Letter to The New York Times, July 21, 1996

Letters to the Editor
The New York Times
229 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036-3959

To the Editor:

Celestine Bohlen's July 20th article, "Dispute Still Simmering Over Aegean Islets", repeats the same flaw that underlies much of our media's position on Greco-Turkish relations: a functionalist approach to analyzing the ongoing tensions, thereby encouraging the implementation of solutions without regard to the problem's legal and moral dimensions. Although this approach does avoid the mind-numbing, counter-productive soapbox sermons and finger-pointing that have characterized much of Balkan and Middle-Eastern affairs, it is a realpolitik that has one overriding drawback: that such an approach is inherently pro-Turkish and as a result is counterproductive to any genuine progress in relations between Athens and Ankara.

Turkey's oppressive and decidedly un-democratic practices stand in sharp contrast to those Greece has been nurturing for over a century--dangerous and destabilizing practices which include Turkey's deprivation of women's civil liberties, its suppression of religious freedom resulting in an increase in Islamic fundamentalism, its ruthless occupation of Cyprus and its belligerence towards EU-member Greece, its blockade of its former genocide victims the Armenians in contravention of U.S. and international law, its ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Kurds from Turkish Kurdistan, and its continued suppression of numerous minorities including the near-extinct Constantinopolean Greeks and the Alawite Moslems.

Turkey's well-known strategy of diverting attention away from domestic problems and towards ethnic scapegoats, most often Greeks and Armenians, continues to mar Turkey's human rights record. During rioting last year by Alawite Muslims in which scores of Alawites were killed by security forces, then-Prime Minister Tansu Ciller had the temerity to publicly attribute the rioting to a conspiracy hatched by dark Greek forces without proffering a shred of evidence. Such statements might be laughable, were they not so dangerous. As expected Greek cemeteries were desecrated, bomb-threats were made against both the Patriarchate and Greek minority schools (such as the Zappion Girls' School and Zographion Lycee), Greeks were physically attacked, and other hate-crimes were perpetrated against the Greek minority with no action on the part of the Turkish authorities to protect this minority.

Although Ms. Bohlen dismisses genuine Greek concerns over Turkey's rampant human rights and international legal transgressions--by proffering a characterization of the tensions as a "picture . . . you would see in primary schools anywhere, where there are always a couple of children off to the side, jabbing and insulting each other"--as between the two nations, international law, human rights, and issues of international aggression weigh far more in Greece's favor, and weigh heavily against Turkey. Ignoring these issues would be tantamount to dismissing the foundation upon which most of Greece's objections are based and, worse yet, sanctioning an amoral, machiavellian realpolitik that has in the past led to the horror of genocide and holocaust.

Furthermore, many of Turkey's actions both internationally as well as domestically so clearly involve serious legal and moral transgressions, that concern over the general slipperiness and chameleon nature of these concepts should not discourage their application to the Greco-Turkish dispute. That since the 1970's Turkey's role has fundamentally been that of an aggressor, and that Greece has generally taken a reactive, defensive posture is readily apparent despite Ms. Bohlen's marginalization of this reality by citing "a history of collapsing empires, world wars and overlapping treaties".

This same marginalization of international law by the West when understanding the Greco-Turkish dispute has often led to a strong feeling of indignation and outrage on the part of Greece, a reaction which has indeed added significantly to the intractability of the situation. Yet instead of further exacerbating the problem by blaming Greece for her impassioned reaction--and thus further marginalizing her legitimate concerns regarding Turkey's expansionism and endemic human rights violations--reversing this posture would far better lend itself to solution. By recognizing the moral and legal validity of Greece's concerns and incorporating them substantially in the calculus of any negotiations, Greece's posture would be far more conciliatory and conducive to the finding of a solution.

Ms. Bohlen's astute inclusion of the Gavdos incident in her analysis, where Turkey challenged Athens' sovereignty over a Greek-inhabited Aegean island, serves as a good example of the efficacy of this approach. NATO officials' ready dismissal of Turkey's claim as being nothing short of farcical encouraged constraint on the part of Greece and prevented the escalating retaliatory spiral that has characterized other Greco-Turkish disputes.

Another example of the effectiveness of this approach is the Imia crisis. That Imia has clearly been recognized in the past as Greek territory under international treaty, custom and practice--and even by Turkey's own diplomatic and other official statements--would be disingenuous to sincerely dispute.

After Ankara claimed the islet, the West at first failed to recognize Greece's sovereignty over it, and in fact even criticized Greece for her heightened response. Greece's reaction in turn was one of pronounced outrage and its posture was stubborn and galvanized. Greece, ready to go to war over the islet, refused to even entertain the notion of referring the dispute to the Hague or any other third party, and any attempts at negotiation would have been futile. Yet once the EU finally recognized Greece' s sovereignty over Imia, Greece--vindicated, feeling far less threatened, and thus acting with greater calm and restraint--was willing to take the lead in offering a resolution to the crisis by agreeing to let Turkey refer the matter to the International Court of Justice (an offer that was subsequently turned down by Turkey).

