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Dividing the Aegean Sea : A Plan in Progress?

By John Sitilides1 <>

19 May 1997

Over the past sixteen months, a well-constructed and largely successful effort has been underway in U.S. foreign policy circles to help deliver the eastern seabed, waters and, perhaps, islands of Greece in the Aegean Sea to Turkey, in the name of peace. Though the approach does not reflect stated American policy in the region, it has been actively promoted in various independent forums that bear great potential influence on foreign policy planning in Washington.

Greek ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention in January, 1995, granted it the right to extend its territorial seas from six miles to twelve, including in the Aegean Sea. Turkish charges that such extension would convert the Aegean into a Greek lake, and close off most high-seas passageways off the Turkey's western coastline, led to the acceleration of its decades-old plan to redraw the Aegean borders.

The program has proceeded with few significant obstacles, and may prepare the groundwork for extensive pressure on Greece to seriously contemplate the division of the Aegean Sea, along with its geostrategic prominence and undisclosed oil and mineral resources.

An analysis of this development, which will be increasingly reliant on American positioning in the months and years ahead, necessarily begins with a review of official U.S. actions impacting customary relations between Greece and Turkey.

On June 11, 1983, the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency published a map of the Aegean Sea section between the Greek island of Kalimnos and the Turkish coastal area around Kadirga Burnu. Based on British and Italian surveys conducted through 1933, it includes small Greek islets named Nisoi Limnia. The agency updated its regional map on November 17, 1990, with the same Nisoi Limnia marked clearly as Greek territories, based on surveys and charts taken through 1989. By January, 1996, while Turkey was carrying out the unprecedented claim on Greek territory at Imia, the Defense Mapping Agency published yet another updated map of the area. This one was marked by a subtle, yet consequential, change -- the Imia islets were unnamed, except for the description "Sovereignty undetermined."

During a four-week period preceding the January 27 map, Ankara had been insisting to Athens that Imia constituted a part of Turkish territory, and was already registered as part of the Turkish province of Mugla. After Greece rejected the claim, Turkey called for negotiations concerning the status of Imia and all "the small islands, islets and rocks in the Aegean" whose status, it claimed, was not well determined. Though the two countries' armed forces were quickly disengaged from all-out war over the Imia crisis, the ensuing diplomatic exchange remained furious. Turkey immediately linked the Imia question to other sovereignty challenges throughout the Aegean.

The U.S. mapping agency claims that a staff oversight produced the error on the January, 1996 map. No definitive explanation has been provided regarding the initial basis for questioning Greek sovereignty over Imia, which the U.S. previously recognized without equivocation. The agency notes that the State Department mandated Imia be properly recognized as Greek, under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, "the authority on sovereignty in the area," when the map is updated.

In the meantime, U.S. maps retracting recognition are in circulation, Turkey's threats are escalating, and its primary objective has been more effectively promulgated over the past sixteen months -- Turkey believes it is entitled to a greater portion of the Aegean Sea than it possesses today, and that Greece is obligated to compromise its sovereignty and territorial integrity to meet such demands.

Ankara's claims on Greek sovereignty date back at least to 1973, when the national petroleum company dispatched the naval vessel "Cardali" to conduct research on the seabed just outside Greek territorial waters in the northern Aegean Sea. Greece and Turkey nearly went to war in 1987, when a Turkish oceanographic vessel conducted similar activities in related areas.

For twenty-four years, Ankara has smartly emphasized that "the proper way to settle any dispute or misunderstanding is through diplomatic negotiations to be held in good faith and in an open-minded manner." Such language is perfectly in tune with the dominant philosophy in Washington, which believes that just about every diplomatic problem can be resolved if disputing parties engage in negotiations.

Greece's position that issues of national sovereignty and territorial integrity are non-negotiable is well-grounded and legally incontestable. It is highly problematic from the geopolitical standpoint which Washington's policy planners view the region. For American foreign policy makers, the preservation of secularism in a pro-U.S. Turkey is paramount. Turkey's violations of international law, its aggressions against peaceful nations, and its abuses of the human rights of millions of own citizens are countenanced for the sake of American strategic interests in the region. Greece's continued failure to confront this fundamental reality, while Turkey accuses Greece violating international law in asserting its right to extend its territorial waters, defend its eastern Aegean islands, and maintain a ten-mile airspace, permits Ankara to effectively argue that its claims on the Aegean Sea are meritorious and well-intentioned. Public evidence of this success has been glaringly evident in recent months.

During the summer of 1996, a geostrategic analysis entitled "Aegean Angst: The Greek-Turkish Dispute," was published in a U.S. Department of the Navy journal. Among the recommendations was a demarcation line through the Aegean Sea, drawn along the midpoint of two median lines, one between the Greek and Turkish coasts without regard to the Greek islands, and one between the islands' baseline and that of the Turkish coast. A similar model was used to demarcate the continental shelf between Great Britain and France, allowing twelve nautical miles of territorial waters around the British Channel Islands and awarding all waters beyond those limits to the French.

The Navy report also held that "it is necessary to move beyond the confines of purely legal analysis," and that resolution of the disputes "must blend law with both practicality and a sensitivity to the reasonable concerns of the other side," positions with which Turkey completely agreement and energetically advances.

