TurkAegean or Greek Lake: The War of Words Over the Aegean Sea

Diego Cupolo
July 5, 2022

A Turkish navy vessels anchors in Kaş, Turkey, across from the Greek island of Kastellorizo during territorial disputes in the summer of 2020. © Diego Cupolo

Few regions in the world host as much beauty, history and grievance as the Aegean Sea. The roar of jets tearing through the sky can interrupt just about any beachside nap, as happened to a friend last week in Bodrum, where he was trying to get away from the politics and stress of life in İstanbul.

No chance. For more than 50 years, the sea has witnessed territorial sovereignty disputes of varying degrees, in which Turkish and Greek armed forces mostly accuse one another of violating air, land or water delineations and, in a few instances, brought quarrels to the verge of conflict, as last happened in 2020.

Since then, tensions largely subsided through European Council mediation and sanctions as Turkey and Greece held their first talks in five years on Jan. 25, 2021. The shift represented welcome progress in Brussels, peaking with photos of Turkish Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis sharing smiles during the latter’s visit to İstanbul in March 2022.

But behind those grins, a long-brewing sovereignty dispute was resurfacing over the status of Aegean islands, as defined by a string of historic accords, which Turkish officials have increasingly scrutinized, raising alarms among some observers who warn the prospects for escalation are growing.

This “new” spat is centered on how Aegean boundaries were established. Notably, it took shape before Erdoğan declared Mitsotakis “no longer exists” for him, and also before the east Aegean was rebranded as the “TurkAegean”, which we’ll get to below.

Treaties and Conventions

It began with a Turkish letter to the United Nations on July 13, 2021, arguing Greek sovereignty over its Aegean islands was conditional on the basis those islands remained demilitarized. Ankara has long claimed some islands host Greek troops, which Greece admits. But more recently, Ankara has been accusing Greece of actively “militarizing” islands near Turkish shores.

"The sovereignty of the islands will be questioned if [Greece] does not end its violation," Turkish FM Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on June 7, repeating a line he’s been using since at least January 2022. He added, “The agreements are there but Greece is violating them. It’s arming [the islands].”

The agreements in reference include the 1923 Lausanne Treaty and Paris Peace Treaties of 1947, which established Greek sovereignty over two sets of Aegean islands and required Greece to keep them demilitarized, permitting only a limited security presence.

Today, Athens argues it has the right to defend its territory, citing frequent flyovers by Turkish jets, which are also treaty violations, the 1974 Cyprus invasion, and the establishment of Turkey’s Aegean Army in 1975 as reasons to keep some deterrence forces on some islands.

The Greek MFA also claims the 1936 Montreux Convention replaced the Lausanne Treaty as the chief governing agreement for the islands of Lemnos and Samothrace, which it also deems were granted the right to militarize by the Turkish Ambassador to Athens at the time.

For its part, the Turkish MFA disagrees with the Montreux argument, adding international agreements don’t restrict militarization on the Turkish territories and that its Aegean army is “basically a training army” with a “defensive character.”

Ankara also states hundreds of uninhabited Aegean islets and rock formations – known as gray zones – were “not indisputably given to Greece” under 20th century treaties.

Aegean gray zones have been a topic of interest for Turkish commentators since at least the 1990s. What’s new is the lingering questions over their sovereignty may soon be linked to whether Greece demilitarizes its islands, with potential impacts on other islands and Aegean stability, as a whole.

Disputed Waters

Ryan Gingeras, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in the United States, said there’s no evidence to date showing increased troop movements or substantial military equipment on the Greek islands that could pose a threat Turkey.

At the same time, Gingeras noted Turkish officials have become “more legally creative” in trying to assert their interests over different parts of the Aegean, such as disputing gray zones. “This includes rocks, by the way, that are not that far off the coast of Crete, for example,” Gingeras told Turkey recap.

He added, “It’s not legalistically speaking an argument that would hold water in court. It’s more of an emotive issue.”

Other points of contention for Ankara include the role played by the Anatolian mainland and islands in shaping Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), which grant states special rights to explore and use of marine resources, and can be extended by discounting islands, like Crete, as Ankara did in 2019 while setting a maritime boundary with the Tripoli’s Government of National Accord in Libya.

A better known version of this approach, which ignores EEZs for islands, is Turkey’s Blue Homeland doctrine. Known in Turkish as Mavi Vatan, it more or less puts Turkey’s maritime boundaries at the midpoint between its own shores and the shores of neighboring states.

Likely emboldened by this ideological framework, Ankara has challenged energy exploration rights near Cyprus and questioned the large EEZ created by the tiny Greek island of Kastellorizo. At the height of East Med tensions in 2020, one analyst privately noted how in driving regional tensions, Ankara had successfully turned what were previously Greek or Cypriot waters into “disputed waters,” noting the definitional shift was an achievement in itself.

Bilateral Fears

With that backdrop, Turkish and Greek officials sent three more letters to the UN over the last year regarding the sovereignty of Aegean islands being linked to demilitarization. In the most recent one, dated May 25, 2022, the Greek representative to the UN wrote, “Greece solemnly calls upon Turkey to stop questioning Greece’s sovereignty over its Aegean islands.”

Then in June, the Greek MFA published 16 maps showing the expansion of Turkish maritime claims in the Aegean since 1923, tracing the start of modern territorial disputes to the early 1970s, when the Cyprus issue raised tensions for both sides, along with the frequency of airspace violations.

In recent months, as new sovereignty disputes took shape, a Turkish jet flew over Alexandroupoli, possibly a first for bilateral airspace violations. Also, Erdoğan broke off talks with Mitsotakis until he “pulls himself together,” and Çavuşoğlu said “Turkey is bigger than Turkey,” adding Turkey cannot be contained by its borders, which may not have been related, but taken all together, was read as a message for Athens.