Consequently, Ms. Bohlen's characterization of the situation ignores the most effective solution to this impasse: legitimizing Greece's demonstrably valid concerns over Turkish aggression and human rights. This is a far more workable--as well as morally nd legally appropriate--response. For example, by recognizing Greece's 12-mile claim over its territorial waters as a valid one under UNCLOS as well as customary international law and allaying Greece's fears over the loss of her territorial waters, a more secure and confident Greek Government would then be willing to genuinely entertain Turkish concerns over shipping routes and other issues regarding the Aegean, and to negotiate their resolution.*

Another example, the permission granted by Greece recently for the overflight of Turkish fighter jets over her territory in furtherance of an important military milestone for Turkey--its first mid-air refueling of a military aircraft--evinces the conciliatry nature of a Greece that does not feel threatened. An even more potent example is Athens' agreement not to exercise its veto over the EU customs union with Turkey, an enormous benefit for Turkey and an important first step for the fulfillment of Turkey's seven-decade-long aspiration of European inclusion. This huge concession by Greece was reportedly granted in return for Turkey's pledge for greater cooperation and good neighborliness towards Greece, including beginning bilateral negotiations on solving the Cyprus issue. Yet when Imia was claimed by Turkey, and Greece's immediate security was again threatened, Greece blocked EU funding for Turkey that had been agreed upon under the framework of the customs agreement and tensions once again erupted.

One issue seems to escape most U.S. and some European policymakers who would prefer that Greece lie down and keep quiet in the face of bald Turkish aggression: the conflict's relevance beyond the Greco-Turkish dispute. The State Department's and media's avoidance of the legal and moral dimensions in a situation where they are so clearly relevant (and discernible) is that they risk becoming marginalized, not only with regard to Greco-Turkish relations but with regard to all international problems as well.

The best hope for resolving one of Europe's most intractable problems lies with the United States. Unlike Bosnia, China, Somalia and a myriad of other troubled areas--in which the U.S. has affirmatively committed itself with little hope of decisively resolving these conflicts--U.S. political, economic and diplomatic intervention in response to Turkish transgressions would indeed provide exceptionally good chances of decisively resolving the Greco-Turkish rivalry. US pressure on Turkey would have a far greater effect than similar intervention would have on Greece, as Greece's central focus is now directed towards the EU. Turkey, on the other hand, would have nowhere else to turn.

The EU is far from ready to integrate Turkey into its ranks. And with the ever-increasing queue of far more eligible applicants, Ankara can not realistically aspire to EU membership in the discernible future. In addition, the Turks have invested far too much towards their 70-year effort at secularization to turn their backs on it now, even in response to sustained and aggressive U.S. pressure. Were Turkey to turn towards Islamic fundamentalism in reaction--a fear held by many U.S. and European strategists that has caused them to conveniently overlook Turkey's undemocratic practices--Turkey would run into a dead end, finding itself isolated from both the West and the East.

For example, overtures by Turkey's recently-elected Islamic fundamentalist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, for an Islamic NATO and friendlier relations with Syria and Iran carried little, if any, currency in the Arab world. Even if Turkey's all-powerful generals allowed a fundamentalist government to independently govern, a substantive Turko-Arab and Turko-Persian alliance would be about as unlikely as a Turko-Russian one. Intense historical animosities between Arabs and Turks aside, animosities stemming from the Ottoman occupation of Arab lands, Turkish interests have long since come to a head with Arab ones, independent of Turkey's pro-Western stance. Syria, Iraq and Iran can accurately be characterized as having a decidedly belligerent position towards Turkey. Turkey has had ongoing territorial disputes with Iraq and Syria, and Turkish monopolization of precious Middle Eastern water resources flowing from the Euphrates have pitted Turkey and Syria dangerously at odds with each other. Iran and Turkey are already in frantic competition over the vast oil resources of central Asia's ex-Soviet republics, and Syria and Iraq have supported Kurdish seperatists in Turkey.

Turkey has no choice but to continue looking Westward, and particularly towards the U.S. Any substantial and sustained pressure by America on Turkey would not only eventually result in Turkey's cessation of its foreign policy of aggression, thereby laying a solid foundation for Greco-Turkish peace initiatives, but would result in the West's gaining a truly valuable and stable ally--one which could become a fuller member of the West by adopting a genuine respect for peace, democracy and human rights.

Very truly yours,

Phillip Spyropoulos, Esq.

* For example, licenses or easements granted for Turkish trade and commercial shipping would greatly benefit both countries within a peaceful framework and in conformance with international law. The mining of sea bed minerals in the Aegean could include Turkish business interests as part of a Greek-sponsored international consortium.

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