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Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?

Turkey and Greece: Time to Settle the Aegean Dispute

To capitalise on twelve years of normalisation, and at a time when both could benefit from a foreign policy success, Greece and Turkey should settle their expensive, outdated and stressful stand-off over Aegean Sea maritime zones and related issues.

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I. Overview

Normalisation between Greece and Turkey has come far since tensions in the Aegean Sea threatened war three times between the NATO allies. Trade, investments and mutual cooperation and tourism have taken off, sidelining issues like the Cyprus problem, which first stirred up the Aegean dispute in the early 1970s. Frequent bilateral talks and Turkey’s unofficial 2011 suspension of military over-flights of Greek islands suggest that the time may be ripe for a solution to that dispute. Turkey’s strong new government elected in June is interested in further asserting itself as a responsible regional power, solving problems in its neighbourhood and clearing obstacles to its European Union (EU) accession. With Athens in the midst of a financial crisis and needing any economic lift and increased security it can find, this unnecessary and still potentially dangerous conflict should be resolved. A good strategy would be a synchronised set of steps to prepare public opinion on both sides, leading to a bilateral agreement and including, if needed, eventual recourse to international adjudication.

Even if the relative calm of the last years has pushed the Aegean dispute off the international community’s radar, risks of a flare-up remain. Greeks worry about the safety of hundreds of islands much closer to Turkey than to their mainland. Turks fear being cut off from most of the Aegean and farther seas should Greece unilaterally extend the breadth of its territorial sea and establish new maritime jurisdiction zones. The Cyprus reunification negotiations and Turkey’s EU accession process are reaching stalemate. But if Ankara and Athens settle their Aegean dispute, that step could help both to persuade Greek Cypriots of Turkey’s goodwill and to polish Turkey’s EU credentials.

Much of the disagreement over the Aegean flared up after Athens engineered a 1974 coup in Nicosia intended to unite Cyprus with Greece, and Turkey invaded, resulting in its occupation of the north of the island. The dispute has now grown beyond maritime zones (territorial seas and continental shelf) to cover airspace, over-flights, militarisation of Aegean islands and flight information regions. The Aegean Sea’s geography is complex, with more than 2,400 islands, mostly Greek, but also high seas shipping routes that are Turkey’s economic and security lifeline.

Greece argues that international law, as detailed in the widely-ratified 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), gives it an inalienable right to extend its territorial seas to twelve nautical miles from the present six. It describes the delimitation of the continental shelf as the main problem and says it must be settled by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), not bilateral negotiations. For years, Turkey was reluctant to go to the ICJ on Aegean issues and insisted on bilateral talks, although since 1997 it does not rule out judicial means based on mutual consent. Turkey fears that a Greek territorial seas extension could cut off its access to high seas shipping routes and to the Aegean continental shelf. Its parliament has threatened war if Greece unilaterally extends its territorial seas, and Ankara makes symbolic displays of strength that until recently included military flights over inhabited Greek islands. All, including Black Sea states that navigate through the Aegean for access to the Mediterranean and beyond, want to ensure safe, open access and passage.

Today, both sides take a more constructive approach. Their foreign ministries have met more than 50 times for “exploratory talks” since 2002, with a view to taking the continental shelf dispute and possibly other unresolved matters to the ICJ. In private, they agree that circumstances have changed enough to settle the dispute, which is far more about domestic politics and psychology than real security concerns. But lack of political will to let go of maximalist positions and confront popular opinion with compromises has kept negotiations in the starting blocks.

This is short-sighted. Greece and Turkey would both benefit from solving the long and costly dispute. The economic advantages of ending mock military sparring are especially clear for Greece. But Turkey would also benefit economically, and, as importantly, a settlement could reinvigorate its EU relationship and increase the credibility of its “zero problems” foreign policy with neighbours. A process to achieve this could include the following joint steps:

  • First stage: Turkey formally ends over-flights of inhabited Greek islands. Greece pledges to demilitarise Aegean islands in accordance with commitments it has made in a series of earlier treaties, once a comprehensive Aegean agreement with Turkey is reached and ratified. Turkey pledges to disband its Fourth Army simultaneously or relocate it away from the Aegean.
  • Second stage: both announce readiness to negotiate special Aegean arrangements in line with general UNCLOS principles on equity and special circumstances. Greece publicly recognises Turkey, as a littoral state, has rights that must be taken into account in delimiting Aegean maritime zones and notes such matters have been arbitrated or adjudicated by other states with coastlines on a shared sea. Turkey publicly commits to ratify UNCLOS and recognises Greece’s international law right in principle to extend its territorial seas to twelve nautical miles. The sides jointly declare that negotiations will include maintaining high seas corridors to major Turkish ports and the Turkish straits to the Black Sea that can be used for international navigation.
  • Third stage: Greece and Turkey negotiate on delimitation of their territorial seas based in principle on a twelve nautical mile limit. They agree on median lines where these limits overlap and on a reduction of Greek territorial seas where necessary to ensure reasonable high seas corridors for international shipping through the Aegean. They agree in advance that they will authorise the ICJ to adjudicate, pursuant to the principles listed in stages two and three, any dispute about where territorial sea boundaries should be drawn.

