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  • JTMS Intern Susana Vieira

Turkey and its Maritime Conflicts





Turkey is a country with a complex array of security issues regarding its borders and ongoing conflicts it has with other states. In this article I will be addressing the main political and security issues affecting the country of Turkey and what could be some viable security proposals to address their main concerns. I will show that despite the existence of internal political problems within the country, their main security concerns lie with external policies, in particular, with the Turkish state’s policies in the Aegean Sea, which presents itself as the most pressing security concern, along with the concerns involving Cyprus and recently Syria.

Cyprus Conflict:

Turkey has many issues regarding security and borders with its neighboring nations and one that has had quite a bit of attention has been the conflict between Turkey and Cyprus. This conflict has been ongoing for several years and it has maintained a sort of frozen state for the majority of that time. After being invaded by Turkey, Cyprus has been partitioned since 1974, with its Greek and Turkish communities separated South and North respectively, by a buffer zone known as the Green Line. The capital, Nicosia, is also separated by this buffer zone which is maintained by the United Nations Peace Keeping Forces. The Turkish state attempted to justify the invasion of the Cypriot island under the Treaty of Guarantee signed in 1960 by claiming that they had the right and obligation to intervene and protect the Turkish Cypriots by reestablishing the status quo of Turkish control.

However, under international law this invasion has been deemed illegal and it has been established that Article 4 of the Treaty of Guarantee does not authorize the use of military force. Moreover, the Treaty of Guarantee could never take precedent over the UN Charter, so even if one were to misconstrue Article 4 of the Treaty of Guarantee it would still be inconsistent with the Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. “Article 2 (4) of the Charter prohibits the threat or use of force and calls on all Members to respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of other States.” [1] Furthermore, under the same UN Charter there is also article 103, which states, “In the event of a conflict between the obligations of the Members of the United Nations under the present Charter and their obligations under any other international agreement, their obligations under the present Charter shall prevail.” [2] This means that Turkey as a signatory state of the UN Charter, should abide by UN regulations rather than the Treaty of Guarantee, and therefore the use of military force to invade Cyprus constitutes an illegal action on their part.

Yet, Cyprus has remained in this state of partition in relative peace ever since the partition of its territory and not much seems to have changed. This state of relative peace has also allowed for the country’s economy to flourish due to becoming a popular tourist destination despite the ongoing conflict.

Cyprus, although an important dispute is also an old one towards which EU members like France have clearly shown attitudes more in-line with keeping the status-quo than addressing the conflict.

“Last week, France’s President Macron authorized the deployment of French warships to preserve the status quo on and around the divided island of Cyprus. Tensions are high in the region, with Turkey pressing its right to drill for hydrocarbons in waters claimed by the Greek and Greek Cypriot governments, and pushing for the demilitarization of Greek territories in the Aegean Sea. Turkish fighter jets frequently conduct incursions into Greek airspace, and Turkish shipping has violated Greece’s sovereign waters.” [3]

This conflict has caused more grievances to the country of Cyprus and their population than to Turkey itself. Although, Turkey has not come out of this conflict completely unscathed. It is often pointed out as clear evidence of violations of international law by the Turkish Republic. In addition, it is another issue regarding their application for membership of the EU.

Aegean Sea & Greece:

The Aegean Sea conflict arose due to the accusations that Turkey has made against Greece regarding the latter’s attempt to turn the Aegean Sea into a ‘Greek Lake’. Turkey has made these accusations due to the fact that if Greece was allowed to extend its territorial waters out to 12 nm, then it would have 71.5% of the waters of the Aegean, meanwhile Turkey would only have 8.7%. The situation is aggravated even further, once one looks into the possible establishment of EEZ’s as the 19.7% remaining of the Aegean Sea that would be categorized as high seas, would all be under a Greek EEZ. For these reasons, Turkey has maintained that if Greece were to extend its territorial water up to the 12 nm allowed by the Law of the Sea it would consider it to be a casus bellis. “Turkey responding to this Greek action, with a unanimous resolution of the Turkish National Assembly (8/6/1995), threatens Greece with war in case of expansion of the Greek coastal zone beyond 6 ΝΜ (Casus Belli).” [4]

