William Mallinson's Blog

Britain, Greece, Turkey and The Aegean: Does Anything Change?

September 8, 2020
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Since at least 1955, the Aegean Sea has long been an area of contention between local powers Greece and Turkey on the one hand, and the US-UK-Israeli strategic axis on the other, with the Soviet Union and then Russia defending its interests when necessary, since the Aegean cannot be separated from the Eastern Mediterranean as a strategic whole, nor from Syria, Cyprus, Egypt, Palestine and Israel. In this essay, we shall, by using original documents, unravel the background to the present media hysteria over a potential war between Greece and Turkey.

Mental Underpinning

As Giambattista Vico, beloved by James Joyce, wrote, the world moves between periods of order and disorder. At the moment, there certainly seems to be a surfeit of disorder or, in the words of some attention-grabbing media pundits, chaos. We should also bear in mind Francesco Guicciardini’s dictum that things have always been the same, that the past sheds light on the future, and that the same things return with different colours. The current Aegean clash between Greece and Turkey is no exception. Let us look briefly at British policy to gain a more realistic insight into what is really happening, and slice through the emotional and warlike rhetoric emanating mainly from President Erdogan, emphasising as it does Ottomanism and Sunni Mohammedanism (thus undermining Kemalism), and in turn holding NATO to ransom, and distracting the Turkish people from an impending economic crisis.

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Photo: ARIS MESSINIS (AFP)

British Imperial Origins

The origins of Turkish claims go back to Britain bringing Turkey into the Cyprus question in 1955, in breach of Article 16 of the Treaty of Lausanne, and then helping Turkey with its propaganda.1 This enabled Turkey to link the Cyprus issue to unfounded claims in the Aegean. Let us look more closely at British policy.

In 1972, Turkey was threatening Greece over its legitimate building of a radar station on Limnos, first for national defence purposes, and then integrated into NATO’s radar network. Britain recognised Greece’s objections to Turkish sabre-rattling: the Head of the FCO’s Southern European Department (SED) consulted Western Organisations Department (WOD), including the comment ‘what looked prima facie like a strong Greek case in law’.2 In a typical bout of taking French leave of the problem, WOD replied: ‘The last thing that we want to do is to find ourselves playing any part in it’.3 Thus, the rights and wrongs of the case were irrelevant to the FCO. Non-involvement was the order of the day.

But internally the debate continued. On 28 September, an FCO legal adviser wrote: ‘My preliminary view is that I agree with the Greek contention that when the Montreux Convention entered into force the provisions of the Lausanne Straits Convention concerning the de-militarisation of Lemnos terminated. I am of this opinion because of the plain words of the two treaties in their context and in the light of their object and purpose.’4

In the event, the issue was fudged, and war was avoided. But the claims remained, to be resuscitated whenever it suited Turkish foreign policy, as in 1975 and in the wake of the invasion and occupation of over one third of Cyprus. Turkey expanded its claims to cover several Greek islands. Again, in private, the FCO revealed the absurdity of the Turkish claims, with the Head of Chancery at British Embassy in Ankara writing: ‘Another example of perhaps typically Turkish thinking on this occurred when I was discussing this subject with Mr Dag, a First Secretary who works to Mr Süleymez […] He said that all that was needed for progress was that the Greeks should give in! I was left with the impression that reference to the International Court was still seen as something rather irrelevant and that the Turks hankered firmly, however unrealistically, for a bilateral solution. This is perhaps not surprising as they can presumably not have very much confidence in winning their case at the Court on its merits alone.’5 In this connexion, Henry Kissinger also pressurised the British Prime Minister to water down a draft UN resolution, so as to appear less supportive of the Greek position.6

The British position can be seen even more plainly in an FCO brief in 1977: ‘It happens that the British Government’s view of the issue is much closer to the Greek than the Turkish view. In particular, Britain supports the entitlement of islands to have a continental shelf.’7

The backstage reality is however better encapsulated in the following extract from an FCO paper: ‘We should also recognise that in the final analysis Turkey must be regarded as more important to Western strategic interests than Greece and that, if risks must be run, they should be risks of further straining Greek rather than Turkish relations with West.’8

At the Moment

The question arises as to whether anything will alter intrinsically in Greek-Turkish relations and in Anglo-Saxon support for Turkey. We are currently witnessing a repeat of previous illegal Turkish actions in the Aegean. France, as often in the past, tends to support Greece more openly, and now Italy has joined in a naval exercise with the French and Greeks. Germany is more difficult, as it still seems to place its enormous business interests in Turkey (its ally in the Great War), including large arms sales, above international law. Britain, the US’s acolyte in the Eastern Mediterranean, is enjoying the possibility of a Franco-German EU-weakening split, as it always has.

If it does however come to serious push and shove, Germany will have to succumb to the French view on Turkish law-breaking, since the EU depends more than ever on the Franco-German axis, and irritated commentators are starting to make comparisons between the Nazi genocide of Jews and Turkey’s genocide of Armenians and others. This is likely to have an effect on the German institutional psyche, still intent on being seen to be humanitarian, to balance the horrors perpetrated in the past. This leaves us with a potential disagreement between the Franco-German axis and thus the EU (even with a Germany being reluctant to criticise Turkey too obviously) on the one hand, and the US-UK-Israel axis on the other. Although the US is still trying, with the UK (and, until recently, Germany) to force Greece and Turkey to talk to each other on an equal footing, this is precisely what Turkey wants, so as to avoid its claims going to the International Court at the Hague. Russia, although happy to see two alleged NATO allies talking about war against each other, and undermining an organisation that it sees as obsolete and a threat to world peace, would not like to see major disorder on its southern flank, as this could affect its strategic interests in Syria and the region as a whole, interests that are considered by many to more legitimate than those of the US, thousands and thousands of miles away.

The only question is whether there will be another international fudge – which means only postponing the problem – or whether UN Law of the Sea will prevail (of course Turkey has not signed the UNLOSC Convention) and put Turkey in its place, with a concomitant return to Kemalism and friendship with neighbours, or even a weakened but less jingoistic Turkish state.

Footnotes

1 - Mallinson, William, Cyprus: a Modern History, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2005, 2008, and 2012 (now Bloomsbury), pp. 22-25.

2 - Hitch to McLaren, minute, 7 September 1972, BNA FCO9/1525, file WSG 3/318/1, in Mallinson, William, Britain and Cyprus, Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

3 - Ibid., Ramsay to McLaren, minute, 13 September 1972.

4 - Ibid., Wood to Hitch, minute, 28 September 1972.

5 - Fullerton to Wright, letter, 28 September 1975, BNA FCO 9/2233, file WSG 3/318/1.

6 -Telephone conversation between Kissinger and Callaghan, BNA PREM 16/1157.

7 - FCO brief, May 1977, BNA PREM16/1624.

8 - ‘British Interests in the Eastern Mediterranean’, FCO paper prepared by South East Europe Department, 11 April 1975, BNA FCO 46/1248, file DP1/516/1.

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