operations in the region defined therein with a view to saving human life.

Since the Turkish and Greek Search and Rescue Regions (SRR) partially overlap, all SAR efforts/activities to be conducted in these overlapping areas must be duly coordinated as appropriate, in accordance with the 1979 Hamburg Convention, Art. 2.1.5.