A couple of years ago I planned to publish an article about this
event, but never got around to it, even after collecting all the needed
documents through the FOIA. This week a Greek journalist asked some
questions for a 20-year anniversary account in the Greek newspaper
Kathimerini. The attached is my response. It is restrained compared with
what my article would have reported, because it is for publication in
Athens (in translation, of course, over which no one has control). Maybe
risky, but what the hell?
If not interested, just delete.
The Sismik Crisis of 1987
I have refreshed my memory of that time by reviewing a large file of
documents I obtained a couple of years ago from the archives of the U.S.
State Department under our Freedom of Information Act. Of course these
are all American documents. To get a thoroughly accurate picture of that
crisis one would also have to consult the Greek and Turkish government
archives, as well as the British and NATO archives, as all of these
parties were involved in resolving the crisis.
One must first of all understand the underlying contexts. At that time,
and still today I believe, Greece and Turkey were disputing the extent
of their respective territorial waters and continental shelf national
territories in the Aegean Sea. The Greek side had a very strong legal
claim based on international law and the Law of the Sea Treaty and for
that reason hoped to bring the issue to the World Court at the Hague,
where Greece was likely to prevail. Turkey strongly preferred to deal
with the issues in bilateral negotiations, no doubt hoping to obtain
Greek agreement to certain concessions favoring Turkey. The Aegean
issues were very sensitive from both sides.
At that time the North Aegean Petroleum Corporation, a consortium headed
by the Canadian company Denison, had a concession for exploration and
exploitation of oil deposits in the northern Aegean. It needed to
undertake exploratory drilling in an area east of Thassos to maintain
its concession. The Greek government, wishing to maintain control over
such sensitive activity in a possibly disputed area, was in the process
of negotiating and obtaining a larger share in the NAPC so that it could
decide such matters in conformity with the national interest. There were
U.S. investors in the consortium, which is why I got involved and helped
arrange these negotiations.
The crisis arose because the possibility of this new drilling by the
NAPC in a possibly disputed area became public. From the Greek side the
earlier Bern Protocol, by which both the Greek and Turkish sides agreed
to refrain from
certain activities in disputed areas, was no longer “operative,” that
is, would no longer automatically prohibit such activities.
My firm opinion is that the crisis worsened into a near outbreak of war
because of misunderstandings in diplomatic exchanges between the two
sides, particularly in exchanges between Greek Deputy Foreign Minister
Yannis Kapsis and Turkish Ambassador in Athens Nazmi Akiman. We
outsiders—Americans, British, the NATO Council—were able to help resolve
the crisis because we were in direct communication with both sides—in
Athens and Ankara—and discovered that a major misunderstanding had
arisen. We were able “to put the pieces together” and tell each side
what the other side “had meant to say.”
While the Greek side was simply asserting its rights to make decisions
about what it considered its territory in the Aegean (matters such as
drilling) the Turkish side interpreted this as planning to allow
drilling to start in a possibly disputed area. In fact the situation
regarding the NAPC was that the Greek government would not allow such
drilling to start because it could be viewed as a provocation.
Unfortunately diplomats are not always as precise as they ought to be,
for a variety of reasons.
The Turkish reaction was to send the research vessel “Sismik” into the
Aegean to assert Turkish rights, and both sides began mobilizing for
war. That outcome was averted as a result of the outsiders clearing up
the misunderstanding in diplomatic exchanges with both sides at the
highest levels. The result was that the NAPC drilling did not start, and
the “Sismik” departed the Aegean Sea to return home. Turkish Prime
Minister Turgut Ozal made a helpful public statement in London (after
visiting the United States) that served to calm the situation by
returning matters to the status quo ante.
One minor irritant in U.S.-Greek relations during this crisis was a
Greek Government instruction that the American naval base at Nea Makri
“suspend operations” because Greece was about to go to war. This
happened at midnight on the last day of the crisis, did not cause any
important disruptions, and by the morning the instruction was cancelled
and all returned to the normal, pre-crisis atmosphere.
I do not believe that this crisis resulted from a deliberate provocation
by either side. I also believe that both sides have a strong
determination to avoid conflicts that could escalate into armed
confrontation, which would be a tragedy for them and all of their
friends and allies. The lesson of this 1987 crisis in the Aegean is that
we always need as much diplomacy as we can muster in order to resolve
conflicts and avoid resort to violence. This was true in 1987 and it is
I hesitate to respond to your question about Turkey joining the EU. In
my opinion Greece adopted a wise policy when it decided to support
Turkish entry. And it is obvious that Turkey will have to fulfill all
the prerequisites if it is to achieve such entry.
Robert V. Keeley