Fourth stage: Turkey and Greece address any remaining issues, particularly on the continental shelf, and thereafter refer any remaining differences to the ICJ.

Istanbul/Athens/Brussels, 19 July 2011

Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?

Originally published in Valdai

Last weekend, the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia met in Ankara to discuss, among other things, the latest developments in Syria amid Turkish concerns over the consequences of a Syrian government offensive in the last rebel enclave, Idlib. 

The Russian-backed offensive against that last opposition enclave is aimed at keeping the rebels at arm’s length from the Russian air base in Latakia, re-opening the Damascus-Aleppo highway and eventually retaking the city of Idlib, the provincial capital that has been held by the rebels since 2015. As such and for the past six months, much of Idlib and its environs have been under intense attack from the Syrian Arab Army on the ground and Russian warplanes in the air. The government forces have been able to seize strategic villages, including the medieval fortress town of Qalaat al-Madiq, a major crossing point into Idlib, and the towns of Kafr Nabudah and Khan Shaykhoun. The long-dreaded offensive has left 1,089 civilians dead and 600,000 displaced.

In September 2017, the three Astana guarantors, (Turkey, Iran, and Russia), negotiated a partial ceasefire in Idlib under a “de-escalation” agreement, monitored on the opposition side through twelve Turkish military outposts deployed along a blurry deconfliction line between the rebels and government forces. A year later, a deal between Turkey and Russia, announced in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, headed off a seemingly imminent Syrian army offensive and reinforced the earlier deal. The Turkish-Russian agreement tacitly committed Turkey to oversee the withdrawal of jihadis along with all heavy weapons, tanks, rockets systems and mortars held by all rebel groups from a 15-20 km “demilitarised zone” bordering government-controlled areas, and allowed the re-opening of the Latakia-Aleppo and Damascus-Aleppo highways, which pass through Idlib.

The fate of Idlib Governorate and its three million inhabitants could be determined by the leaders of the Astana trio.

Ankara and Moscow, however, remain at odds over the interpretations of the Sochi deal and its implementation. Moscow has made clear that a de-escalation arrangement is by no means a permanent alternative to the eventual return of the state to north west Syria. On the other hand, Turkey views the deal primarily as a tool to prevent a Syrian offensive on Idlib, and preserve a “de-escalation zone” out of Syrian government control until a broader political settlement can be reached for the eight-year old Syria crisis. As such, Turkey has agreed that moderate rebel groups would be separated from radicals and the latter would lay down arms and move out of a defined demilitarised zone. However, Moscow and Ankara remain at loggerheads over which rebel groups in Idlib should be designated as terrorists. When the agreement was announced, Hai’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a group formerly linked to al Qaeda, controlled around 50% of Idlib Governorate; today they control almost all of it. Ankara believes that much of HTS is fundamentally pragmatic and a potential ally for eliminating radical transnational jihadists, while Russia treats HTS uniformly as a terrorist group, and describes the Sochi ceasefire as conditional upon HTS’s removal from the demilitarised zone and “separation” from the armed opposition. In terms of implementation, Turkey claims that they have successfully rolled back jihadis and cleared the demilitarized zone of all heavy weaponry. On the other hand, the Russian Ministry of Defence has stated that HTS attempted to attack Russia’s Hmeimim Airbase twelve times in April 2019 using unmanned aerial vehicles.

The fate of Idlib Governorate and its three million inhabitants could be determined by the leaders of the Astana trio. It is no secret that if Russia greenlights an all-out offensive, an opposition-led infantry ground force will not be able to stop it. Nonetheless, a military solution in Idlib would still be exceptionally costly for all parties, Russia included. Retaking Idlib militarily would strain Moscow’s relations with Turkey and would require force levels that could only inevitably lead to a bloodbath in the densely-populated province. More significantly, capturing Idlib militarily would risk scattering jihadi militants now inside Idlib across Syria, and globally, including into post-Soviet states. If Russia hopes to avoid that, it needs to consider an alternative to a catastrophic military victory.

Today, a return to the existing Sochi understanding will do little good, in part because – to acknowledge an uncomfortable reality – any agreement that is to prove sustainable needs to address the divergent views between Russia and Turkey over some of the key actors in Idlib, including HTS. Russia can help the Syrian government crush Idlib, if it so chooses, and if it is willing to absorb the grave cost of victory, including thousands of jihadis scattered across Syria and beyond. If it hopes to spare itself that cost, however, it needs to consider alternatives to a military victory, which would have grave security consequences.