That Athens controls this wisp of land implies it could (but does not yet) claim an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Mediterranean Sea extending 200 nautical miles to Kastelorizo. This would reduce the Turkish EEZ to a fraction of what it would be were the island under Ankara’s control.
Were Athens to claim its full EEZ, Kastelorizo’s presence would make its EEZ contiguous with the EEZ of Cyprus, a factor with great import now, at a moment of massive offshore gas and oil discoveries. Including Kastelorizo in an EEZ would benefit the emerging Greece-Cyprus-Israel alliance by making it possible to transport Cypriot and Israeli natural gas (via pipeline) or electricity (via cable) to Western Europe without Turkish permission. This has taken on special urgency since Nov. 4, when Turkey’s minister for energy,Taner Yildiz, announced that his government would not permit Israeli natural gas to transit Turkish territory; Ankara likely also will ban Cypriot exports.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) colleagues accept Greek control of Kastelorizo and its six nautical miles of territorial waters, but not more, and certainly not its full EEZ rights. Indeed, in their eyes, Greek assertion of an EEZ constitutes a casus belli. By neutering Kastelorizo, Ankara can lay claim to a large economic area in the Mediterranean and block cooperation among its adversaries. This is why the island could become a flash point.
Several developments point to AKP intimidation of Greece over Kastelorizo. First, in September, it authorized a Norwegian ship, the BergenSurveyor, accompanied by other sea craft, to begin prospecting for gas and oil south of Kastelorizo, including some of the island’s continental shelf. Second, Turkish warships have trained with live ammunition between Rhodes and Kastelorizo. Finally, Turkish military aircraft overflew Kastelorizo four times in 2011 without permission, sometimes very low with reconnaissance aircraft.
This bellicosity fits a larger pattern. The AKP government, especially since it took full control of the armed forces in late July, has shown increasing hostility toward Cyprus, Israel, Syria and Iraq. In addition, Ankara has long denied Cyprus its EEZ, so doing the same vis-a-vis Kastelorizo builds on an established policy. Indeed, the Turks’ brutal, napalm-assisted 1974 conquest of the northern 36 percent of Cyprus set a precedent for seizing nearby island territory. Grabbing Kastelorizo would require about as much time as reading this column.
So far, responses to heightened Turkish aggression in the Mediterranean have focused on deterring Turkish feints toward gas and oil reserves in the Cypriot EEZ, with navies and statements from the United States and Russia backing the Republic of Cyprus’ right to exploit its economic resources. Cypriot President Demetris Christofias warned that if Ankara persists with its gunboat diplomacy, “there will be consequences which, for sure, will not be good.” Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told the Greeks, “If anyone tries to challenge these drillings, we will meet those challenges,” and his government enhanced security not only for its own maritime fields but also for drilling areas in Cypriot waters. On at least one occasion, Israeli warplanes have confronted Turkish ships.
Such clear signals of resolve are welcome. As the European Union pushes Greece to drill for hydrocarbons to find new sources of income, it should also support Athens in declaring its EEZ, reject AKP troublemaking over Kastelorizo and clearly indicate the dire results for Turkey from any aggression toward an island now happily renowned for its diving and snorkeling.
Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.