In early 1997, the Institute for National Strategic Studies, an independent institute providing academic research and analysis for the Pentagon, published its annual Strategic Assessment. The section analyzing Greece and Turkey included a map of the Aegean Sea divided by the maritime borders established with precision by the Italy-Turkey Peace Treaty of 1932. In the institute's view, however, the official, internationally recognized border was merely the "Greek position on the continental shelf." To its west lies a jagged line depicting the "possible Turkish position on the continental shelf." It slices through the heart of the Aegean Sea, separating the Cyclades Islands from the Dodecanese Islands, and cutting in half the territorial waters surrounding the northern Aegean islands of Limnos and Samothrace. For more than a year, a similar map has been on display inside a high-level State Department office, with the eastern Aegean Sea shaded in along roughly the same demarcation line.

In March 1997, the U.S. Naval Institute, a private, non-profit group focusing on American naval interests, published an analysis of Greek-Turkish tensions entitled "The Aegean Sea: A Crisis Waiting to Happen." Acknowledging that "Greece is far weaker than Turkey, and its Aegean islands close to the Turkish are hopelessly exposed," the author warns that the Law of the Sea Convention is ill-equipped to provide legal solutions to the Aegean questions. He also maintains that the Aegean question, involving international maritime for Russian, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Romania, as well as commercial air traffic between Europe and Asia, transcends Greek and Turkish national interests.

In the event the Turkish military reacts to a Greek extension of territorial waters, it is proposed that the United Nations be called in to suspend all jurisdiction claims in the Aegean and bring the region under the international body's authority. A U.N. naval peacekeeping force would occupy the Aegean Sea to ensure safe international air and sea passage, while the Security Council would advance a Greek-Turkish treaty permitting "a creative division of the continental shelf."

In 1975, Greece and Turkey agreed to submit the delimitation of the Aegean continental shelf for adjudication before the International Court of Justice [ICJ]. Shortly afterward, Ankara decided that a political course relying upon bilateral negotiations was the only fruitful means for resolution and withdrew from the ICJ process.

As this position continues to be successfully promulgated into the journals and debates of U.S. policy planning and the foreign policy establishment, Greece needs to urgently revisit its American strategy. Its apparent lack of concern for American public opinion, and for the planning process which guides policy makers beyond that small group whose professional titles happen to include the words "Greece" or Cyprus," has contributed to the success of the Turkish effort to push for the division of the Aegean Sea. The voters of Greece may well believe that international law is sufficient to protect Greece's sovereign rights, but the strength of their government's arguments is eroding in Washington. The profit potential of expanded business opportunities in a Turkish economic market of 62 million, coupled with a growing reliance on the Turkish military to stem the tide of Islamic fundamentalism, has allowed Ankara to squeeze a series of unique concessions from its Western allies.

As long as geopolitical and strategic considerations -- such as Iranian muscle-flexing, Iraqi aggression, untapped Caspian oil reserves, and Israeli-Syrian tensions -- dominate American interests in the region, legal matters such as Greece's protections under international law, as well as the ongoing occupation of Cyprus, will remain relegated as secondary impediments to a strong U.S.-Turkish relationship.

Greece must transform its insistence on legal protections into an authentic warning to the world that Turkish success at forcibly redrawing international borders threatens not only their respective inviolability, but world order on a urgent scale. Instability in the Persian Gulf, around Israel, in the Taiwanese Straits, the former Soviet republics in the Caucuses region, on the Korean peninsula, and other global flashpoints have been spawned by attempts to gain riches, resources and power through the use of force to gain territory and redraw international borders. The conflict in the Balkans, requiring 35,000 American servicemen to impose a tenuous peace, was triggered by the military efforts to reconfigure the provincial borders of a nation-state which no longer exists.

If Greece decides it is willing to defend its sovereignty, muscular diplomacy and military vigor, coupled with American media and mass communications strategies, must be forcefully utilized to demonstrate to Washington:

  • the consequences of a NATO ally and European Union member forced to choose between territorial dismemberment and all-out war against the predominant military power in the region;
  • the divisive national debate over dispatching tens of thousands of America's men and women in uniform to the Aegean Sea, between two of the most heavily armed nations in the world, fully at war utilizing some of the most technically advanced, U.S.-built weapons systems available;
  • the staggering economic, political and strategic costs to the United States of such a confrontation, unwittingly spurred by misguided American tolerance of Turkey's illegal provocations. Greece's options are not many. Its recent successes in garnering serious American support are even fewer. The failure to secure Washington's guarantees that borders remain inviolable, and that destabilizing threats of force are punished, threatens not only the integrity of the Greek state, but the security of Kuwait, Israel, Taiwan, South Korea and others pivotal nations whose borders and sovereignty undergo constant challenge.

As long as influential interests in Washington insist that Turkey's considerations outweigh those of Greece, that the asymmetry between Greece and Turkey in American policy formulation is justified, and that Greece consider negotiating its national sovereignty and territorial integrity in exchange for peace, the plan to divide the Aegean Sea may one day triumph.

The Western Policy Center (916-383-7000) is a public policy corporation monitoring U.S. strategic interests in southeastern Europe. The author is a government relations specialist, and formerly served as an Executive Assistant to U.S. Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-NY).