KASTELORIZO island: The “KEY” to the Eastern Mediterranean for Greece and Turkey

“Greece can live inside the dream world of its past… Now it is time to sit at the table for the solution of chronic problems in the Aegean.” – Retired Admiral Cem Gürdeniz via Aydinlik

By Jack Dulgarian

Recent statements by US Ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt, support the notion that Greek islands have rights to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf. If Greece were to act upon these claims, Greece’s held small island of Kastellorzio cuts Turkey’s EEZ claims in half. But what if Turkey enforces its claimed maritime boundaries? How would Greece, neighboring states, and the US respond?

The Hellenic Armed Forces (HAF) face an increasingly complex operational environment. Athens sits in an increasingly hostile region with replete with irredentist neighbors, such as Turkey, and growing interest from the great powers, particularly from China and Russia.

Despite common NATO membership, relations between Turkey and Greece have ebbed and flowed throughout the past 40 years, recently, intensifying over Cyprus, Aegean Sea, and Eastern Mediterranean. The transatlantic security partnership is buckling, under the weight of political nativism and the competing national interests of its member states.

In this new geopolitical environment, the HAF are outmatched in terms of size, military capabilities, and technology, I posit a scenario wherein Turkey decides to act on its territorial claims on the Greek islands in the Mediterranean Sea. In such a scenario, Ankara displays both the willingness and capability to carry out while a thorough examination of some of the HAF’s operational shortcomings, finally, what Athens can do to close the widening security gap with its hostile neighbors.

Turkey-Greece relations are arguably at their worst since 1974. In May, Greek and international media reported movement of Turkish special armed forces upon Greek sovereign territory along the Evros river, spanning the area of about 10 football fields.

This followed heightened levels of Turkish aerial incursions into Greek airspace, which in recent years have become a near-daily occurrence. According to the Greek Ministry of Defense, Turkey has violated Greek airspace “thousands of times.”

Under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey is demonstrating an increased willingness to use military power in pursuing its policy objectives, Some key examples of this are Ankara’s invasion of northern Syria and deployment of Turkish military frigates to secure illegal oil drilling EEZ.

President Erdoğan’s actions and rhetoric have provoked an immense backlash from many actors such as Egypt, Israel, and Greece who have been forced to ramp up elocutions as Turkey flexes its Mediterranean reach.

All these events have led to today’s crucial stakes, where the HAF finds itself in an entirely new defensive situation juxtaposed to a Turkish military that increasingly uses military power to further strategic goals in the Mediterranean. Turkey’s new agreement with the Tripoli Government (GNA) now places aggressive claims upon Greek islands, claiming maritime boundaries across the Eastern Mediterranean.

These new boundaries have been condemned by the international community, despite the Tripoli Government’s recognition by the United Nations. President Erdoğan has also pushed Turkish armed forces to set up a base in Misrata, Libya, a front in the Libyan Civil War.

Greece has attempted to curtail Turkey’s rise in the Eastern Mediterranean through Operation IRINI and aggressive appeals to the EU and the United States, but these have been mainly unsuccessful. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ direct bilateral talks with President Erdoğan also have shown no progress. In July of 2020, Prime Minister Mitsotakis openly stated that Turkey’s new claims with the Tripoli Government are a “totally illegal memorandum of understanding” in international law.

Among the Turkish claims in the Eastern Mediterranean is the contentious and tiny island Kastellorizo and its smaller satellites, Ro and Stroggeli. These were granted to the Mussolini’s Italy through a series of agreements with Turkey and secured by Greece through the 1947 Treaty of Paris, a treaty that Turkey did not participate in, and thus, has never recognized Greece’s claims upon the island.

The island is lightly defended by a small army base and an airstrip, and it has a population of fewer than 500 people. Still, its isolated location, far away from the major Greek islands, makes it a critical strategic location for Turkey to support its desired ambitions in the Mediterranean.

Over the past decade, Turkey has been increasing its amphibious war capabilities, continually improving its technologies to provide for sea-to-land invasions. One such example is the TCG-Anadolu, which can serve as a landing vehicle launched from nearby Aksaz Naval Base for Turkish Special Forces and marines, who have recently gained combat experience according to unclassified reports.

Under the Mavi Vatan or “Blue Homeland” grand strategy, Turkey’s increased investments in the naval capabilities are a deliberate effort to expand its reach into the Aegean. READ THE REST OF THE INTERESTING ANALYSIS HERE