Monday, May 25, 2009

The importance of the Aegean Sea-Dardanelles

People often bemoan that Greece has no geopolitical or geo-economic tools at its disposal in which it can use to formulate an effective international political strategy when dealing with its near abroad and even further away. Perhaps they have been overly influenced by former Prime Minister, Costas Simitis’s reductionist mentality that Greece is a “small, Balkan nation”, implying it has no place playing with third, second rate or even first rate powers. Of course, this is incorrect. However, one may be correct in stating that she does not use her geopolitical tools to her advantage.

A very important geopolitical and geo-economic tool is the Aegean Sea. The importance of this seaway is neatly summarised by Dr Ioannis Mazis, Professor of Geo-Economics and Geopolitics at the Ionian University, in an article titled, “Geopolitical Analysis of the Commercial Sea Channel Dardanelles-Aegean” which was originally published in the Archives of Economic History in 1997 (shortly after the Imia crisis). Although, the article is somewhat dated and poorly translated it is also surprising how very little has changed in Greek-Turkish relations regarding the Aegean Sea over the last 10-15 years.

The article begins by explaining the importance of the Aegean Sea as a sea route and air passage between Europe and Turkey and the broader Eastern Mediterranean, and between the former Soviet Republics of Russia, Ukraine (including the shipment of oil and gas from Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan etc.) and the Mediterranean Sea. Interestingly, Mazis writes that the Aegean airspace is one of the main airways connecting Israel with the United States and Western Europe which is of major importance for the survival of Israel - with the implication that Israel would never consent to the occupation of this airspace by an unfriendly power. He concludes that the Aegean Sea is a very important space in the context of geopolitical dynamics and control and is an asset for whichever power has sovereign rights over it.

Regarding Greece's maritime borders, the present 6 nautical miles extension from land means there are strips of international waters between the Aegean islands and islets providing for a "Sea Crossing" for ships moving unheeded between the Black Sea/Dardanelles and the Mediterranean Sea. However, Greece can effectively close the Aegean Sea if she extends her maritime borders. Mazis writes:

According to estimations taken seriously by the American government, the extension of Greek territorial waters from 6 to 12 miles - which is absoulutely legitimate according to the International Sea Law - would cede 72% of the Aegean Sea to Greece and only 9% to Turkey; at the same time, the percentage of international waters would fall to some 19%, closing almost all sea passages and "transforming the Aegean Sea into a Greek lake" creating "similar stifling situations" as in the airspace , according to Turkish declarations.

Mazis also points out that control of the Aegean Sea on its own is not does not confer as much power as controlling the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles together (the narrow straits separating the Aegean Sea from the Black Sea) which perhaps provides clues as to Turkey's long-term strategy. He writes:

An Aegean without "Straits" [Dardanelles] lacks substance. One must control the block of Aegean-Straits otherwise the control of the Aegean Sea or the Straits is meaningless.

Source: Archives of Economic History (Ioannis Mazis), Antipodes

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