Evangelos Areteos, a research associate at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), an Athens-based think tank, said many Greeks believe Turkey will one day invade an island or enter armed conflict with their nation.

“This fear is very strong in Greece,” Areteos told Turkey recap. “We wake up with Turkey and we go to bed with Turkey. It’s amazing. The average Greek knows much better what Erdoğan said today or yesterday than the average Turk.”

For Ankara, the Greek islands historically represent launching pads for attacks during the Greco-Turkish War, though the last such incursion occurred in 1927, according to Gingeras. Still, recent Greek defense agreements with the US and France, involving upgrades to military bases and Greek air force fleets, have likely rekindled some of those fears in Ankara.

In December 2021, Çavuşoğlu closed the year with a speech reminding the United States “not to upset” the balance between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus.

Ball In Who’s Court?

With changing regional dynamics, accelerated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, what lays ahead for Turkey-Greek ties remains uncertain and not fully dismissed as the usual neighborly bickering.

The two states not only disagree on maritime boundaries but also on how to resolve their differences. While Ankara prefers to address disputes bilaterally, Athens has long insisted on taking matters to the International Court of Justice. For either approach to work, at least some mutual trust is required, a sentiment sorely lacking on both sides, Areteos said.

“The perception in Greece is … if we were to strike any kind of a deal with Turks today, who can guarantee us that, maybe in 50 or 100 years, they won’t come back and say this deal was not the right one like they are doing with the Lausanne Treaty?” Areteos told Turkey recap.

Yet according to work by Yunus Emre Açıkgönül, a maritime delimitation law expert, Turkey’s stance might have changed because maritime laws have changed drastically since the signing of the Lausanne treaty in 1923, when “over 99 percent of the world’s oceans were high seas,” meaning under no state jurisdiction.

“Due to the particularities of its unique geography, there is no other coastal state that has been so grossly and negatively impacted by the evolution of international law of the sea as Turkey,” Açıkgönül wrote in February 2021.

Modern maritime borders are defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which the Greek parliament ratified in 1995 and to which Turkey is not a signatory, largely because of the territorial rights it grants islands.

The UNCLOS also gives Greece the right to extend its islands’ territorial waters to 12 nautical miles (nm), up from the current 6 nm. To date, Athens has not extended its Aegean boundaries as the Turkish government, since 1995, has reiterated the move would be a casus belli, or reason for war, as it would turn the Aegean into a “Greek lake” ( … which was the term at the time, though former Turkish Pres. Süleyman Demirel correctly noted the Aegean was not a lake.)

Regardless, in the article cited above, Açıkgönül argued Turkey shouldn’t be afraid to take disputes to court, highlighting a 2009 delimitation case between Romania and Ukraine, which diminished the impact of the now infamous Snake Island as a reason to extend Ukraine’s Black Sea maritime boundaries. In a separate article, though, Açıkgönül raised doubts over the potential for similar rulings regarding larger, more populated islands, like Crete.

Everything Is Politics

On July 1, 2022, Erdoğan dismissed third party attempts to mediate the current Turkey-Greece strains, though he signaled no intentions to escalate matters.

“We don’t want war with Greece,” he said. “But Greece does not keep its word.”

The comment might have been a reference to Erdoğan’s disappointment with Mitsotakis’ May 17 address to the US congress, in which the Greek leader highlighted Turkish territorial violations and encouraged US lawmakers not to sell new arms to Turkey, all without mentioning the country by name. Previously, Erdoğan had reportedly sought to keep discussions over bilateral issues between Ankara and Athens, without third parties.

So, why is this happening now? Some analysts have suggested the renewed regional tensions might be partly designed to boost Erdoğan’s waning support ahead of 2023 elections. They might also be a way to pivot public and media discourse away from Turkey’s current economic hardships. İlhan Uzgel, an international relations professor in Ankara, said a deeper matter is in play.

“He wants to show that he still has power to change the game,” Uzgel told Turkey recap. “That’s the main idea behind Erdoğan’s moves. Because he is in a weak position, he is trying to show that he’s got power, he’s got influence over policy in NATO, in the Aegean, in the Middle East, in Syria, in Cyprus.”

Areteos also argued rhetoric coming from Ankara goes beyond current political and economic dynamics.

“This is sort of preempting any kind of problem that could take place between Greece and Turkey,” Areteos said. “So, we have a political dimension – elections – but we also have deeper fears about Turkey’s security. It’s not just about Erdoğan, it’s about Turkey getting replaced in the region.”

All of the above, brings us to the concept of the “TurkAegean,” a new name for a region to clearly reflect what the Turkish MFA has been saying for years: “The Aegean is a common sea between Turkey and Greece.”

As Gingeras notes in this War On The Rocks piece, the idea behind the Aegean name change was previously floated by one of the Blue Homeland doctrine’s main figures, retired admiral Cihat Yaycı, who suggested calling it the “Islands Sea,” or “Adalar Denizi” in Turkish.

The EU recently granted trademark approval for the TurkAegean name, and it was immediately unrolled as part of a new Turkish tourism campaign, though Mitsotakis vowed to dispute the move.

Responding to the latest in the long line of Aegean disagreements, Gingeras said the name change was “revealing.”

“I think it's indicative of this desire to inspire Turks to see the Aegean as theirs both now and in the past – clearly for political purposes,” Gingeras said. “I'm not sure the average Greek citizen or official needs this type of conscious persuasion.”

Underlining the prospects for more maritime disputes ahead, Gingeras also noted this September represents the 100th anniversary marking the end of Turkey’s war with Greece, saying, “I’d have an eye on that in terms of heightened tensions."