It is not very clear to the drafter of this text how clear it is ―or if it is discernible at all―, to the EU partners of Greece and to the North Atlantic allies of both, Greece and Turkey, that the two neighbouring countries are, by now, rapidly converging to a point of no return, beyond which the outbreak of an armed conflict between them will become almost inevitable. That point has not been reached yet, but both sides are careering closer and closer to it every day.
The potential casus belli is Turkey’s intransigent claim to the Economic Exclusive Zone and the hydro-carburant resources of the Eastern half of the Aegean and well as beyond the islands of Rhodes and Castellorizon, which the Hellenic side, equally intransigently, claims as parts of Greece’s EEZ, in accordance with its own interpretation of the United Nations’ International Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNICLOS).
The recent meeting between President Erdogan and the Prime Minister of Greece in New York, in the margin of the General Assembly of the U.N. was, in substance, totally inconsequential. Avoiding it, though, would have appeared as a churlish breach of etiquette. Aware of the unbridgeable gap separating the established positions of the two sides, they chose, not unwisely, to bypass it ―but, alas, not causing it, thus, to vanish. The understanding, reportedly reached to convene the Council of Greco-Turkish Cooperation in the first half of next year does, by no means, entail a Turkish engagement, whatsoever, not to proceed until then to unilateral acts in the Aegean or in the vicinity of Rhodes, similar to those already undertaken within the EEZ of Cyprus.
Turkey’s claim to a vast Economic Exclusive Zone in the Eastern Mediterranean ―transcending Greek islands―, is, doubtlessly, irrationally extravagant.
But Greece’s own interpretation of the UNICLOS is, also, rigidly maximalistic; it ignores the geographical singularity of the space of the Aegean and of its islands, which if given the full EEZ “influence” provided for by the Convention, would almost deprive Turkey’s huge land mass of any outlets of Economic Zone along its Mediterranean coasts. Furthermore, it ignores “Equity” ―which is not a Turkish legal invention but an inherent part, a general principle, of international law; or rather, of law in general. The UNICLOS’s own wording is clear, that under singular circumstances exceptional arrangements will be introduced by the International Courts of the Hague and Hamburg.
Interestingly, both sides reject the jurisdiction of the Courts of International Justice, at the Hague and ―especially on the Law of the Sea―, in Hamburg.
The Turkish side rejects it, being well aware that no international judge would ever consider its claims to so vast a part of the Mediterranean seabed, beyond even the island of Crete.
On the other hand, all governments in Athens have, since quite some time, appeared convinced that once at the Hague or Hamburg, they would have to accept the quasi certainty of an equilibrated verdict rationalizing and limiting, even drastically, their interpretation of UNICLOS.
Turkey demands, instead, bilateral negotiations, which Greece also rejects, persisting automatic on the implementation of the letter of UNICLOS and, dismissing the relevance of any mitigating circumstances.
For a brief space of time, and in one instance, only, had both sides agreed to accept the jurisdiction of the Hague: when the EU had imposed this commitment on Turkey (European Summit, Helsinki 1989) as a precondition before the beginning of membership negotiations ―while, on the Greek side, the Government of Constantine Semites had, sensibly, revised the established Greek policy of reticence and prejudice vis a vis “international judges serving dark interests and vulnerable to pressure”.
That window of opportunity was not, however, to remain open for long. A subsequent Greek government faithful again to the school of thought of “non solution”, which had dominated Greek diplomacy since the mid 1970’s ―meaning that all issues with Turkey should rather remain pending until, “circumstances” would “one day” allow their settlement, fully on Greek terms―, assumed the terrible responsibility of discontinuing the whole process, letting Ankara off the hook.
As things stand, the Turkish side appears tirmly determined to embark on the venture of hydrocarbon research operations inside areas deemed by Greece as belonging to her own EEZ.
The noises of mild displeasure heard from Brussels, and the sanctions ―ever milder― which EU partners, somehow, managed to agree upon, have already been proved inadequate to convince Turkey to discontinue drilling operations on the Continental shelf of Cyprus ―which is much better defined and legally protected than what is claimed as EEZ of Greece.
The rhetoric of the autocratic regime in Ankara on the “Blue Fatherland” and the duty of Turkey to “reclaim” every square mile of sea which “previous weak governments had failed to maintain inviolable”, does not leave much space for regress without intolerable ―given the priorities of such regimes― loss of face at home, but also of credibility in the quest of dominant regional power status. Ankara cannot afford to waver.
Greece will soon have to answer an agonizing dilemma: either to tolerate one more fait acompli under threat from a superior military force, or to resort to active measures attempting to harass and disturb the operation of Turkish research vessels in disputed areas. It is not to be doubted that Turkish warships escorting the research vessels would, in such case, eventually, open fire.
It is not certain how the Greek government would respond to such a dilemma. The internal impact on Greek public opinion of submission to a Turkish ultimatum sustained by military superiority, would be heavy. To the certainty of political loss at home, politicians have often preferred the risks of a flare-up of armed conflict, which they optimistically expect to be short and of low intensity. This will not be the case, though, in the instance of a hot encounter in the Aegean, where the volume of the forces of the two sides (more than 550 aircrafts and dozens of warships of various sizes) and the narrowness of the theatre of operations, seem to augur a clash of maximal intensity.
Therefore, all those in the West who have a vested interest in preventing such a destabilizing event in the Eastern Mediterranean ―only the Kremlin will benefit― must start doing their utmost to convince the parties to accept the jurisdiction of Courts of the Hague and Hamburg without any preconditions of their own.
In obedience and complying with the verdict of an international court of justice a government in Athens could ―and probably would― accept to rationalize the established maximalistic Greek interpretation of the UNICLOS, to a degree which the expediencies of domestic politics and pretentions of prestige would never allow in a context of bilateral negotiations. But, they would also secure much more than what would be conceded and to begin to exercise legitimate rights, now practically suspended.
As to the Turkish side ―unless it spoiling for a fight― a verdict from the Hague or Hamburg is the most effective, respectable and economical means to attain satisfaction of their legitimate claim to adequate economic space along the Mediterranean coasts of Turkey. They are mistaken to see the UNICLOS as favouring Greece. Let them just look at both the verdicts of the international courts and Greece’s own phobic attitude at them.