The dominant view amongst regional experts is that Greece’s military tactics in the contested islands are an attempt to alter the regional balance and start a new conflict with its neighbour Türkiye.

Ankara has lodged a protest with the United States and Greece over what it calls a blatant violation of international treaties by Athens as it deployed armoured vehicles on the islands of Midilli (Lesvos) and Sisam (Samos).

Greece’s militarisation of the islands in the Aegean, which stands in clear violation of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty, is threatening to escalate the situation in the region and putting it at odds with its neighbour Türkiye.

It was the Turkish army drones that first recorded and reported the military activities on part of Greece on the islands – not too far away from Turkish shores. Following which, Ankara summoned the ambassador of Greece, calling for an end to violations of international law and restoring the non-military status of the islands in question.

In its protest with the US, the Turkish administration urged respect for the status of eastern Aegean and measures to be taken to prevent use of American weapons on the islands.

“It’s very clear if you look at the 1947 Paris treaty, it’s very clear that these islands should be and should remain demilitarised,” Mehmet Ugur Ekinci, foreign policy researcher at SETA, told TRT World’s Strait Talk in late June when more visual evidence of Greece’s illicit military activities surfaced on social media. 

“So, Türkiye is suspecting that Greece is laying the groundwork to one-sidedly change the balance in the Aegean in their favour in the future. This can happen when the international balances can give them the floor and support.”

Ekinci said Türkiye perceived the militarisation of the islands as a security threat. “It’s important to have trust in neighbourly relations. While having such a clear clause in a treaty and not conforming to that clause in creating trust problems.”

International treaties

The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne mandated that the the islands of Thasos, Samotraki, Lemnos, Aya Evstratios, Lesvos, Chios, Psara, Samos and Ikaria to remain under the sovereignty of Greece, but on the condition that they will maintain a non-military status.

In another agreement, 24 years later, the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty handed over the islands of Patmos, Lipsi, Leros, Kalymnos, Kos, Nisyros, Astypalaia, Tilos, Chalki, Karpathos, Kassos, Symi, Rhodes and Meis to Athens — again on the condition that they will remain demilitarised.

The key condition for the islands to have a non-military status was set to keep in view Türkiye’s security concerns. For example, the proximity of some of the eastern Aegean islands to mainland Türkiye is worth noticing. 

The island of Meis is situated just 2.1 kilometres off Türkiye’s Kas region, whereas its distance to mainland Greece is about 600 kilometres. It made the news two years ago, too, when TRT World caught the movement of Greek troops on the island through a telephoto-zoom lens.

The island of Meis is not the only one that could be observed from geographical proximity from Türkiye’s Aegean coasts, as the same goes for some larger islands such as Lesbos, Samos, and Chios at varying distances of up to 10 kilometres from the Turkish mainland.

The fact that these islands are very close to the Turkish mainland was the main reason behind the adoption of their non-military status as they could pose a potential threat to Ankara’s security.

— Elif Cansin Senol/TRT World
— Elif Cansin Senol/TRT World (TRTWorld)

Historical context

The Eastern Aegean islands stretching from Thasos to Ikaria were occupied by Greece during the 1912-13 Balkan Wars.

As per the 1913 Treaty of London signed after the First Balkan War, the islands of Thasos, Aya Evstratios, Psara, Samotraki, and Lemnos were given to Greece through the decision of the ‘Six States’: Austria-Hungary, England, France, Russia, Italy, and Germany.

A part of the agreement ensured guarantees to Türkiye regarding demilitarisation and non-military status of the islands. Under Article 12 of the Treaty of Lausanne, the 1914 Decision of Six Powers stood confirmed.

The Treaty of Lausanne also noted that the Greek government would not be able to establish a naval base or fortification on the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos, and Ikaria.

The Paris Peace Treaty mentioned the non-military status of the Dodecanese islands, further stressing that no military base or fortification could be built on the islands, no military exercises could be performed, and no aerial, naval, or ground vehicles could be deployed there.

Both agreements permit the deployment of only a limited number of law enforcement units on the islands. So, under the explicit provisions of the treaties to which Athens is a party to, Greece does not possess the right to arm the islands in the Eastern Aegean.

However, Greece has been militarising the islands since at least 1960, in violation of the treaties. In total, Türkiye says Athens has militarised 16 of the eastern Aegean islands.

Turkish response

The latest militarisation of the islands is just another illegal attempt by Athens in recent months to escalate tensions with neighbouring Ankara in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reiterated that Türkiye knows very well the intentions of those provoking Greece.

“The weapons piled up in Western Thrace and on the islands make no sense to us because our power is far beyond them, but we remind you that this means a covert occupation,” he said.

Türkiye does not want Aegean and Mediterranean seas “being polluted with human blood, tears, or hostility”, Erdogan said. “We want peace and tranquility with all our hearts.”

Source: TRTWorld and agencies