Athens has reverted to old ways and aims to isolate Ankara by misleading the West with a narrative that is out of step with reality.
After a period of thaw in bilateral relations for more than a year that started in early 2021, Ankara and Athens are back to an escalatory spiral over the contentious issues related to the Aegean Sea.
Thanks to a relative de-escalation in their standoff in the Eastern Mediterranean, the two NATO allies had first engaged in bilateral ‘exploratory talks’ and then progressed to ‘consultative talks’ throughout 2021. However, the bilateral bright spot darkened with two unfortunate events: Türkiye found Greece violating its airspace at least "thirty times in three days" in late April; and Greek PM Mitsotakis gave a provocative anti-Türkiye speech at the US Congress, reversing all the diplomatic gains and renewing tensions between the two states.
As the issues between Türkiye and Greece regarding the Aegean Sea are manifold and they are open to questions, every single spark or adverse incident in bilateral relations prompts Athens to reawaken all outstanding issues with Ankara by scrambling to win over the international public opinion through the articulation of its arguments and narratives. Athens’ latest charm offensive is a case in point.
Greece recently sent maps of the Aegean Sea, which are formed in a certain way to propagate Greek claims, to all Greek foreign missions, supposedly to strengthen the latter’s hands in their efforts to shift the policy and public opinion in their host countries. The Greek media also circulated the same ‘pro-Greece’ maps of the Aegean Sea as part of a national campaign.
The recent uptick in Athens’ aggressive propaganda is rooted in two momentous geopolitical dynamics. The first one is the US’ seemingly recent abandonment of its traditional policy of neutrality and ‘maintaining the strategic balance’ between Türkiye and Greece in favour of the latter.
The shift was confirmed by a series of moves by the US, such as lifting the arms embargo on Greek-administered Cyprus; upgrading Souda Bay on Crete and Dedeagac (Alexandroupoli) as US military bases with high profile visits by US aircraft carriers and officials like former US Secretary of State Pompeo; lastly, the standing ovation Mitsotakis received at the US Congress in response to his highly provocative speech against Türkiye.
Washington’s carte blanche to Greece naturally emboldens the latter to embark on such propaganda as it is confident that it has the ear of the US, not to mention the presence of an overly pro-Greece President at the White House, who calls himself “Joe Bidenopoulos” and an “honorary Greek”.
The second dynamic prompting Athens to go on the propaganda offensive is its urge to deny Türkiye the advantage of reaping the benefits of the new geopolitical reality created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ankara elevated its diplomatic profile by hosting Russian-Ukrainian talks and its ability to talk to both sides. Also, the Western alliance rediscovered Ankara’s strategic value due to its unique leverage of blocking the straits to Russia, its competent indigenous defence capacity in the form of drone exports to Kyiv, and its second-largest army in NATO.
On the other hand, Athens did not want Ankara to benefit from the newly emerged favourable mood in the West towards Türkiye and decided to tarnish the latter’s image by framing it as the aggressor. Mitsotakis even drew a comparison between the ‘threat’ Greece perceives from Türkiye with the Russian aggression in Ukraine – a clear attempt to equate Türkiye with Russia as the ‘archenemies’ of the ‘Western Civilisation'.
Although the outstanding issues over the Aegean Sea between Türkiye and Greece are manifold, one of Greece’s most provocative and illegal moves is the militarisation of Eastern Aegean islands since the 1960s in contravention of their de-militarised status as per the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and 1947 Paris Treaty. Article 12 of the Lausanne Peace Treaty confirmed the agreement made under 1914 The Decision of Six Powers, which stipulated that the islands (Lemnos, Samothrace, Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Ikaria and others) were ceded to Greece on the condition that they should be kept demilitarised. Likewise, the Annex 6 of the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty confirmed the demilitarised status of the Eastern Aegean islands once again, ceding the “Dodecanese Islands” (Stampalia, Rhodes, Calki, Scarpanto, Casos, Piscopis, Nisiros, Calimnos, Leros, Patmos, Lipsos, Symi, Cos and Castellorizo) to Greece on the condition that they must be kept demilitarised. But Athens is violating both the treaties.
As the Eastern Aegean islands are in extreme proximity to the Turkish coastline, any military asset on those islands poses an imminent threat and breeds a sense of anxiety on the part of Türkiye. Furthermore, territorial waters in the Aegean Sea are another issue weaponised by Greece against Türkiye. Greece’s long-dated threat of increasing the breadth of its territorial waters from 6 nautical miles to 12 nautical miles entails boxing Türkiye in its coastline, practically depriving the latter of the freedom of navigation to a great extent.
As a common practice in international law, maritime zones of countries are determined by either bilateral agreements between littoral states or, in the case of a dispute, relevant international courts’ decisions could determine them.
Türkiye favours a bilateral delimitation agreement with Greece, which requires a negotiation process between the two littoral states. However, it has been a non-starter for years since Greece does not even recognise the existence of various issues over the Aegean Sea, instead of one: Athens argues that there is only the issue of delimitation of the continental shelf between the two countries.
Regardless of what’s right or wrong legally, Greece has had the unwavering support of the EU as a full member when it came to its disputes with Türkiye for years. With an intent to isolate Turkiye, Athens has embraced a strategy of involving or dragging third parties into its bilateral disputes with Ankara rather than dealing with it directly. Powerful third parties such as the EU granted Athens the luxury of not bothering to resolve its disputes with Ankara by offering their unconditional support to the latter. Athens’ luxury is only amplified by the recent shift in US’ strategic outlook vis-à-vis Türkiye and Greece, which will not help ease tensions between Ankara and Athens within the foreseeable future.
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