A prior territorial seas extension was undertaken by Greece in September of 1936, which gave Greece 43.5% of the Aegean Sea and Turkey 7.5%. However, with the developments of the Law of the Sea, the exercise of sovereignty for coastal states has increased and new concepts such as “EEZ” have been created. Greece's ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty and its ensuing statement that it reserves the right to declare a 12-mile territorial sea boundary around its Aegean islands as permitted by the treaty, re-ignited tensions between them and Turkey as these developments in international law have allowed for the tension between these countries to reach the level of conflict seen today.

In addition, another important factor in this maritime territorial dispute is related to the 10 nm national airspace claims made by Greece and the F.I.R. (Flight Information Region). In international law, the limits of territorial sea of a state forms the boundaries of its national airspace. Yet, Greece in 1931 has decided to exercise 10 nm of airspace sovereignty and 6 nm on the sea. However, this 6-10 nm airspace claim is not recognized internationally, and Turkey claims it is illegal and inconsistent with the Law of the Sea. Although, the Law of the Sea does allow for up to 12 nm of territorial waters and, naturally, 12 nm airspace, it also expects these to match up. However, in the Greek case they do not as Greece applies different sea and airspace territorial breath and therefore, Turkey contests the legality of Greece’s airspace claim.

Turkey on the other hand, has also continuously infringed upon this 10 nm airspace declared by the Greek state with armed military aircrafts and by doing low flights over Greek inhabited islands. All these are viewed as serious provocations by the Greek state and has often led to severe escalation of tensions in the region. This is mainly due to Turkey seeing the current airspace situation as a threat to its own national security. “Turkey believed that the air space control regime is disadvantageous to them in the case of an aerial attack. As a result, Turkey, on 4 August 1974 unilaterally issued Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) 714.” [5] NOTAM 714 made it so that every aircraft approaching the Aegean median line had to report their position and flight plans, but Greece struck back with their own NOTAM 1157 declaring the Aegean airspace unsafe due to conflicts. These NOTAM’s were eventually withdrawn, however the dispute regarding airspace persists. The current Aegean Sea is a heavily militarized region, where both the Turkish and Greek states spend extensively on security and militarization to sure up and protect their borders, despite the fact they are both NATO allies.

Another important factor to consider in the situation of the Aegean is Turkey’s overall position regarding international conventions and treaties and how their posture seems to shift regarding the Aegean conflict. Turkey is not a signatory state of UNCLOS and it has refused to have international arbitration, the International Court of Justice, to give judgment on the Aegean dispute as they prefer to reach a bilateral agreement with Greece. Turkey also, as mentioned previously, categorically refuses to accept an expansion of Greek territorial waters to 12nm as it is not a party of UNCLOS, however it has applied the 12 nm principle in the Black Sea. This inconsistency of application of the principle territorial waters breath further weakens the Turkish legal position regarding the expansion of Greek territorial waters. Further, Turkey already has a very weak legal position by arguing against what is considered to be customary international law, since UNCLOS is widespread and practiced consistently by other states and even by Turkey in the Black Sea.

Ultimately, what has happened in the region of the Aegean Sea has been a slew of provocations by the Turkish state, infringing on Greek airspace, and direct threats of escalation to war in the case of an expansion of Greek territorial waters. All of this is due to changes and developments in UNCLOS that lead to Turkey feeling its position in the Aegean region threatened. Moreover, this conflict reflects some of the weaknesses of international and maritime law as they do not take into full consideration certain geographical regions of the world. In this case, the Aegean Sea is an enclosed space with a vast number of small islands and several straights, making access limited in case of extended territorial waters and even worse when EEZs are involved. Also, due to this conflict, there has been severe militarization in the region and islands which leads to a tense environment for all inhabitants of the region and for elevated costs in military spending and security for both countries. Both Greece and Turkey have fragile economies that could benefit from not having to deal with the burden of increased military spending.

