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Statement on Greek-Turkish Aegean Airspace Agreement

By John Sitilides1 <>, Executive Director, The Western Policy Center

For Immediate Release
Contact: Susan M. Spencer (202) 737-6998
Wednesday, December 3, 1997

Washington, D.C. -- "The NATO agreement between Greece and Turkey to jointly control military flights over the Aegean Sea is a significant development in the effort to strengthen the alliance's command and planning operations in the region. However, a critical NATO regional security issue affecting enlargement planning remains outstanding. The alliance promises to guarantee collective security to new members while Articles 5 and 6 of the NATO treaty fail to provide mechanisms for resolving intra-alliance conflict, which nearly occurred between Greece and Turkey on two occasions in the past decade alone.

"This agreement follows the non-aggression accord brokered by the U.S. in Madrid on July 8, 1997, when Greece publicly acknowledged Turkish interests in securing access to Greek airspace over the Aegean Sea, as well as Turkey's right of navigational freedom in international airspace in the region. The airspace agreement was reached after Greece demonstrated inordinate flexibility and relinquished exclusive control over military flights in its Aegean Sea airspace, originally assigned to Athens by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Athens decided to alter its policy to help NATO establish a joint sub-regional command in the Eastern Mediterranean theater of operations. The extent of parallel permanent concessions by Turkey, such as the cessation of future challenges to Greek sovereignty in the Aegean Sea airspace, remains unclear.

"Turkey has long challenged Greece's insistence that the Athens Flight Information Region (FIR) cover Greek national airspace in its entirety, as well as certain areas of international airspace. Athens based its previous position on NATO documents and ICAO decrees which defined Greece's regional responsibilities for decades. In the wake of its invasion of Cyprus in 1974, Turkey escalated the level of jet fighter infringements of the Athens FIR, endangering international air traffic, impeding NATO military command and planning operations in and around the Aegean Sea region, and taxing the readiness of the Greek armed forces. Turkey's challenges to NATO guidelines and ICAO rules apparently stand vindicated, despite the adverse consequences of its actions.

"The December 16-17 meeting of NATO foreign ministers will be decisive in answering urgent questions regarding the implementation of this agreement, including:

  • Will the United States and other NATO member nations be required to inform Greece or Turkey, or both nations, of military flights over the Aegean Sea?
  • Have clear guidelines been established to differentiate between Turkey's NATO-related military flights and its unilateral flights in Greek airspace over the Aegean Sea?
  • Will Athens be required to inform Turkey of Greek military flights in national airspace within the shared theater of operational control?

"The possibility of war between Greece and Turkey continues despite their longstanding NATO membership. Turkish threats to destroy defensive missiles slated for deployment in Cyprus by mid-1998 heightened the risk. Any agreement concerning Aegean Sea airspace must therefore address vital Greek and Turkish national security concerns in a mutually acceptable manner. Unequal concessions from Greece and Turkey may aggravate, rather than resolve, ongoing alliance crises throughout southeastern Europe."

1[The Western Policy Center is a public policy corporation monitoring U.S. geostrategic interests in southeastern Europe.]