Legal Touchstones in the Eastern Mediterranean Crisis
Written by Jack Zimakas
The eastern reaches of the Mediterranean Sea have been perpetually troubled by animosity between its littoral states, for whom recent energy opportunities have signalled a new round of diplomatic conflict. Natural gas drilling has yielded nearly four trillion cubic metres of reserves in the past twenty years alone, resulting in multilateral economic agreements that have laid bare two sides in an ongoing regional dispute.
Haunted by a history of war and genocide, the age-old rivalry between Greece and Turkey lives on as diplomatic aggression between the two modern states. Their regional alliances are novel considering the recent issues at hand: Turkey’s economic alliance with the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) clashes with broad international support for the opposing Libyan National Army (LNA) in that state’s civil war, including from Turkish ally Russia. Greece has found itself aligned with several regional powers now handling large amounts of its own natural gas: Egypt, Israel and Cyprus. The latter two are co-developers with Greece of the planned EastMed natural gas pipeline, which will connect Western Europe to Mediterranean gas fields via Cyprus and then Greece. The project demonstrates an emerging energy coalition that may dominate European gas markets as of its 2025 projected completion.
Turkey, however, believes it has been unfairly excluded from the EastMed arrangement, and in response signed a November 2019 agreement with Libya to secure a joint Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) where both may use resources within a narrow maritime corridor between the two states. The deal was registered under Article 102 of the UN Charter in October 2020. Its enshrinement in international law has been denounced by Greece and the European Union, alleging that it infringes on maritime delimitation rights already possessed by Greek islands within the Libya-Turkey EEZ. Greece and Egypt have signed their own EEZ agreement in response.
Former progress on a number of Greece-Turkey issues related to maritime sovereignty has come to a grinding halt with new spheres of influence in the Levantine Basin. Short-term interactions in light of these new gas reserves will likely set a precedent for any future contact between states on opposite sides. It is important to review relevant international law to understand how each side currently uses it to its advantage.
As a matter of principle, Turkey’s vision of the Aegean Sea as shared exclusively with Greece must be compromised by Greek violations of its rights and interests. Said violations are often unpunished under the auspices of international complacence, if not support. Within the last five years, international concern regarding Turkish military intervention in Syria and Libya has reached a fever pitch, leading to broad invocation of “Neo-Ottoman” and “Pan-Islamist” labels for increasingly authoritarian rule under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Many of the same international observers bear witness to the Turkish “Blue Homeland” concept in action: a maritime expansionist doctrine seeking opportunities for Turkish maritime activity beyond its borders, often at the expense of other states’ sovereignty. The policy has been compared to China’s own maritime expansionism in the South China Sea with specific reference to its regionally destabilizing effects. Chiefly due to international condemnation for Blue Homeland-related activities, Turkey’s regional support has originated from Russia, Syria, and the Libyan GNA rather than from the international community at large.
Turkey has accused Greece of planning to remilitarise certain islands in the Eastern Aegean principally in contravention of Article 14 of the 1947 Paris Peace Treaties, which reaffirmed the complete or partial demilitarization of a number of Aegean islands closer to Turkey. The Treaties ceded the Dodecanese Islands from Italy to Greece under the condition that they “shall be and shall remain demilitarised.” Turkey further charges Greece with disregarding past pleas not to remilitarise the islands, which have apparently gone unheeded in recent years.
Turkey also cites the Imia islets, barely 3.5 nautical miles from its mainland and the source of a 1995-96 dispute that brought the two states to the brink of war, as an ongoing flashpoint. Turkey does not claim the islands and vehemently rejects past claims from Greece. While they are not Turkish territory, maritime activities in the vicinity were interrupted by the ‘96 crisis and cemented Turkish beliefs that Greece was indeed planning to settle the islands. A general Turkish outlook emerges that through arbitrary annexations such as that of the Imia islets, Greece is attempting to establish a fait accompli that the entire Aegean should be subject to its will alone.
Article 3 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (finalised 1982) stipulates that: “Every State has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles, measured from baselines determined in accordance with this Convention.” Both Turkey and Greece use a six-mile marker. Turkey is not a signatory to the Convention, believing that a state’s baseline should be measured from a continental landmass as opposed to from an island. Judging by the status quo, Greece’s archipelagic territory gives them the clear upper hand as they may claim a wider territorial sea boundary provided that a given island is large enough. Fearful of disproportionately lesser territorial gains if Greece extends to the full 12 nautical miles, Turkey has stated that such action would be casus belli. With the existence of far-off gas reserves now guaranteed, Turkey perceives the risk of Greek maritime expansion to be greater than ever and as such remains vigilant.
