- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 18, 2006

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Diplomatic broadsides explode regularly over these emerald waters sprinkled with myriad islands. Political initiatives follow periods of tension, only to return to the perpetual stalemate in relations between Greece and Turkey.

The issue is the Aegean Sea, which the poet Homer described as “calm as a slumbering babe” — today a magnet for tourism, a series of pastel-colored vistas illustrating perhaps the closest image to paradise.

But for Greece and Turkey, uneasy partners and rivals in the Aegean, paradise is full of traps. The breathtaking views are marred by disputes over the continental shelf, the width of territorial waters, control of the sea and air space — in short, possession of more than a thousand islands between the Greek and Turkish mainlands.

Only 130 islands are inhabited. The others are picturesque rocks protruding from the water. Greece claims 34 percent of the sea’s area, Turkey, which owns only two of the islands, claims 8.5 percent. The rest is international waters.

For years the conflicting claims in the Aegean have weighed on Athens and Ankara, bringing considerable military deployment along Turkey’s Anatolian coast and on the islands, periodic war jitters and a perpetual diplomatic challenge.

Last month, Greek and Turkish F-16 fighter jets collided in the southern Aegean. The Greek pilot, Capt. Costas Iliakis, 35, was killed in the May 23 crash. Unusually cautious diplomacy by Greece and Turkey prevented wider repercussions.

Limiting the dangers

On June 10, when Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis visited Turkey, the two countries agreed to establish a telephone “hot line” between the Greek command center at Larissa and the Turkish air base at Eskisehir to reduce the dangers caused by overflights and close maneuvers. Other confidence-building measures call for extending the summer moratorium on military maneuvers in the Aegean and for joint exercises on how to deal with natural disasters.

Greek press and Athens-based diplomats remain skeptical about the effectiveness of such steps and about Turkey’s intentions.

Significantly, before Mrs. Bakoyannis traveled to Ankara and Istanbul, the Greek National Defense General Staff warned against efforts to demilitarize the Aegean, saying it would favor Turkey’s military superiority and possible territorial claims.

At the same time, an opinion poll showed that 68 percent of Greeks consider disputes in the Aegean to be the most serious problem in relations between Greece and Turkey — both NATO allies — while only 10 percent felt the division of Cyprus is the biggest issue.

In another poll, one in four respondents declared it “quite logical” for Greece and Turkey to go to war “in the next few years.”

In the view of the conservative Athens daily Kathimerini:

“The public sees that things are not going well with Turkey and that the situation is unlikely to improve. So all we can do is to keep our distance, engage in jousting matches over the Aegean and continue the arms race.”

Greek goals limited

According to former Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, the best the Greek government can hope for in the Aegean is “permanent dialogue that might lead to more concrete developments in the future.”

The circumstances of the latest midair collision illustrate the danger of such flights. The Greek plane was shadowing a Turkish reconnaissance plane flying within the Athens Flight Information Region without having submitted a flight plan. Apparently, the incident took place at 27,000 feet, threatening civil aviation traffic in the area.

This is the time of year when tourists swarm to admire the white-walled villages perched on the Aegean islands. Ferry boats begin to be crowded, and private yachts compete for berths in the colorful harbors. Sun-bronzed young backpackers slouch in seaside tavernas.

Turkey is less than 1 miles from the Greek gun positions on the island of Samos. On Kos, where Hippocrates, “the Father of Medicine,” is said to have been buried, one can see visiting doctors reciting the Hippocratic oath near his statue.

The first known map of the Aegean Sea and its islands was prepared by Ptolemy in the second century. Marine charts on parchment proliferated in the Middle Ages with increased traffic of vessels carrying warriors, pilgrims, crusaders and merchandise.

Various Aegean islands have been coveted in history, some falling to the Genoese, others to the Ottoman Turks. The Dodecanese Islands in the south of the Aegean were taken over from the Turks by Italy in 1912. They became part of Greece after World War II, but the formalities of the acquisition were not concluded until 1948.

Boundaries in dispute

The problem of the territorial waters has been a source of permanent dispute between Greece and Turkey. Since 1974, Greece has been threatening to extend its territorial waters from 6 to 12 nautical miles. The Turks, who apply the 12-mile limit in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean, hint they would do likewise, thus overlapping the Greek limits.

In 1995, the Turkish Parliament decided that a decision by Greece to expand its territorial waters to 12 miles would be cause for war. So far, Greece has been unable to persuade Turkey to rescind the threat, which some consider to be political dynamite.

The feud was exacerbated by the Greek discovery, in the 1970s, of oil in the Aegean, apparently in exploitable quantities. The Turks subsequently dispatched a survey ship to the area — under the protection of warships — followed by more petroleum research ships from both nations.

The fortification by Greece of some idyllic Dodecanese Islands that hug the Turkish coastline made the tug of war more dramatic. Turkey charged this violates the 1923 Lausanne treaty, which specified that the 12 islands between Samos and Kos should be demilitarized.

When Turkey created “the army of the Aegean” along western Anatolia in 1975 and assembled an armada of landing craft near Izmir, the two countries literally stared at each other through gunsights.

The dispute went to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, which ruled in 1979 that because of Turkey’s refusal to recognize its jurisdiction, there were no grounds for seeking a settlement. This year, some Greek diplomats decided that another attempt for the court’s intervention was worth trying, particularly since Turkey had become a candidate for membership in the European Union.

Rival claims collide

For Greece, a crucial problem is Turkey’s claim that the eastern Aegean is part of the Anatolian continental shelf, and its insistence that the line dividing control over the sea should run somewhere in the middle of the islands. The Greeks consider this view tantamount to a claim for control over a number of islands.

Equally disturbing for Greece is the dispute over the Aegean airspace linked to that over the seabed. The complications of the issue were summed up as follows in 1980 in a report to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

“Greece exercises a 10-mile airspace margin around each of its Aegean islands. The United States and Turkey recognize only a six-mile national zone in the Aegean … In 1952 a regional conference decided to establish a Flight Information Region demarcation line roughly equal to the outer edge of the Turkish territorial sea. Greece, thus, received responsibility for civil and some military air traffic control over virtually all of the Aegean.”

Turkey ignored this line when it invaded Cyprus in July 1974, responding to a coup to link that island with Greece.

Tensions over the Aegean continued with varying degrees of intensity, with Greece and Turkey virtually on the brink of war in 1996 over an insignificant islet. The situation was calmed somewhat when, in 1997, Greece signed a declaration in Madrid recognizing Turkey’s “vital interests” in the Aegean.

However, such measures have not affected the arms race between the two countries, periodically attenuated by mutual pledges, or by domestic considerations such as the cost for Greece of hosting the 2004 Olympics.

Air-power imbalance

Greek generals have been unhappy over what they perceive to be Turkish air-power superiority: Turkey is said to have in its arsenal 465 modern combat aircraft to Greece’s 335.

Their joint membership in NATO has had little impact on the animosity between the two countries. “There is only one threat, and that is the threat from Turkey,” has become the watchword in the Greek Defense Ministry since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its global ambitions.

In Greece, the political perception of Turkey’s attitude is that Ankara staggers from one crisis to another, and when things become difficult at home, the government tends to “export” its crises.

According to one Greek analysis, “Turkey will grow more and more unstable … and when Turkey’s political system is in crisis, the shock waves are felt as far as Greece and Cyprus.”

Turkey’s current struggle between the Islam-leaning government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the secular forces, as well as the resurgence of fighting against Kurdish separatists, are seen in Greece as a major factor of growing instability unlikely to calm the situation in the Aegean.

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