The strategic quartet’s activities in the Mediterranean Sea and the 23rd anniversary of the Imia Crisis

It was today 23 years ago that the Imia Crisis escalated dangerously when Greece and Turkey nearly reached the brink of a war in the early hours of the 31st January 1996. The Imia crisis originates from long-standing cleavages over the sovereignty of small islets in the easternmost part of the Aegean Sea. Sovereignty of these islets is key for demarcation of naval and airspace boundaries between Greece and Turkey. The Greek sovereignty of these islets derives from provisions in the 1923 Lausanne and 1947 Paris Peace Treaties. Under Article 14 of the 1947 Paris Treaty, the Dodecanese islands, including the two Imia islets, fall under Greek sovereignty status.

Turkey found an opportunity to dispute the legal status of Imia in a December 1995 incident. On 26 December 1995 a Turkish vessel sustained damages near one of the two Imia islets. The Greek search and rescue mission salvaged the vessel even though the latter’s captain claimed that Greek authorities had violated Turkish territorial waters. In the ensuing correspondence between the two foreign ministries, Greece refuted the Turkish sovereignty claim by citing the 1947 Paris Agreement provisions and precursor treaties. When the Turkish vessel rescue case became exposed to the media, the security situation quickly worsened in the Aegean Sea.

On 25 January 1996, a group of Greek fishermen disembarked to Imia and raised a Greek flag. The Turkish media noticed this movement and some journalists replaced the flag on the islets. The Greek armed forces intervened and Turkish counterparts followed suit. Low-level hostilities climaxed when a reconnaissance mission helicopter of the Greek armed forces flying near the islets crashed and resulted in the casualty of three Greek military officers. Shuttle diplomacy between the U.S., the E.U., Turkey and Greece averted the possibility of a direct military confrontation, even though it is still argued that the helicopter was shot down by Turkish forces. Since then, flag raising in the Imia and surrounding islets has been prohibited for both states. The area has become a kind of grey, demilitarised zone, and periodic military incidents are recorded with both parties negating the sovereignty status of the area to each other.

The Imia Crisis and the Strategic Quartet’s Activities in the Region

Today, 23 years after the Imia crisis, Turkey persistently attempts to redraw the naval boundaries of the Aegean Sea enshrined within the 1923 Lausanne and 1947 Paris Peace Treaties. Tensions have boiled over for once again in the region with Turkish and Greek warships sailing on the periphery of Imia islets and the two foreign ministries exchanging correspondence demarcating their sovereignty status. These developments concur with oil and natural gas exploration and drilling activities taking place in the south-eastern parts of the Mediterranean world. These activities have been undertaken by the conclusion of strategic partnerships among four littoral neighbours, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Israel.

The “strategic quartet” of these partnerships has resulted in the conduct of parallel drilling and exploration activities in the Aegean Sea, in Cyprus territorial waters, off the coasts of Egypt, Israel and Libya. These activities nonetheless have considerably shrunk Turkey’s maritime space in the region. The progressive ostracisation of Turkey from the eastern Mediterranean Sea underscores the effectiveness of Greek and Cypriot military diplomacy. Greece and Cyprus have managed to ensure sovereignty status of their disputed territorial waters through foreign state participation in oil drilling and exploration partnerships. These partnerships legitimise in turn an indirect sovereignty claim invoked by Greece and Cyprus over disputed parts of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

In overall, oil exploration and drilling partnerships have opened the way for demarcation of long-disputed naval boundaries with littoral neighbours, without allowing the Turkish state to claim a stake in the process. Tensions will unavoidably continue until a permanent settlement of these disputes will be attained through the deepening of the strategic quartet’s financial activities in the region, irrespective of Turkish claims. In a worst case scenario, Turkey either peacefully or in a forceful manner, becomes party to the quartet’s deliberations. Hopefully, shuttle diplomacy will extinguish the upcoming military crises that will take place in the naval “battlefronts” of the Aegean Sea and near Cyprus territorial waters as the deepening process of the quartet’s activities proceeds.

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