Weapon-free Aegean Sea remains a dream for now
As recent rapprochement between Turkey and Greece looks set to benefit the countries" political and economic ties, an ongoing deadlock on maritime disputes appears likely to postpone hopes for a ?weapon-free zone? in the Aegean Sea.
?It"s not really possible to restructure a security settlement in the Aegean given the current conditions,? a senior Turkish military source told a small group of journalists over the weekend.
The condition for minimizing the military presence in the Aegean Sea is progress in a solution for a number of problems, including the delineation of territorial waters, air space and the continental shelf, according to the military source.
The issue came to the agenda following the economic crisis that has hit the Greek economy so severely that many European Union countries have asked Athens to cut some of its multi-billion-dollar military expenditures.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave the same advice to Turkey when she visited Ankara in late March.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the total military expenditures of Turkey and Greece, both NATO members, were above $20 billion in 2008, with the former at $11.6 billion and the latter at $9.7 billion.
Hopes for a weapon-free Aegean zone, an important area for both countries in terms of tourism revenues, increased last week when acting Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas visited Ankara.
Droutsas and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu said they had reached an agreement on the establishment of a high-level strategic cooperation council that will convene next month in Greece with the participation of both countries" prime ministers.
The two foreign ministers also said they share the vision of a common future that would prevent the neighboring countries from excessive spending on weapons.
?The Aegean problems are not easy ones. They raise security concerns. Thus we can only talk about a process at the moment,? a senior foreign ministry official told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review over the weekend. ?If we can manage to make progress in the political field, it will be an indicator for future decisions.?
In fact, the two countries agreed to solve the Aegean problems through ?exploratory talks? in 2002, but more than 40 rounds of talks failed to produce a concrete road map for a solution to the problems.
Diplomats said the two parties could not even agree on defining the problems. There are expectations that the parties could come up with a new format for discussing ways to solve the existing problems.
"Crisis not desirable," says top general
Chief of General Staff Gen. ?lker Ba?bu? meanwhile said Saturday that Turkey has no intention of sparking a crisis with Greece over the Aegean.
?Turkey will always protect its rights [in the Aegean] set down by international law. We have never aimed to create problems or forge crises,? Ba?bu? told a group of reporters after a military memorial ceremony in Ankara. The top Turkish general added that Turkish fighter jets fly unarmed during their patrol missions over the Aegean.
?We have been calling for goodwill, coordination and cooperation and our fighter planes in the Aegean have been flying without any payload for years, but the Greek jets are flying with a full payload,? Ba?bu? said.
What are the Aegean problems?
Turkish and Greek armed forces came to the brink of war in 1987 and 1996 in the Aegean over sea-boundary disputes. Jets and frigates belonging to the two countries challenge each other nearly every day, making the Aegean Sea a potential source of armed conflict.
The problems between the two countries can be summarized as follows:
Territorial waters: The Lausanne Treaty of 1923 set the territorial waters of the two countries at three nautical miles, later expanded to six miles in the 1930s. Greece declared its intention to increase this distance to 12 miles following the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982. In reaction to the Greek declaration, Turkey said such a move would be seen as a cause of war.
Territorial shelf: The two countries have also failed in defining the boundaries of their continental shelves, producing increased tensions whenever one of the parties explores for oil or natural-gas reserves, as occurred in 1987.
Air space: The problem here stems from different interpretations of international law. Greece argues that its air space is 10 miles, despite the fact that the height of air space should equal the extent of territorial waters, which is six miles. Turkey does not recognize Greece"s claim, causing frequent dogfights between the two NATO allies" jets.
Demilitarization of the Dodecanese islands: The Lausanne Treaty obligates Greece to keep the Dodecanese islands unarmed because they could cause serious security problems in Turkey due to their geographical proximity to that country. Greece has, however, begun to arm the islands, arguing that Turkey"s establishment of the Aegean Army also challenged its security.
Disputed islets: The Aegean Sea hosts hundreds of islets whose sovereignty is disputed. Turkey and Greece often find themselves coming close to blows over the contested rocks, as occurred in 1996.