Tiny Islands Make for Big Tensions Between Greece and Turkey


“Erdogan is a little bit out of control — he’s picking a lot of fights and there is a lot of uncertainty about how far he’s prepared to go,” said Nikos Tsafos, who researches the politics of the Eastern Mediterranean at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

“The odds of something going wrong are increasing on a weekly basis,” he said.

The border issue has its roots in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I, and in subsequent international treaties that gave many islands that had once belonged to the Ottoman Empire — including Kastellorizo, the nearest permanently inhabited island to Ro — to other European powers.

Today, Turkey — which was formed from the rump of the Ottoman Empire — does not contest Kastellorizo’s sovereignty. But the government feels it is unfair that Greece should have the right to potentially exploit energy resources in parts of the Mediterranean seabed that lie within sight of Turkey but many hundreds of miles from the Greek mainland.

“At the fundamental level, there is a different perception of how the Aegean Sea should be treated,” Mr. Tsafos said.

Other recent developments have compounded the decades-old disagreement. Talks have broken down over the status of the island of Cyprus, which is divided between a Greek-backed and internationally recognized state in the south, and a Turkish-backed breakaway state in the north.

Greece declined to extradite eight Turkish servicemen who had fled following a failed coup in 2016; and the Turkish government has arrested two Greek border guards, seemingly in response.

“The potential for a military conflict between Greece and Turkey has never seemed as close since the 1990s,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Turkish government says Greece is to blame for the spike in tensions.

“The Greeks always want attention,” said a senior Turkish official who asked not to be named in accordance with Turkish protocol. “They’re like babies, and it’s always been like that.”

But statistics released by Greece suggest a different narrative. According to the Greek military, Turkish incursions into Greek airspace rose to 3,317 in 2017 from 1,269 in 2014, while maritime incursions rose to 1,998 from 371 in the same period.




The Greek and Turkish prime ministers, Alexis Tsipras and Binali Yildirim, appeared to calm tensions with a phone call after the two incidents over Ro last week.

But on Monday, the situation worsened again when Turkey said it had sent coast guards to remove several Greek flags that had been planted on an islet in a Greek island group within sight of the Turkish coast.

Less than 24 hours later, Mr. Tsipras had flown to Kastellorizo — nominally to open a desalination plant, but in reality to send a strong signal on Greek sovereignty.

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