Greek-Turkish Tensions Simmer Over Eastern Aegean Islands

Seething tensions between Greece and Turkey once again came to a boil last week over the contentious territorial disputes of the eastern Aegean islands. Germany’s foreign minister Analena Baerbock controversially stated that the “islands are Greek territory”, fuelling an impassioned rebuke from those on the Turkish side. The two sovereign nations have long been at loggerheads with each other over such a sunder, and have come dangerously close to conflict on a number of occasions. To make matters worse, a nationalist ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a few weeks ago displayed a map showing the disputed islands as Turkish, prompting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to call into question whether or not this was official Turkish state policy.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Friday criticised his German counterpart for wading in on the territorial dispute, believing that Germany has impeded its vitally impartial role. He stated “we want Germany to maintain its balanced stance over the issue of the east Mediterranean and the Aegean”, declaring that Berlin should not be utilising “tools of provocation and propaganda”, with Turkey evidently unhappy at Germany’s siding with Greece. Baerbock elucidated that the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Rhodes, as well as others “are Greek territory” before going on to say that “nobody has the right to query this”.

Whilst it’s understandable why Baerbock’s comments have been negatively perceived by Turkish officials, it’s clear that Baerbock, as a representative of Germany, is merely standing up for Greece as part of the European Union family. Greece is a far more notable ally of Germany politically, in spite of Turkey’s strong presence within German society. However, this shouldn’t gloss over the fact the comments were and are controversial. This is a topic that has plagued the two countries for centuries, highlighting just how deeply-rooted such tensions are, leaving Baerbock with no plausible reason for why such comments needed to be made. It is though of course indisputable that the aforementioned Aegean islands are currently part of the sovereign nation of Greece, despite Turkey’s diverging desires. It’s absolutely vital that the two countries come together on this, engage in collaborative practices, and put an abrupt end to a seemingly never-ending debacle.

This particular set of conflicts has greatly affected Greek-Turkish relations, particularly since the 1970s, with two occasions of heightened agitation providing an outbreak of military hostilities – in 1987, and in early 1996. The dispute persists over the delimitation of territorial waters, national airspace, and exclusive economic zones, as well as the role of flight information regions pertaining to the demilitarised states assigned to some of the Greek islands. Turkey particularly claims a number of small, uninhabited islets kissing the picturesque Turkish coast, citing Greece’s militaristic posturing on the islands to be where the problem lies. There are currently 6 nautical miles of territorial waters recognised by Greece and Turkey; 10 nautical miles of national airspace claimed by Greece, and 12 nautical miles as determined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, of which Turkey is crucially not a signatory.

Much of the boiling tension between the two nations could be released by a general recognition that many of the disputed islands are in fact uninhabited. This ultimately means that it is less important in a practical sense as to who holds sway over them, given that human lives and communities will not be destroyed in the process. However, such a contentious topic unequivocally remains an issue of the utmost importance, due to its diplomatic and strategic significance. Both Greece and Turkey must therefore seek to ignore centuries-old historical territorial claims, and instead focus on what is more conducive to peace in the here and now. It is eminently possible for negotiations to be conducted, in order to find common ground with regards to the amount of airspace and territorial waters both sides are content with. It would make immeasurable sense for the islands nestled on the Turkish coast to officially become Turkish, but only those of an uninhabited nature. Otherwise, islands consisting of Greek communities suddenly becoming Turkish would simply cause too much controversy, communal destruction, and undesired upheaval.