AHMP Letter to the New York Times, February 5, 1996

The Op-Ed Page
The New York Times
229 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036


During and after the Imia crisis, where both Turkey and Greece asserted territorial claims, raised flags and came close to war over an uninhabited islet in the Aegean, the U.S. media and State Department presented a superficial and distorted picture of the real issues underlying recent Turkish claims to a tiny islet that has been recognized as Greek territory under international law for half a century.

The framing of the issues have typically implied three related misconceptions: (1) that both countries had plausible claims on Imia and that the island was earnestly in dispute, or alternatively, that the specific merit of these claims was unimportant, (2) that the escalation of hostilities was nonsensical and that Greece overreacted since Imia, called Kardak by Turkey, was an inconsequential piece of rock, and (3) that both countries were equally to blame for the incident. In its February 3rd Editorial, "Aegean Tantrum", The New York Times went beyond simply marginalizing pressing Greek fears over a policy of Turkish expansionism, but further implied that it was Greece that is "extend[ing] territorial claims in the eastern Aegean region".

Even a superficial inquiry, independent of Washington's expedient diplomacy, should have apprised U.S. journalists that the evidence in support of Greek sovereignty over the Imia islet was overwhelming and incontrovertible. Official aeronautical maps by the U.S. Air Force clearly and consistently delineate the Imia islets as Greek territory. The 1932 Treaty of Lausanne, ratified by both Greece and Turkey, specifically limits Turkish sovereignty to islets less than three nautical miles from Turkey's coastline; Imia is four nautical miles from Turkey's coast and 2.5 miles from the Greek island of Kalolimnos. Clearly dispositive of Turkey's claim over Imia is the fact that Turkey itself, as a signatory to a binding international agreement, had explicitly recognized the island as belonging to the Dodecanese territory which Italy later ceded to Greece. Point 30 of the 1932 Protocol between Italy and Turkey (annexed to the 1932 Convention signed in Ankara in 1932) expressly designates Imia as a part of the Dodecanese territory which Italy later ceded to Greece under the 1947 Treaty of Paris.

Since 1951 Turkey had formally recognized that her western frontiers coincided with the limits of the Istanbul Flight Information Region (FIR) agreed upon during the International Civil Navigation (ICAO) Meeting in Istanbul in November of 1950. Furthermore, the Aeronautical Information Publications published and globally distributed by Turkey plainly state that Turkey's territory extends only up to Istanbul's FIR. All ICAO maps have since clearly depicted Imia as being located outside Istanbul's FIR and within Athens' FIR.

Significantly, Turkey had not raised any issues regarding Greece's sovereignty over Imia and other islands in the Aegean until the 1970's, when Turkey invaded and occupied Cyprus and initiated a systematic policy of disputing Greek islands, airspace and territorial waters in the Aegean. Turkish fighter jets continue to routinely violate even undisputed Greek airspace on a weekly basis, not simply to alternatively test and harass Greece's armed forces and minimize Greece's control over her own skies, but to create a precedent for future territorial claims.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows maritime nations full territorial rights over a minimum of 12 nautical miles from their continental shelves (although not a signatory, the U.S. recognizes the 12-mile rule and further claims fishing rights up to 200 n.m.). Although Turkey itself has claimed this right in the Black Sea and has extended its territorial waters accordingly, it refuses to acknowledge this same right for Greece in the Aegean Sea, a maritime region that has historically, culturally and ethnically been Hellenic for thousands of years. The Imia incident obviously has regional implications that reach far beyond the tiny island's shores: by provoking and escalating the situation Turkey hopes to place the Aegean's entire territorial order into question, forcing Greece to negotiate for what already belongs to her.

After the ratification of UNCLOS, the Turkish Parliament solemnly passed a unanimous resolution last summer empowering their government to declare war against Greece in advance should Greece exercise her 12-mile right. Prime Minister Tansu Ciller threatened that Turkey "will have troops landed on the Greek islands within twenty-four hours" should Greece claim her territorial waters. And Turkey has been preparing to make good on this threat for decades: the organization of Turkey's Aegean Army during the past thirty years has focused on preparations for a large-scale maritime invasionary force looking westward -- containing the largest fleet of landing craft in the Mediterranean and Europe. In response to the Imia standoff, and over Cypriot protests to the UN Security Council, Turkish forces in occupied Cyprus mobilized along free Cyprus' partition line, reinforced by between 80 and 100 American-made M-48A5 tanks which were transported to the island.

In a press conference during the crisis, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns criticized Greece's reaction, stating "We have another very close ally, Canada, with which we have disputes over territory. And we talk about it, we discuss it." Given the long and gruesome history of Turkish aggression in the area, Burns' analogy is wholly inappropriate, if not disingenuous. A far more apt analogy would involve a scenario of a Cuban or Russian claim over an uninhabited island in the Florida Keys during the height of the Cold War, backed by a concomitant military buildup around the island, a Soviet flag being planted, and finally a raid and occupation of the island by Soviet commandos while American soldiers were defending its shores. The U.S. has threatened world annihilation over far less. Yet Greece not only agreed to withdraw its forces from the area, but further agreed to remove its colors from the island.

When attempting to deal with any conflict in this area of the world, you ignore history at your own peril. The U.S.'s failure to appreciate the importance of historical context and confrontation by proxy in the region's geopolitical alchemy has been a major reason for its policy failures in the Balkans and the Middle East. In keeping with this myopic approach, a Times editorial characterized the Imia dispute as a "reckless little showdown over rocks, goats and flags". Scratching the surface would have revealed far more: a bubbling cauldron of insecurity, fear and loathing; of apocalyptic carnage, incomprehensible brutality and terrifying archetypal nightmares unresolved and seared deep within a people's collective memory.

The rule of law is constantly touted by our nation's leaders as the measure of international conduct. We launched a massive invasion against Iraq to uphold the principle of non-aggression. We are sending thousands of American men and women over to Bosnia to stem the rampant human rights violations there. Yet when the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid endemically violates these very same principles, the State Department pooh-poohs its transgressions and rewards it with 120 ATACMS missiles, a highly advanced deep-strike weapon so devastating that it has not yet been sold to any other nation, including Israel. Worse yet, it is a weapon system that international human rights organizations are convinced Turkey will use against civilians: a report by Human Rights Watch recently documented 29 instances of Turkish use of U.S. or NATO weaponry in the commission of human rights abuses.

The implications of this open hypocrisy are more than simply academic. They have very real and far-reaching consequences. Many a transgressing nation -- including that of the Bosnian Serbs, Iraq, Iran and Lybia -- has explicitly cited to the U.S.'s blatant double-standard with regard to Turkey as a genuine motivational factor behind its own actions. How can we expect the Serbs not to view U.S. condemnation with suspicion, if not outright contempt, when Turkey has been allowed to ethnically cleanse hundreds of thousands of Kurds and Greeks from Kurdistan and Cyprus within the last two decades? How can we expect Lybia and Iraq to take our censure of their own violations seriously when Turkey is allowed to openly flout U.N. resolutions, binding international treaties, and fundamental human rights protections with impunity?

Imia may indeed be "a tiny island inhabited by several dozen goats" but the horns that totter above its craggy surface may prove to be far sharper and have far greater consequences than American policymakers and journalists are ready to recognize.

by Phillip Spyropoulos

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