Yet another issue arises over the extra four nautical miles of Greek airspace beyond its six-mile territorial waters. Turkey refers to Article 2 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation, updated since 1944:
“For the purposes of this Convention the territory of a state shall be deemed to be the land areas and territorial waters adjacent thereto under the sovereignty, suzerainty, protection or mandate of such State.”
Turkey’s interpretation is that the extent of territorial waters and national airspace must be equal, i.e. that Greek airspace must be equivalent to six nautical miles as opposed to ten.
On Greece’s side of the argument, greater regional and continental alliances work to its advantage. Now in close economic partnership with Israel, Cyprus and Egypt, its gas-drilling alliances are only strengthened by membership in the European Union, of which France in particular would come to its diplomatic aid. A realist outlook on Greece’s situation would conclude that widespread international support mostly overrules the severity of Greek treaty violations, regardless of whether or not Turkish allegations are well-founded. As an apparent double standard, meanwhile, harsh criticism leveled at Turkey for similar infractions seems to nullify impartial international law as a peerless authority.
Greece accuses Turkey of knowingly treating Greek-claimed islands as “grey zones” within diplomatic rhetoric to establish its own fait accompli that the region is in fact Turkish-dominated. Though the Imia islets were not mentioned by name in the 1947 Paris Peace Treaties, Greece still claims its right on the basis that its control of Imia proceeded without serious threat to Turkish sovereignty until the 1995-’96 flashpoint. It should be noted here that Article 121 of UNCLOS differentiates sizable islands from small, uninhabited rocks and islets such that Greece could not expand its territorial waters from Imia if it wished: “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of its own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.”
Greece directly counters the Turkish airspace dispute by citing previous acceptance of the ten-nautical mile boundary while the Convention on International Civil Aviation statues were already in place. While non-signatory Turkey considers UNCLOS to be res inter alios acta, Greece deems it customary law to the extent that it is effectively binding to non-signatories. Greece therefore reserves the right to extend its territorial waters past the six-nautical mile status quo, leading to diplomatic deadlock with flashpoint potential as Turkey has threatened war over this dispute in the past. Subjective arguments over the nature of customary law are unlikely to be resolved in the short term, underlining the importance of an intersubjective base of international law upon which both sides must agree.
Greece perceives further Turkish hypocrisy in its extension of territorial waters to 12 nautical miles in the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean (as opposed to the more northerly Aegean), while denying Greek rights to do the same. In general, Greek arguments describe a continuous ordeal of Turkish misbehaviour that began at the latest in 1974 when the Turkish Invasion of Cyprus resulted in the unofficial creation of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Turkey. To the world, this event marked the beginning of modern Turkish aggression in the Aegean Sea.
Whatever subsequent diplomatic interests play out in the Eastern Mediterranean between the two main competitors, the sheer indivisibility of the goods in dispute must be taken into account. For Greece to cede actual island landmass to Turkey, or allow larger islands like Rhodes and Karpathos to be robbed of its independent drilling rights within the Turkey-Libya EEZ, they cannot give in to Turkish demands that belie a need to secure access to gas reserves to which much less of the international community supports the right. Most major concessions between states will be pivotal such that they may shape the regional power balance for years to come. While this is certainly true of disputed islands for military and commercial purposes, there have been growing doubts as to the long-term value of these gas reserves as Western Europe transitions to clean energy. It is entirely likely, therefore, that the economic rewards already reaped by Israel and Egypt from their reserves may be for domestic use only. The EastMed gas pipeline may also not have much long-term viability under these conditions of clean energy becoming more pervasive in its target region. It has also been assumed that the usual foreign arbiters in the region will be complacent for the near future: no US presidential administration would concern itself sufficiently to attempt long-term conflict resolution, and major Russian intervention will only occur if an ally is under serious threat or if the EastMed Pipeline directly jeopardizes Russian predominance in natural gas exports to Europe.
Though the exact nature of these predictions remain undefined if not overly certain.
What is guaranteed in the current situation is that both parties have faith in international law when it may be used to validate their intentions. For the threatening aspects of their respective policies, Turkey and Greece both claim self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter and associated custom. While both parties look to validate a long-term resolution in a court of international law, Greece has given the International Court of Justice (ICJ) jurisdiction over matters unrelated to Greece’s own sovereignty and territorial integrity. As Greece’s alliances solidify and Turkey plunges deeper into the expansionist fervour of its “Blue Homeland”, international observers ready themselves for another Eastern Mediterranean dispute that will only add to a long-term sea of troubles.
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Relevant Sources of Law
Charter of the United Nations, Article 51 (1984)
Charter of the United Nations, Article 102 (2009)
Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, Article 2 (2006)
Paris Peace Treaties, Article 14 (1947)
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Article 3 (1982)
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Article 121 (1982)