The Aegean Islands and the surrounding waters have been a continuous source of tension for both Greece and Turkey for many years. This is evident from the fact that both countries have been involved in occasional military conflicts and border skirmishes over the years. The political and historical complexities of this region are deeply interlinked, making the issue of the Aegean islands a challenging one to resolve. In 2020, the two sides were on the brink of war when Turkey and Greece sent military and commercial ships in pursuit of natural resources near the Greek island of Kastellorizo. Currently, this dispute between Greece and Turkey has become more complex due to the lack of diplomacy and the latest tensions between the two countries exacerbate it. The two NATO allies are indulging in a dispute over islands in the Aegean Sea as Turkey rejects what it calls the militarization of the Aegean islands by Greece. In present times this dispute is of prime significance as Europe can’t afford another conflict amidst the Russia-Ukraine war.
Geostrategic significance of Aegean Islands
The recent dispute over the Aegean island between Greece and Turkey is persistent in nature. Both countries emphasize the strategic importance of the Aegean Islands as these islands are geopolitically significant from their positioning, as well as their role in case of a military confrontation. Both countries conflict with the natural resources research in the Aegean Sea and are at loggerheads over territorial claims in the Aegean Sea.
The conflict takes on a geopolitical turn in the region as both countries want the upper hand in the Aegean Sea and the surrounding region. The legal dimensions are very significant in this dispute as there exist several international treaties over the maritime problems between both countries. According to Lausanne Treaty Greece was given sovereignty over the islands near the Turkish coast, and thus it takes benefits from the processes of exploration and extraction of natural resources from the sea. Greece aims to maintain the status quo over the islands however, Turkey wants to challenge it as of now it feels threatened due to the ongoing militarization of the Island by Greece in recent times.
Rising tensions on the Aegean Islands
Amidst the growing military buildup of Greece on the Aegean Islands close to Turkey’s coastline, the Turkish government has warned Greece to back off and that it will take necessary actions if Greece does not stop militarizing the Islands. Turkey insists that the entire island needs to be demilitarized as this violates certain conditions in the treaties between the two countries. The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt çavusoglu stated at a conference that “If Athens does not want peace, Ankara will do whatever is necessary. We cannot remain silent about the disarmament of the islands, we will take the necessary steps both legally and on the ground”. This statement from the state official indicates a possible military conflict at some stage as well.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “I warn Greece to avoid dreams, acts, and statements that will result in regret. Come to your senses”. The statement came after he observed large-scale military drills in Izmir on the western coast of the country. On the other hand, Greece is of the view that the Islands need to be militarized for its security and that Turkey misinterprets the treaties on purpose, and that they have legal grounds to defend themselves against any supposed hostile actions by Turkey.
Potential spillover effects of Conflict in Europe
The European Union should take an active role in resolving the latest tensions between Greece and Turkey because any sort of aggravation in this dispute can have spillover effects for the whole of Europe. The exacerbation of this conflict between both countries could lead to a refugee crisis if there is a prominent increase in the number of people seeking asylum in Europe. This means that Greece, in particular, would be heavily affected by a refugee influx, as it is the European Union's main gateway for refugees and migrants coming from Turkey and other Middle Eastern states.
The conflict also has the potential to pose security concerns for the EU, as it could lead to an increase in tensions between Greece and Turkey. This could potentially impact the broader security architecture of the European region and can lead to a destabilization of the Balkans as well. Moreover, the conflict could have economic implications for the EU, particularly if it leads to disruptions in trade and investment between Greece and Turkey. This could have broader implications for the European economy, particularly if it affects the stability of the eurozone. In addition, the Aegean region is of strategic significance to the EU's energy security, as it is a transit route for pipelines carrying natural gas from the Caspian region and the Middle East to Europe. Any disruptions in the region could have significant implications for the EU's energy security as well.
Likely scenario post-upcoming elections
With elections approaching in Turkey on May 14 and Greece a week later it would be interesting to see what happens in context with the ongoing Aegean Islands dispute between both countries. Both Greek and Turkish officials had met in recent weeks, in the wake of the devastating earthquakes in Southern Turkey in February. Both countries have promised to shelve disputes that have caused tensions and even the risk of war over decades.
But in my point of view, with the coming elections the geopolitical and diplomatic maneuverability to de-escalate will be limited and this will not allow the pragmatism to prevail over the potential conflict. Furthermore, I assume that after the end of Greece and Turkey’s elections, both countries will now be the closest to war that we have experienced in a century. It is possible that both nations could get involved in a direct kinetic engagement if necessary actions are not taken by the international community to resolve this conflict between both countries as soon as possible.
The Aegean island dispute is not just a bilateral issue between Greece and Turkey; it has wider implications for the geopolitical landscape of the Mediterranean and Europe. To conclude we can say that the Aegean Island dispute is a complex issue that requires a diplomatic solution. Both Greece and Turkey must engage in meaningful dialogue and compromise to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict after the upcoming elections. As the dispute has implications for the wider geopolitical landscape of the Mediterranean and Europe so it requires the involvement of the international community to ensure a peaceful resolution of the conflict between both nations.
Hashim Kamal is a final year Undergraduate student of International Relations at National Defence University Islamabad