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Aegean Sea stirs storms between neighbouring Greece and Turkey

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PHOTO: Erakogu

Since the 1970’s Greece and Turkey faced quite a few bilateral crises which in many cases brought the two countries on the brink of serious accidents or even conflict.

In the case of Cyprus back in 1974 a conflict did actually occur, even though indirectly. During the 1980’s Turkey started to raise sovereignty issues on the Aegean Sea. In 1987, 1996 and 2006, almost every ten years, the mounting tension between the two countries ended up in crisis and in two cases (1996 and 2006) led to serious accidents and deaths of Greek pilots or officers. During last March and April there was also serious tension, mainly because of Turkish overflights on the Greek Eastern Aegean islands of Oenousses and the adjacent islet «Panayia». The incidents on the Aegean Sea have a few common features with the ones the Estonian people must be aware of in the Baltic. Features that contain violations of airspace, frequent interceptions and, quite a few times, overflights that conclude into dangerous «dogfights» between Greek and Turkish fighter aircrafts.

Before jumping into conclusions, one must bear in mind that the countries are NATO Allies since 1952. The year 1999 was the year of the «seismic diplomacy», when two serious earthquakes, first in Istanbul and later in Athens, led to the expedition of humanitarian help from one country to the other. It seemed like a turning point at the time, since for almost 15 years there was a major, undergoing diplomatic effort to bring the two countries closer. It actually never achieved anything since Greece and Turkey still disagree on almost everything that has to do with the delineation of their maritime zones, air-traffic zones, even the status of their continental shelf or the so called «militarization» of the eastern Aegean Greek islands. Turkey also still threatens Greece with war (casus belli) if it chooses to expand its seaboard from 6 to 12 nautical miles.  This situation of a prolonged but rather serene status of mutual disagreement, was disturbed after the (Germany and Turkey driven) decision of NATO to dispatch ships on the Aegean Sea as a part of an effort to tackle migratory and refugee flows from the Anatolian beaches to the greek islands. The effort of the representatives of the 28 members of NATO in Brussels and those of the Alliances Supreme Command (SACEUR) in Mons, met numerous obstacles until it was formulated into a final proposal for the activity of the allied flotilla by the end of February. The NATO activity started on the 7th of March and, at least according to the officials from both countries, Greece and Turkey, it has substantially contributed to the reduction of the migratory flux. But this is the big picture. The activity of NATO in the Aegean Sea had implications that go beyond the tackling of the refugee/migration problem. The route of the ships, the course they follow from Greek to Turkish territorial waters, the operation regions that have been activated (NATO ships do not sail south of Samos into the Dodecanese because Turkish side considers  it to be unnecessary), the ports where the vessels would drop anchor and a series of  other, not necessarily less important issues. During the current period, Turkey suggested that the NATO activity should halt, because it has achieved its initial goal: cutting off migration flows. But it seems that American and European allies think otherwise and they want to expand the area of operation in the Aegean for various reasons, among which is –of course –the curbing of migration flows, but also to remind to all regional players that the Greek Archipelagos is a Sea which lies firmly in the territory of Western interest. There is another Greco-Turkish disagreement within the framework of NATO, and that is the –more than expected –expansion of naval operations of EU and the North Atlantic Alliance in the Central Mediterranean. Greece is suggesting that it would be better to just expand the already operational «Sophia» in the south of the Greek Island of Crete, because the government is afraid that a NATO involvement (Turkey is a part of the Alliance) would bring Turkish vessels and disputes even at this part of the country. On the contrary, the Turkish side is a staunch supporter for a cooperation of NATO and EU in the central Mediterranean.

Given the fact that both countries have a crucial geopolitical interest for the western (and the Russian as well) economic, military and diplomatic structures (EU and NATO), it is very difficult to imagine how the two countries could end up fighting each other on the Aegean. On the contrary the migration issue, the proximity and possibility of strengthening the economic ties and the skyrocketing geopolitical value of the Aegean Sea, could actually turn the two – suspicious to each other – countries, into close partners for peace and prosperity. But there is still a long, long way to go…

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