NATO overcomes Greek-Turkish tensions to agree Aegean mission

NATO overcomes Greek-Turkish tensions to agree Aegean mission

NATO overcomes Greek-Turkish tensions to agree Aegean mission

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg gestures during his speech at the Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. AP Photo

NATO allies have agreed to a plan for their ships in the Aegean Sea to help Turkey and Greece counter criminal networks smuggling refugees into Europe, NATO's chief said on Feb. 25, overcoming territorial sensitivities between Greece and Turkey.

After late night talks in Brussels, NATO envoys set out how ships sent to the Aegean in early February can work with Turkish and Greek coastguards and the European Union border agency Frontex to rescue refugees at sea and return them to Turkey. 

"Greek and Turkish forces will not operate in each other's territorial waters and airspace," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement following the talks.  

Relations between Greece and Turkey have traditionally been tense and since the Feb. 11 deal by NATO defense ministers to deploy ships to the Aegean, Greece's defense minister has accused Turkey of trying to undermine the deal. 

NATO diplomats said one of the issues was where Greek and Turkish ships should patrol and whether that would set a precedent for claims over disputed territorial waters. 

Stoltenberg said other NATO vessels will be able to sail in the territorial waters of Greece and Turkey. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu sought the NATO mission to help tackle Europe's worst migration crisis since World War Two. More than a million asylum-seekers arrived last year. 

The European Union is relying on Turkey to help stem the flows of Syrians fleeing civil war, giving Ankara 3 billion euros to set up camps and help take in more refugees, although progress in implementing the deal has been slow. 

Germany hopes that unlike the EU's mission off the Italian coast, which brings rescued migrants to Europe's shores, NATO will return migrants to Turkey even if they are picked up in Greek waters, effectively sealing the border. 

"In case of rescue of persons coming via Turkey, they will be taken back to Turkey," Stoltenberg said.

One military official close to the talks said the aim was to have the mission fully operational before an EU-Turkey summit in Brussels on March 7. However, a NATO diplomat said that details still needed to be worked out.

A NATO diplomat also played down German expectations that the mission could have a big impact on migrant flows, saying NATO ships would not be permanently on the busiest sea routes for migrants and may encounter relatively few migrant boats.

Turkey and Greece are at odds over boundaries of their territorial waters and airspace in the Aegean due to the peculiar geography of the Aegean Sea, where some Greek islands are lined up along Turkey’s western coasts.

In 1995, the Turkish Parliament declared any unilateral attempt by Greece to extend its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles from the current six miles as a casus belli, or reason to declare war.

Parallel to the dispute over the delimitation of the territorial waters, the two countries are also at odds over the limits of Greek airspace in the Aegean.

Greece claims 10 nautical miles of national air space, while Turkey recognizes only six miles because international law defines airspace as covering a state’s land and its territorial waters.