By George Gilson
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar chose the most solemn day of the Greek Orthodox religious calendar, Good Friday, to launch a frontal attack on Athens, demanding that it withdraw its defence forces from 16 Aegean islands.
In remarks made both during Ankara’s “Blue Homeland” military exercises and in an interview with Haberturk television, Akar again cited provisions in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which in fact establishes the borders of the Republic of Turkey following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, to proclaim that it is Greece and not Turkey that is violating international law.
The “Blue Homeland” theory is an integral part of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s expansionist, neo-Ottoman vision, developed by his former PM and foreign minister Mehmet Davutoglu, who has since been critical of Erdogan’s authoritarian rule.
It claims for Turkey large swathes of Greece’s continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, where the hostile and provocative activity of the Turkish Navy, which in some instances has brought the two sides to the brink of a military clash, has drawn sharp criticism from both the EU and the US.
Successive Greek governments, and Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias most recently, have repeatedly cited a series of factors that necessitate and justify the defensive militarisation of the islands.
The Greek position
Firstly, a June, 1995, decision of the Turkish Grand National Assembly (parliament) that is still in effect states that if Greece exercises its right under international law to extend its territorial waters in the Aegean from six to twelve miles, the move would represent a casus belli, or cause for war.
Secondly, Turkey in July and August, 1974, invaded and continues to occupy 37 percent of the Republic of Cyprus [now an EU member-state], effectively ethnically cleansing the northern part of the island, with 200,000 Greek Cypriots becoming refugees in their own homeland. Ankara maintains an estimated 40,000 troops in the occupied north.
Thirdly, the Turkish Air Force systematically violates, on an almost daily basis, Greek national airspace and the Athens FIR, with continual flights over Greek islands, which have frequently resulted in dogfights between Greek and Turkish war planes. The violations have greatly escalated over recent days.
Fourthly, Ankara maintains an enormous landing force, with a strong amphibian component, known as the Aegean Army or Fourth Army, on the entire coast of Anatolia, at extremely close proximity to Greece’s Aegean islands, which are several hundred kilometres from the mainland.
Greece maintains that the Aegean Army is a continual, clear and present threat to its territorial integrity.
Akar invokes Lausanne Treaty
Despite the fact that Erdogan has publicly called for a revision of the Lausanne Treaty, primarily as regards other provisions that concern Turkey, Akar again invoked the treaty, denouncing Greek violations.
“The Treaty of Lausanne states that the specific islands should be demilitarised. There is an agreement and all the parties agreed and said “yes”. These are specific islands, with names, coordinates, and positions. You [Greece] have militarised these islands, 16 of theμ. They [Athens] tell us, ‘We won’t talk about that.’…But why not? If we are to discuss international law, we shall begin with that issue,” Akar said, according to a kathimerini.gr report.
“Since these islands are militarised, no one has the right to say anything about Turkey’s efforts that have a defencive objective [demilitarisation of the islands].”
Annoyance over Greek military procurement from France
In his interview with Haberturk, Akar reiterated Ankara’s annoyance with a 2.26bn euro Greece-France military procurement deal (signed in September, 2021, and ratified by the Greek Parliament in October), for the acquisition of three French Belharra frigates (two to be delivered in 2025 and the third in 2026), which are expected to temper the Turkish Air Force’s numerical superiority.
Athens has also ordered six new Rafale fighter planes, with a 1.070bn euro price tag.
Greece-France mutual defence pact
Turkey is also irked by the fact that the Greece-France agreement includes a mutual defence pact, under which each of the parties will come to the defence of the other in the even that a third country threatens its territorial integrity.
“Greece is attempting to create certain alliances. However, we are already allies in NATO. It also touts arms procurement programmes in an exaggerated manner. We say that if the arms are for defence, they are too many, but if they are targeting Turkey, they are too few. Let us make that clear. Its [Greece’s] economic situation is also a factor,” Akar said.
“They [the Greeks] should not whet their appetite with certain speeches, urgings, and pressures, with the EU and certain countries. We tell them they are making a big mistake. We say clearly that we will not allow de facto situations and we are capable [of backing that up].”