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

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


To the Editor:

Stephen Engelberg's January 31st article, "U.S. Is Trying to Help Cool Aegean Anger", presents your readers with a superficial and distorted picture of the real issues underlying recent Turkish claims to a tiny pair of islets that have been recognized as Greek territory by international law for half a century. Your February 3rd Editorial, "Aegean Tantrum", is guilty of worse -- not simply marginalizing crucial and pressing Greek fears over what is clearly a policy of Turkish expansionism, but unconscionably implying that it is Greece that is "extend[ing] territorial claims in the eastern Aegean region".

Given its steadfast support of Turkey despite growing human rights and international legal concerns, the State Department's irresponsible refusal to publicly acknowledge what it privately recognizes is almost to be expected. Yet, as our nation's custodians of truth, journalists have a heightened responsibility to independently verify the facts they report on and avoid parroting the government line. Even a superficial inquiry, independent of Washington's expedient diplomacy, should have apprised the New York Times that the evidence in support of Greek sovereignty over the Imia islets is 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.

Even if Turkey's absurd argument -- that the Treaty of Paris somehow did not transfer sovereignty of the island from Italy to Greece -- was valid, Imia would then have remained under Italian sovereignty; by no sleight of hand could it have metamorphosed into Turkish territory. Yet shortly after Turkey's mini-invasion of Imia by 25 Turkish commandos, Italy's foreign ministry issued its position that Greece's sovereignty over the islet was valid under the 1947 Treaty of Paris and did not require further ratification.

This all may sound like hypertechnical legalese to a layman, but The New York Times and certainly our own State Department should be expected to differentiate between territorial claims that have some colorable basis in international law and those, such as Saddam Hussein's claims on Kuwait and Turkey's present claims on Imia and other Greek territory, that are founded upon baseless pretexts in the pursuit of expansionist agendas.

Shortly after the Turks precipitated the Imia incident by lowering Greece's flag and raising Turkey's red and white Islamic crescent, an official Turkish map from 1953 was displayed at a press conference in Athens, plainly designating Imia as a Greek island. 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.

In 1987 Turkey provoked another military crisis by dispatching an oil-drilling vessel into waters within 12 miles of Greece's continental shelf. As with the present crisis, the U.S. intervened simply to prevent a further escalation, but did not attempt to impartially resolve this potentially explosive dispute between its two NATO allies. Since then, provisions within the recently ratified United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) -- viewed by international legal scholars not only as binding on its more than 60 signatory nations but as a codification of customary international law -- have confirmed that Turkish claims against Greece's territorial waters are groundless. 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.

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 on Saturday. How can Greece, outgunned and outnumbered by European NATO's largest and most heavily armed standing army, be expected to ignore such direct and imminent threats of invasion?

That Greece seems to be reflexively blamed for any action which she reasonably undertakes to protect her vital interests, and is repeatedly characterized as an obstinate troublemaker even where the law and the facts are so clearly in her favor, smacks of a dangerous and counterproductive double-standard that, if applied to other ethnic groups, would properly be condemned as racist.

Despite her tendency towards melodrama, and unlike Turkey, Greece has been a pivotal stabilizing force, a wellspring of economic reform and a beacon of true western democracy in Europe's toughest neighborhood. Greece acted as an important intermediary for the West during the Yugoslav war. She took the initiative in easing tensions with Albania when a Stalinist-style show trial convicted six activists of Albania's long-suffering Greek minority. Greece recently agreed to lift trade sanctions against the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia despite historically justified concerns over the latter's expansionist intentions and further concerns over Skopje's campaign for international recognition of a historical farce which has already succeeded in distorting both ancient and modern Greek and Balkan history.

Despite the media's mischaracterization of Athens' response to the Imia provocation, Greece has again acted with great restraint in the service of peace and stability in the region. To appreciate the validity of this statement one must simply imagine 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 flag from the island.

As a result of the selective use of quotes, of the failure to more genuinely represent the reasons behind Greece's heightened reaction in defense of her own soil, and as a result of the failure to provide any background regarding a long and continuing history of Turkish aggression, the Times and most other U.S. media sources have wrongly portrayed Turkey as the more temperate of the two parties involved in the Imia "dispute".

It is precisely this brand of arrogant short-sightedness -- and its attendant pandering to illicit foreign and business interests in derogation of legal and moral concerns -- that has allowed what was initially a dispute among Yugoslavians to escalate into a bloody civil war. And it is precisely this short-sightedness that has led the U.S. to so heavily arm the ticking time bomb that is Turkey, an aggressor nation that is now governed by an Islamic fundamentalist plurality and is increasingly demanding autonomy from U.S. constraints.

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, the 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; of intense resentment over empires and dominions lost; of ancient wounds never permitted to heal, painfully and repeatedly torn open by scimitars and crescents and tanks; of co-existence with a militant behemoth which in recent memory has nearly swallowed up entire nations, and is apparently still hungry for more.

Where Washington and its yea-saying press see an inconsequential islet not worth spilling a drop of ouzo or raki over, the Hellenes see the potentiality of the Greek world shrinking yet once again at the hands of bald Turkish aggression bringing the Turks one step closer to their dreams of Aegean hegemony and reconquest of former Ottoman dominions. The Turks see another opportunity to expand into an economically and strategically vital area, which they resentfully call a "Greek lake" and from which they have thus far been excluded. As evinced by the military escalation at Imia, both sides are willing to spill a great deal more than ouzo or raki to protect these interests. 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.

Clearer thinking would confirm that the underlying problem is neither Greece's obstinacy nor hypersensitivity, but rather, that Turkey has been given great latitude by the U.S. and NATO to flout fundamental principles of non-aggression and human rights. The Imia incident can serve as a case study as to why Turkey has become increasingly emboldened during the past two decades. Instead of immediately and unequivocally condemning Turkey's transgressions, mealy-mouthed politicians either slap Ankara on the wrist while winking (as when Turkey invaded northern Iraq this summer inflicting substantial Kurdish civilian casualties) or communicate a dangerous apathy or silent approval of Turkey's actions (as was done with Imia). Even prior to Imia, Turkey has managed to convince the U.S. that a territory is legitimately in dispute simply because Ankara says it is. Yet neither the Times nor any nation interested in curbing aggression and affirming the inviolability of national borders should encourage such dangerous behavior by lending any credence to Ankara's absurd territorial claims.

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 weapons 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, a nation which the United States bankrolls and the third largest U.S. aid recipient in the world, 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 Mr. Engelberg, the New York Times, or Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke are ready to recognize.

Very truly yours,

Phillip Spyropoulos, Esq.

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