Disputed Islands in the Aegean Sea: The Ongoing Conflict between Greece and Turkey

A popular map in Turkish political circles: Potential demands in blue.
Map Source: The Washington Post

Greece and Turkey have been at odds over the Aegean islands since the early twentieth century. Following the Ottoman Empire’s demise, the modern borders of Greece and Turkey were established through a series of international treaties and agreements. However, the precise status of many Aegean islands was not specified. This ambiguity has resulted in ongoing disagreements between the two countries regarding ownership and control of these islands. The Greek side claims that any island over which Athens has sovereignty means that no party other than Greece can have military, political, or economic control or influence. As a result, Turkey’s demand for the demilitarisation or cessation of Greek economic activity on some Aegean islands is incorrect. The Turkish side believes Greece is using the small islands to expand its maritime border and conduct economic or military activities in Turkish waters. Because these are opposing viewpoints, the conflict has the potential to escalate.

Kastellorizo Island is a small island in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. It is located just 2 kilometers from the Turkish coast and is part of the Dodecanese islands. The island is strategically important to both Greece and Turkey, and its status has long been a source of contention between the two countries.

Italy ceded the island to Greece as part of the Treaty of Paris in 1947. Turkey, on the other hand, has long claimed that the island is an integral part of its territory and should be returned to Turkish control. This assertion is supported by the fact that the island is only a few kilometres from the Turkish coast. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Kastellorizo has a continental shelf area, or Exclusive Economic Zone, of 200 nautical miles. Turkey claims that Kastellorizo is too small and remote from the Greek mainland to be eligible for an eez.

Tensions between Greece and Turkey over Kastellorizo and other disputed islands in the Aegean Sea have risen in recent years. This is due to a variety of factors, including the discovery of large natural gas reserves in the region, as well as Europe’s refugee crisis.

The discovery of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean has heightened the importance of the disputed islands. Turkey claims that the island of Kastellorizo and other nearby islands should be under its control because they are so close to the gas fields. As a result, tensions between Greece and Turkey have risen as both countries seek to assert control over the islands and the surrounding waters.

Another major point of contention is the uninhabited island of Imia, which is also known as Kardak in Turkish. The island is situated between Kalymnos, Greece, and the Turkish coast. A dispute over ownership of the island triggered a crisis between the two countries in 1996, with both sides deploying military forces to the area. Although the crisis was eventually resolved through diplomatic efforts, disputes over the island persist to this day.

The refugee crisis has also added to the tensions between Greece and Turkey. The Aegean Sea is a major route for refugees and migrants attempting to reach Europe, and both Greece and Turkey have been accused of using the crisis to further their own political goals.

The situation is complicated further by the Greek side accusing Turkish military planes of violating airspace. Such allegations against Turkey are becoming more common by the year. Turkey’s threatening rhetoric toward official Athens has become more common. Almost the entire political establishment in both countries views the opposing state as a rival. This perception is shared by both the government and the opposition. This reduces the chances of successful negotiations.

As tensions between Greece and Turkey over the disputed Aegean Sea islands continue to rise, many experts have expressed concern about the possibility of a military conflict between the two countries. While both sides have stated their desire for a peaceful resolution to the issue tensions remain high and the region is becoming increasingly militarized. Both countries are NATO members, therefore war is very unlikely, and even such hypothetical threats are damaging for Athens and Ankara but tensions between the two countries have been high in recent years. It is also concerning to exchange harsh words. However, with national elections on the horizon in both countries, flexing muscles, whether verbally or militarily, can only help nationalistic sentiments and the ruling governments maintain their positions.

Giorgi Koberidze

Senior Fellow

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