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AHI Panel Examines U.S. Strategic Interests in Aegean Sea, Cyprus

No. 28

WASHINGTON, DC — The American Hellenic Institute (AHI) hosted a panel discussion on the topic, “U.S. Strategic Interests: The Aegean Sea & Cyprus' EEZ,” April 17, 2018, at the Capital Hilton, Washington, D.C.  The panelists included: Cato Institute Senior Fellow Doug Bandow, AHI Legal Counsel and Partner at Sfikas & Karambelas Nick Karambelas, and Trilogy Advisors LLC Principal John Sitilides.  AHI President Nick Larigakis moderated the panel discussion, which was followed by a Q&A session with the audience.

AHI President Larigakis opened the panel discussion with welcome remarks.  He provided the backdrop of the current state of events in the eastern Mediterranean and why it is in the best interests of the United States for the region to be politically, economically, and socially stable and peaceful.

AHI Legal Counsel Karambelas presented on the rule of law of how it applies to the Aegean Sea and to the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Cyprus. With regard to the Aegean Sea, the United States was not a signatory to the Treaty of Lausanne, which ceded the Dodecanese islands and islets to Italy from the Ottoman Empire, because the United States did not declare war on the Ottoman Empire.  However, under the Treaty of Paris of 1947, to which the United States is a party, the Dodecanese Islands and adjacent islets as well as Kastelorizo along with its adjacent islets were ceded by Italy to Greece.  The Treaty of Paris is U.S. federal law and the U.S. is bound to enforce it.  Karambelas raised the question as to the role of the president in enforcing treaties to which the U.S. is a party.  He added that Congress has the implied power to order the president to comply with such treaties. 

Further, Karambelas offered a concept in international law known as “persistent objector” as a legal explanation as to why Turkey constantly violates Greece’s sovereignty in the Aegean.  Karambelas stated that President Erdogan has taken a tact which is different from previous Turkish leaders.  They questioned the interpretation of the treaty.  President Erdogan maintains that the treaty itself is unlawful and must be discarded.     

Finally, Karambelas stated that only one treaty applies to the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Cyprus, the UN Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS). Turkey is not a signatory. He explained how the maritime borders and the EEZ’s are delineated under UNCLOS.  Karambelas dismissed any Turkish claims that islands do not have an EEZ or continental shelf because under UNCLOS they clearly do.  He also dismissed Turkey’s claims that its continental shelf extends into the Cyprus EEZ because Turkish-occupied Cyprus is not a nation-state.  It has none of the maritime zones to which a nation-state is entitled.  Because islands have EEZs, Kastelorizo which is south of the Turkish mainland has an EEZ which connects to Greek EEZ with the Cypriot EEZ.  Turkey asserts that islands do not have EEZs so that the Turkish EEZ to the south of the Turkish mainland and cuts off this connection.

John Sitilides, Principal at Trilogy Advisors and a diplomacy consultant to the State Department, addressed the geostrategic implications of the U.S.-Greece relationship, opening with the role Greece played in April’s coalition missile strikes in Syria. Sitilides described an “arc of crisis” ranging from Russia’ occupation of Ukraine, Turkey’s attacks on Syrian Kurds allied with the U.S. and its ongoing occupation of Syria, Iraq and Cyprus; Islamic State’s spread into the Sinai Peninsula, near the critical Suez Canal chokepoint; and the anarchic battlefields of Libya, through which massive numbers of African migrants are crossing into and overwhelming southern Europe.  

“Greece is at the heart of these significant geopolitical risk issues throughout the eastern Mediterranean, southeastern Europe and the Middle East for the United States,” he said.

Sitilides spoke about the strategic importance of the Aegean Sea to the modern Greek nation-state and detailed the series of Turkey’s challenges to Greece’s Aegean sovereignty rights since 1973. Greece-Turkey tensions are the larger problem from the United States’ perspective, he stated, emphasizing the importance to Washington of very close relations with both Athens and Ankara. Historically, Washington has sought to play the role of honest broker to foster an environment for Greece and Turkey to mutually resolve their differences. However, Sitilides noted that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has downplayed the most recent Turkish provocations against Greece, including Turkish threats to invade Greek islands, and noted that NATO has no provision to resolve intra-alliance conflict that could occur between allies Greece and Turkey. Sitilides stated that NATO has an absolute obligation to intercede and dissuade Turkey from any further threats against a fellow NATO member. Further, Sitilides conveyed concern about Turkey’s recent ramping-up of Aegean sovereignty challenges and noted Turkey’s diplomatic leverage: two Greek soldiers in custody and three million Syrian refugees in Turkey which Ankara can send towards the Aegean. Sitilides predicted early Turkish elections would be held in summer 2018, rather than summer 2019, and that efforts to maximize Turkish nationalist voter turnout would likely lead to escalated Turkey’s threats against Greece in the intervening period, and potentially beyond the elections.

Cato Institute Senior Fellow Bandow debunked the notion of Turkey serving as a vital U.S. ally.  He noted Turkey’s refusal to grant the United States the ability to open a northern front against Saddam Hussein in 2003, Turkey’s role in giving rise to ISIS, President Erdogan’s threat to U.S. military personnel in Manbij, Syria, Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles and their interoperability with NATO, and Turkey using refugees as a weapon to disrupt Europe. Bandow asserted Turkey is not a bridge to Europe and that the notion of Turkey becoming an EU member is “fantasy,” adding it would require a change of culture and political leadership.