Kastellorizo, lying in the crystal clear waters of the eastern Mediterranean, is an idyllic, bijou beauty.
Fishing boats bob in its calm harbour and colourful houses give way to olive tree flecked hills.
The petite 12 sqkm gem is the “remote treasure of the Aegean” says a tourism website.
But trouble is brewing in the sun splashed seas that surround Kastellorizo and two European nations, officially allies, are bracing for battle.
Already ships from Greece and Turkey have collided. One expert has said the pair are once again on the “brink of war,” yet this time there seems to be little appetite to slam on the brakes.
It’s a conflict that has now sucked in France, Libya, Egypt, Israel, the US and more nations besides.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has demanded Greece enter talks, or else.
“They’re either going to understand the language of politics and diplomacy, or in the field with painful experiences,” he said.
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The issue is as clear as day in Kastellorizo, also known as Megisti. The island – part of the Dodecanese chain – is Greece’s most easterly inhabited point. It lies more than 550 kilometres from the capital, Athens. But just 2kms from the coast of Turkey. On a clear day you cannot only see Turkey, you could probably swim over for a spot of lunch.
Both countries are members of the NATO military alliance, but both have longstanding animosities. One of the main grumbles is just how close scores of Greek islands, like Kastellorizo, are to Turkish soil.
It’s a simmering tension that goes back a century or more. But the hornet’s nest has recently been disturbed by the discovering of potentially vast amounts of gas in the eastern Mediterranean.
The question is who is entitled to the reserves – Greece or Turkey?
BOAT AT THE CENTRE OF FEUD
“Turkey and Greece have been at loggerheads in the Aegean (a sea that is part of the wider Mediterranean) since the mid-1970s but have abstained from unilateral actions that might result in full conflict. They have been able to defuse several escalations,” says academic Cihan Dizdaroglu from the UK’s Coventry University inThe Conversation.
“Adding the eastern Mediterranean into the mix complicates matters though. The two sides appear to have opened Pandora’s box.”
Ground zero for the international spat is a boat – the Oruc Reis. Painted with a giant Turkish flag, this research vessel has been busy surveying the seabed off the Turkish coast looking for likely gas deposits.
Last month, the Greek military was scrambled as it sailed in waters close to Kastellorizo.
Greece sent naval ships to shadow the Oruc Reis, which was being escorted by Turkish military vessels.
On 10 August, a Greek frigate collided with one of the Turkish military escorts between the Greek island of Crete and Cyprus. It was a big escalation that prompted France to send one of its own frigates and two fighter jets to the area to support Greece.
Greek news publication Protothema showed a large gouge in the side of the Turkish vessel.
At the heart of the issue is how you divide up the waters of both the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean seas.
The collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the forerunner of modern Turkey, in the early 20th century led some of its former lands to be officially divided up between countries it once ruled.
The 1924 Lausanne Treaty formalised Greece’s control of almost all of the major islands off the coast of Turkey as far east as Kastellorizo.
The maritime borders, however, are trickier. It’s generally accepted that nations have exclusive economic zones (EEZ) that extend a distance from their coasts.
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TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS
Ankara claims the Greek islands box Turkey in and effectively bar it from large areas of the sea that are rightfully its to exploit. Kastellorizo’s position, to the south of Turkey, potentially gives Greece control over a huge stretch of the eastern Mediterranean.
“Greece claims 40,000 square kilometres of maritime jurisdiction area due to this tiny island,” Cagatay Erciyes, a Turkish foreign ministry official, said of Kastellorizo.
Not so, says Athens. Given the islands are Greek territory they have EEZs that extend deep into the sea and that should be respected.
It’s not a new argument and generally it’s just bubbled quietly away. Until riches were found beneath the seabed.
“Large reserves of oil and gas were discovered in the region a decade ago. The estimates are worth trillions of dollars to the surrounding countries even at today’s prices,” said Clemens Hoffman, a lecturer in politics at Britain’s Stirling University.
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‘BRINK OF WAR’
Last year, Greece and a number of Mediterranean governments including Cyprus, Israel, Egypt and Palestine, signed a deal to co-operate on exploiting the gas reserves. A pipeline, to transport the gas to Europe, bypassing Turkey, is on the cards.
Turkey reacted to this snub by signing a deal with the UN backed Libyan government – there are several governments in Libya – to create an EEZ stretching across the Mediterranean. If accepted, this would both block the pipeline and see Turkey potentially drilling just off the coast of several Greek islands.
So Greece declared an EEZ between its islands and Egypt straight through the line Turkey and Libya had just drawn.
It’s left research vessels and warships bobbing around the Mediterranean in waters claimed by one another. Greece has already held naval exercises with some EU countries and the United Arab Emirates.
“Greece and Turkey have endured plenty of incidents that brought them to the brink of war, particularly in the Aegean Sea, but these were eased through dialogue and mediation,” said Professor Dizdaroğlu in The Conversation.
“There is no dialogue mechanism established for a conflict over the eastern Mediterranean and that really matters in this conflict-ridden region.”
The stoush is about hydrocarbons, for sure, but there’s a large streak of nationalism running through it too, fanned by Turkey’s President Erdogan.
“We are defending our blue homeland,” said Cem Gürdeniz, a former Turkish admiral.
“It is a defensive doctrine after our continental shelf was stolen by Greece and Cyprus and represents the greatest geostrategic challenge of the century.”
To some in Turkey, the Lausanne Treaty was a capitulation that saw a new nation blindsided and hastily, and unnecessarily, sign away the islands.
FRANCE AND US ENTER THE FRAY
On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron met Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and declared he was siding with his European Union partner over a NATO ally.
Turkey was “no longer a partner” in the eastern Mediterranean, President Macron said.
“We Europeans must be clear and firm, not with Turkey as a nation or as a people, but with the government of President Erdogan.”
Turkey has fumed at the comments and called Macron “arrogant” and his remarks “colonial reflexes”.
Erdogan’s top press aide, Fahrettin Altun, took a swipe at Macron in a tweet, describing him as a “wannabe Napoleon” on a Mediterranean campaign.
The Greek PM has urged the EU to impose “meaningful sanctions” on Ankara if there is no change to the impasse by the end of the month.
“If Europe wants to exercise true geopolitical power, it simply cannot afford to appease a belligerent Turkey,” said Mr Mitsotakis.
The US has now entered the fray, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying he will intervene to seek a “diplomatic and peaceful” resolution.
The waters of Kastellorizo remain calm and clear. But one more collision, unwanted incursion or stray bullet, and this tiny island could find itself at the centre of a European battle.
– with AFP.
Originally published as Tiny island brings Europe to ‘brink of war’