An obscure Mediterranean flashpoint may soon come to a crisis; that would be the minuscule and remote Greek island of Kastellorizo (or Megisti; Meis in Turkish). Like many other Greek islands, it lies much closer to the Turkish than the Greek mainland (1 mile vs. 357 miles). Unlike other small Greek islands, its location between Rhodes and Cyprus bestows outsized military and economic importance on it.
Were Kastellorizo, with a population of under 500, to enjoy the full rights bestowed on it by the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Greece can claim a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that leaves Turkey with a cramped EEZ along its shores; take away Kastellorizo and the Turkish EEZ more than doubles in size. The discovery of large gas and oil deposits in the Mediterranean Sea makes that of especially great potential significance.
The Republic of Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan adamantly rejects Kastellorizo enjoying such privileges. He recently condemned ‘the plans of those who try to confine a country of 780,000 square kilometers to its shores using an island of 10 square kilometers.’ He went on, referring to the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and other agreements that delineated the borders of Turkey: ‘Turkey has the political, economic and military power to tear up immoral maps and documents imposed on itself.’ Then, alluding to long-ago military victories over the Greeks, he added: ‘A century ago, we either buried them in the ground or threw them into the sea. I hope they do not pay the same price now.’
In response, Greek president Katerina Sakellaropoulou visited Kastellorizo on Sunday, where she replied with remarks so bafflingly mild they actually could invite aggression: ‘We are going through a difficult and dangerous period. The Turkish leadership is intensifying the pressure on our country, leading to aggressive statements’ which undermine ‘the good neighborly relations and peaceful coexistence that have been built over so many decades by Greeks and Turks, who view the sea that separates them not as an impenetrable border, but as a channel of communication.’ That Turkey’s defense minister one day earlier just happened to visit the Turkish town closest to Kastellorizo sent an ominous message.
Recent months have seen Erdoğan at his most aggressive in the Mediterranean: sending exploratory ships into Greek and Cypriot waters, with a substantial naval escort, to search for hydrocarbons and signing an agreement with a Libyan faction that has the two countries share a maritime border (Greece and Egypt then responded in like manner).
A crisis could be imminent. As Turkey’s economy, led by a weak currency, goes south, a confrontation on Kastellorizo would serve ideally to drum up nationalist emotions with an eye to the 2023 presidential elections. The analyst Jack Dulgarian has proposed a plausible scenario: Turkish troops either invade Kastellorizo or take it hostage and (in a repeat of Cyprus in 1974) challenge the world to do something about it.
On their own, the Hellenic Armed Forces cannot retake the island. Neither Israel nor Egypt will battle Turkey for Kastellorizo. Nato’s Article 5, the one that promises protection against aggression, will surely prove inoperative when both combatants are members of that organization. Led by Germany, most of Europe (with Emmanuel Macron the honorable exception) quivers at the prospect of Turkey unleashing its weapon of illegal migrants and prefers to appease Ankara. Russia’s Vladimir Putin is wooing Erdoğan from Nato and will not antagonize him. China’s Xi Jinping welcomes Turkey’s economic weakness as a way to turn it — like Iran — into an economic colony.
Should Kastellorizo (like one-third of Cyprus) come under Turkish control at minimal cost to Ankara, the consequences will be far-reaching. Enjoying adulation within Turkey, Erdoğan will likely ramp up the aggressive oil and gas exploration and he might turn to the Aegean islands belonging to Greece as his next target. More: Islamist and jihadi that he is, Erdoğan just conceivably could attempt to conquer all of Cyprus and even all of Greece. He has already invaded Iraq, Syria, and Libya; Kastellorizo would be the next step toward a rampage that could extend through any and all parts of the Ottoman Empire at its peak five centuries ago.
Who will stop him? All the key leaders — US, German, Russian and Chinese — smile at Erdoğan, making it hard to see how this long underestimated, highly determined foe will be deterred.
Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum.