Casus Belli: A Turkish Policy for the Aegean Sea

By Christos Fountas

The relations between Greece and Turkey have gone through different periods of recession and tension. From 1973 onwards, the relations between the two countries have been tense. In the early 1970s, Turkey introduced a systematic policy of contestations and claims against the sovereignty and thus the sovereign rights of Greece. This policy of disputes can be ascertained with a simple visit to the website of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The purpose of this was, and still is, to change the territorial status quo, which is envisaged in international treaties, centred around the Lausanne Peace Treaty.  Alongside contestation of the legal status of both the maritime and airspace stemming from international law and namely the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In just the last week we have seen tensions rise even further after neighboring Greek and Turkish vessels collided in the Aegean Sea.


Tensions around the Aegean Sea remain high after last week’s incident. Source:

In 1982 the UNCLOSIII (the current version of UNCLOS) was ratified, this stated that coastal states have the right to expand their territorial claim and thus their territorial sea from 6 to 12 nautical miles, without the permission from the neighboring states. Although Turkey, even today, has not become a signatory of the convention, UNCLOS has become international customary law meaning that it is valid even though some states have not accepted it. In cases where the distance between two states is less than 12 miles, the borders are determined by the rule of the middle line. This division has not accepted by Turkey and since 1982 Turkey has declared the right of Greece to expand its territorial sea as a Casus Belli. Casus Belli is an ancient Latin phrase which means “an event provoking war or used as a pretext for making war.”

This phrase is being called upon with every “event” that may cause tension between two States, such as in cases of offence towards heads or other heads of state, diplomatic agents, or other sovereign rights. For example, in 1995, the Turkish National Assembly authorized the Turkish Government to take all necessary measures, including the military, against Greece’s claim to adopt the international law. This case is still open. Turkey have continued to contest the legitimate and sovereign rights of Greece to extend its territorial sea to 12 nautical miles as prescribed in the convention. This right has been exercised by many within the international community and more locally in the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean. The convention implies the sovereign rights to not only territorial waters but also to the airspace above it. Turkey has again continued to contest and violate this with flights over this airspace conducted by fighter jets. Furthermore, with the increased pressure on Greece to demilitarize the eastern Aegean islands, it is suggested that Greece can no longer protect its rights.


Imia, the two small rocky islands that lie in the Aegean Sea and have been a source of dispute between the two nations.  At the back, the Small Imia and on the front of the picture Big Imia. Source:

Greece has learned to live with this provocation from Turkey and the threat of Casus Belli. Through the years, there have been daily violations of airspace from Turkish jets, and several ‘hot’ episodes, the most remarkable of which was 1996. Here, a major incident regarding “Imia”, two small rocky islands at the Aegean Sea, pictured above. This episode almost turned into a large-scale conflict and as such, both countries were preparing for war. The war councils were meeting and citizens emptied supermarkets shelves in both nations. The role of the US was crucial here as median in order to calm down the controversy. The episode started when two journalists from the Hurriyet newspaper office in Izmir traveled by helicopter on January 27th to Small Imia, submitted the Greek flag and raised the Turkish flag. The actions of the journalists were captured on film and subsequently and screened on the Hurriyet TV channel. This took on considerable dimensions. The crisis escalated in the coming days.


The two journalists from the Hurriyet newspaper while taking down the Greek flag. Source:

Over the last two years, Turkey has faced tension at their southern borders with Syria and the Kurds, and the oil extraction in the territorial waters of Cyprus. Moreover, their stately actions have moved away from the ideals of the West and are gradually losing their support from the US (a country that has significant diplomat influence in the region). This has allowed Greece to be seen as a stabilising influence in the region, but this has not dissuaded Turkey from their policy of Casus Belli. Recently, Turkey announced that it is going to “lock” three areas in the middle of the Aegean Sea for military exercises. A move that challenges boundaries of Greek territorial waters and airspace, while cutting off important regions of the Aegean.

There is little evidence that Turkey is going to abolish these policies anytime soon, especially under the direction of President Erdogan. A possible solution in order for this dispute to end would be for Turkey to enter the European Union. Crucially, for a country to enter the Union it must have any territorial disputes made clear and to have all international treaties accepted. The EU would not accept having two member states that have territorial disputes between them. Nevertheless, Turkey’s chances of joining the European Union seem to be diminishing due to the tactics followed by its political leaders, but also its foreign policy elsewhere.

Lately, as mentioned above, Turkey has tried to escalate the controversy at the Aegean with trespasses and statements of officials. The question remains though; would Turkey be able to continue to absorb all this pressure from the fronts that it has opened? It will be interesting to see the next steps of Turkey on the matter, as Greece remains strictly committed to the principle of peaceful settlement of disputes on the basis of international law.

22310272_10214156322283706_7049945379791254994_nChristos is currently for an MSc in Geopolitics and Security at Royal Holloway University of London, having previously obtained a Bachelor in Political Science at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. His interests are around international politics, geopolitics and more specifically the securitisation of areas and risk management. You can find him on Twitter. 


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