Possible Solutions:

The most viable solutions to deal with the conflicts seen in this region would be solutions that mostly already exist in other areas of the world to curtain around similar problems. Considering that Turkey’s main concerns in the region regard the fact that Greece would, in essence, control all of the Aegean Sea with the exception of the Turkish territorial waters, one of the main issues to tackle would access to Istanbul without having to cross Grecian waters. “Given a territorial sea limited to 6 nm, Turkey actually has access to the Turkish straits from the Mediterranean through international waters; the port of Izmir is likewise accessible without passing through Greek waters.” [6] However, if Greece is to go ahead with what is legally allowed under the law of the sea and extend its territorial waters up to 12 nm it would force Turkish ships to pass through Greek waters as the territorial waters of Cyclades and Dodecanese would be connected. Otherwise, this forces Turkish ships into the situation of ‘innocent passage’ which would mean that submarines would have to cross these waters at the surface.

Lastly, another important solution that needs to be reached between the Turkish and Greek states is regarding the exploration of resources, namely oil. Turkey has of late shown serious interest in oil exploration in the Aegean region, although most of the proposed exploration would fall under what is currently Greek territory according to international law. A settlement could, however, be reached between both states to, instead of ruthlessly competing and fighting each other for resources in the region and escalating tensions, attempt to establish a joint development for exploration of resources like China and the Philippines have done. “China’s Policy choices on the SCS joint development are as follows: first, to promote good faith in the SCS; second, to limit unilateral activities in disputed areas; third, to focus on less-sensitive areas of the SCS; fourth, to reach joint development arrangements by establishing relevant working mechanism; fifth, to begin the process in areas where there are only two claimants; sixth, to define sea areas for the joint development by seeking consensus; seventh, to discuss the feasibility of setting up a SRMA with supranational character.” [7] This would not only benefit both countries economically by allowing them to pool resources into exploration and recovery of natural resources, but also to turn what have been decades of tense and hostile relations into a relationship building venture that could help to heal and ease the animosity created between both states.

However, in the end most of these proposals heavily depend on the good faith of the governments of both countries as well as Turkey being less hostile and confrontational and Greece being willing to give up some of the rights they are entitled to under UNCLOS. If Greece is willing to compromise on their territorial waters and EEZ, and Turkey on their nationalistic and hostile actions towards its neighboring states, then the Aegean Sea could once again be a prosperous and peaceful region without heavy militarization and animosity.


[1] “Purposes and Principles of the UN (Chapter I of UN Charter) Security Council,” accessed June 5, 2020, https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/content/purposes-and-principles-un-chapter-i-un-charter.


[2] “International Law, Codification, Legal Affairs, Legal, Committee, Terrorism, Charter, Criminal Accountability, Administration of Justice, Jurisdictional Immunities, Cloning, Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel, Ad Hoc, Diplomatic Conferences, Reports of International Arbitral Awards, Summaries of International Court of Justice Judgments and Advisory Opinions, Legislative Series, Juridical Yearbook, Repertory of Practice of United Nations Organs, Books,” United Nations (United Nations), accessed June 5, 2020, https://legal.un.org/repertory/art103.shtml. [3] Joe Arey, “The Cyprus Energy Dispute: A Worrying Development?,” The Organization for World Peace, February 14, 2020, https://theowp.org/the-cyprus-energy-dispute-a-worrying-development/.


[4] Papadakis, Konstantinos. "The Greece-Turkey dispute in the Aegean and the ICJ sea border delimitation case of Ukraine-Romania: similarities and differences in a comparative perspective." European Quarterly of Political Attitudes and Mentalities 7, no. 3 (2018): 36-46.


[6] “Diploweb.com,” The Greco-Turkish dispute over the Aegean Sea: a possible solution?, accessed June 5, 2020, https://www.diploweb.com/The-Greco-Turkish-dispute-over-the.html.

[7] Huaigao Qi (2019) Joint development in the South China sea: China’s incentives and policy choices, Journal of Contemporary East Asia Studies, 8:2, 220-239, DOI: 10.1080/24761028.2019.1685427.

© 2016 by Journal of Territorial and Maritime Studies.

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