Imia 101: Why is the rocky Aegean islet back in the headlines?

By Thanos Davelis, Senior Research Associate, HALC

In 1996, Imia was at the epicenter of a rapid escalation that brought Greece and Turkey to the brink of war. Imia, a pair of uninhabited Greek islets Turkey claims are disputed, is the best example of how quickly Turkey’s contentious policies can devolve into armed conflict, destabilizing the region. Below is a brief look at what happened in 1996, and why Imia is back in the headlines.

WHERE IS IMIA LOCATED?

Imia is a pair of two small uninhabited islets in the Aegean Sea located between the Dodecanese islands and the Turkish coast. The map below indicates the demarcation line of the Border Protocol of 1932 between Italy and Turkey, which clearly shows Imia — indicated by the blue flag and letter G — within Italian, and subsequently Greek sovereignty.

Map of the demarcation line as established in the Border Protocol of 1932 between Italy and Turkey. The letter “G” with the blue flag represent the Imia islet.

WHO DO THE ISLETS BELONG TO?

The answer is simple and straightforward: Greece. Following World War II, sovereignty over all of the Dodecanese and their dependent islets — Imia included — was transferred from Italy to Greece in the Paris Peace Treaty (1947). Since 1947, Greece has legally exercised sovereignty over all the islands and islets in the area without any objections from other countries. That is, until Turkey’s belated contentions in its attempt to alter the recognized status quo of the Aegean Sea in its favor.

WHAT HAPPENED IN 1995–1996?

On December 26, 1995, a Turkish cargo ship ran aground on one of the Imia islets, and when Greek authorities offered assistance, the captain refused, claiming he was within Turkish territorial waters. Eventually, a Greek vessel towed the ship to Turkey. Days later, Ankara openly made claims to Greek territory, declaring that the islet belonged to Turkey. Athens rejected the claims, citing international treaties that supported Greece’s sovereignty over the islets.

A month later, on January 26, 1996, following a story on the controversy in a Greek magazine, the mayor of the neighboring island of Kalymnos went to Imia and raised the Greek flag. In response, Turkish journalists landed on the islet and lowered the Greek flag, replacing it with a Turkish one. Within twenty-four hours, the Greek Navy had re-hoisted the Greek flag. Tensions escalated quickly, and soon Turkish and Greek warships surrounded the islets. Turkish aggression reached its apex with the landing of Turkish troops on one of the islets and an accident which saw three Greek officers perish in a helicopter crash.

A drawdown of forces was negotiated, and a war was ultimately prevented following US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s intervention. Avoiding war, however, did not resolve the problem of Turkish disputes in the Aegean. Since 1996, Turkey maintains the position that Imia and a number of other islets in the Aegean fall under a “grey zone,” and continues to question Greek sovereignty over a number of islets.

TURKISH CONTENTIONS IN THE AEGEAN

In the 1970s Turkey initiated a systematic policy of contentions and claims against Greek sovereign rights in the Aegean, with the goal being to change the territorial status quo in the region. The dispute began over the delimitation of the continental shelf, and coincided with the illegal invasion and occupation of the northern part of Cyprus in 1974.

Over the years, in an attempt to establish the Aegean as a disputed area, Turkey has brought new issues to the table: disputing Greece’s right — on the threat of war — to extend its territorial sea to 12 nautical miles; challenging the breadth of Greek national airspace and its Flight Information Region (FIR) with frequent armed violations of Greek airspace and overflights over Greek islands; and, most recently, in 1995–1996 Ankara began questioning Greek sovereignty over a number of islets — Imia being the most prominent — through the claim of so called “grey zones.”

NOW WHAT?

The crisis in the Aegean is flaring up once again. Turkish violations of Greek airspace are hitting unprecedented levels following the Greek Supreme Court decision against extraditing eight Turkish officers who fled Turkey after the failed coup, and Kammenos’ visit to Imia to commemorate the three officers who lost their lives 21 years ago. Not only are provocations occurring on an almost daily basis, but they are also accompanied by contentious statements from prominent Turkish politicians who claim Imia as “Turkish soil,” dispute the Treaty of Lausanne and the boundaries in the Aegean, and post maps on social media that portray the Greek islands and islets as Turkish. To add fuel to the fire, Erdogan’s purge of military personnel has left the army dangerously understaffed, thus raising the threat that an inexperienced pilot or naval officer will cause an accident in the Aegean. There is a real danger today that in the current environment of unrestrained Turkish aggression in the Aegean an accident could rapidly escalate into a conflict.