Dr. William Mallinson *
26 August 2020
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.
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.
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. 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’. 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’. 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.’
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 the 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.’ 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.
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.’
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.’