'The door to diplomacy and negotiations is open': Op-ed by Turkish defense minister
The decades-long disputes in the Aegean and the Mediterranean Seas remain unresolved. And this year, while the whole world is grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic, these disputes once again became sources of contention between Turkey and Greece. Nevertheless, Turkey’s door to diplomacy and dialogue also remains open.
Resolving complicated issues through cooperation and negotiation based on mutual interests and fairness is always our objective. On the other hand, trying to provoke the EU into imposing sanctions on Turkey, or setting pre-conditions for talks, can only be counterproductive.
In particular, our civilian seismic research activity in the Mediterranean Sea, has recently been the pretext for accusations of “aggression and raising the tension”.
We have a very different view of these events.
First of all, our seismic research vessel, the Oruç Reis, is conducting surveys on the continental shelf that Turkey had registered with the UN initially in 2004.
We patiently waited 16 years in the hope of reaching an agreement with Greece before beginning our scientific research. Instead, we repeatedly faced unilateral actions by the Greek and Greek Cypriot side during that period, including the issuing of so-called licenses for the Greek Cypriot administration’s gas exploration and their seismic and drilling activities despite our protests.
This summer there were again windows of opportunity for diplomacy, which were again closed due to Greek actions. Specifically, the Oruç Reis paused its survey twice since July 2020 to give diplomacy a chance.
In the first instance, Oruç Reis was originally scheduled to deploy for the first seismic survey area from 21 July to 2 August 2020. Upon the request of German and EU officials, the planned survey was postponed and Turkey and Greece reached an agreement to resume the exploratory talks and open other channels of dialogue.
However, just hours before the announcement of the joint declaration on the resumption of the exploratory talks, Greece signed a so-called maritime boundary delimitation agreement with Egypt on 6 August 2020, violating both the Turkish and Libyan continental shelves.
Following this disappointing development the Oruç Reis resumed its planned survey. Therefore, this was a missed opportunity.
The second missed opportunity came even after the Oruç Reis returned to Antalya on 12 September 2020 for routine maintenance operations. This provided another chance for diplomacy that could have been widely publicized. Yet, Greece unfortunately responded with a series of provocations.
To mention a few: Greece deployed naval units to the demilitarized island of Meis/Kastellorizo; conducted military exercises on Chios in violation of its demilitarized status; carried out firing exercises on and around the island of Limnos, again, in violation of its demilitarized status; conducted aerial exercises around demilitarized islands including Chios, Kos and Rhodes; carried out two separate military exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean; issued navigational warnings in the Aegean Sea covering a prolonged period of time as well as a large area of international airspace. The list goes on and on. So Turkey has only reacted to Greek actions and to the unauthorized statements and decisions of the EU.
Let me pose one simple question: Is it realistic, fair or acceptable for a tiny island of 10 square kilometers to be the pretext for a claim to 40 thousand square kilometers of continental shelf?
In this context, one should also bear in mind this fact: both the EU and the US have stated that the map being circulated by Greece to support her claims has no legal value.
We would have preferred that Greece used the opportunity which was available after the previous EU summit. In this regard, one should particularly note that the EU is not a competent authority to make binding statements regarding international disputes over the delimitation of maritime borders. Nevertheless, the door to meaningful bilateral dialogue with Greece is still open.
This summer we also had an incident when a Greek frigate tried to aggressively interfere with the Oruç Reis. Our accompanying naval vessels responded in a professional manner to these dangerous maneuvers. In any case, it shouldn’t have been necessary to protect a civilian research vessel. Indeed, there is no protection for our research vessels in the Black Sea.
Clearly, we do not want an accident or an incident at sea, let alone a confrontation.
This is precisely why we immediately welcomed and actively contributed to the de-confliction mechanism proposed by NATO to avoid such events. However, Greece has unfortunately stopped attending these meetings at NATO HQ without providing any reason.
In addition, we had successfully held three meetings over the last year and a half with Greece on military confidence-building measures. We are still waiting for a response from our Greek colleagues to our invitation to hold the next meeting in Ankara.
Actions speak louder than words, and if Greece is sincere about reaching solutions, we would like to see the Greek side at both of these sets of talks.
Moreover, in addition to the violations of the demilitarized status of the islands based on international legal instruments, Greece has an airspace an assertion without precedent in the world.
Although Greece has territorial waters of six nautical miles, it claims 10 nautical miles of airspace. This is incompatible with international law and is an excuse for accusations of so-called “airspace violations”. Not only Turkey but other countries also indicate that they do not recognize such inconsistencies.
Also, despite being neighbors in the Aegean Sea, there is no maritime delimitation agreement between Turkey and Greece.
Furthermore, flight information regions and related issues are technical in nature and they do not refer to sovereignty. If we treat and discuss them as such, satisfactory solutions could be reached.
I emphasize that Turkey has no intention of violating any country’s legitimate rights, or borders. However, Turkey naturally stands firm against attempts to harm her rights and interests, and the rights of the Turkish Cypriots.
As we have always said, we are ready for serious dialogue with Greece without pre-conditions.
For its part, Turkey has repeatedly shown her goodwill with her use of diplomatic initiatives. The exploratory talks, the call for a dialogue regarding equitable revenue sharing on the island of Cyprus, and the idea of a regional conference to share the hydrocarbon resources in the Mediterranean are all concrete proposals that we have made.
In any case, our broad approach is always to take a constructive attitude to the problems in the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean in order to find mutually beneficial ways to progress.
Finally, let me underline once again that, as Turkey, we are firmly in favor of resolving all these outstanding disputes with our neighbor Greece through international law, good neighborly relations, mutual respect, dialogue and negotiations. If there is a will, there is a way!
*Hulusi Akar is the Minister of Defense of Turkey.