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A tiny island in Aegean sea is throwing up fundamental questions about world order

Kastellorizo tells us important things about how the toxic cocktail of resources, ultra-nationalism and religion can drive a geopolitical crisis.

September 26, 2020 / 11:04 AM IST

For centuries, the soldiers of the Knights Hospitaller stood on the great tower of the citadel of Kastellorizo, gazing out across the Aegean for the enemies of the Cross. First set up to provide medical aid and escorts to Christian pilgrims, the medieval religious-military order became sovereigns of the islands of Rhodes and Malta and pillagers of the Caribbean. “The Knights”, historian Paul Lacroix records, “pretended that they were above the reach of crowned heads: they seized and pillaged without concern of the property of both infidels and Christians”.

Little remains to mark the frontlines between Islam and Christendom, which Kastellorizo once marked. Visitors may spend their morning in Greece, drinking coffee at one of the cafes lining Kastellorizo’s pastel-painted waterfront, take a walk to an Ottoman mosque that is now a museum, then sail into Turkey to see the submerged ruins of the Hellenic city of Simena—this without troubling themselves with immigration and customs.

The ghosts of the Crusades, though, have returned to the Aegean: this summer, Turkey has flown F16 combat jets into Greek airspace over islets of Strongyli and Megisti; French and Greek warships have shadowed the Turkish navy; Athens has announced it will be buying new Rafale jets, naval vessels, and helicopters.

Kastellorizo, just twelve kilometres across, the furthest-east of Greek’s territory, has found itself at the centre of one of the world’s most potent geopolitical crises.

Like so much else, the crisis over Kastellorizo has something to do with money. Gargantuan reserves of natural gas have been discovered in the eastern Mediterranean—reserves that mean strategic security for states along its entire arc, from Greece and Turkey to Israel and Libya. In 1923, though, Turkey ceded Kastellirozo to Italy, which in turn gave it to Greece after the Second World War. That means Greece—not next-door Turkey—has rights to the Exclusive Economic Zone in which much of the gas lies.


Ever since the 1990s, Turkish officials began developing a theory of ‘Grey Zones’, arguing that the treaty of 1923 applied only to the islands it explicitly named, and asserting sovereignty over minor islands and unnamed rock features. The tensions led to a bizarre stand-off in 1995, when a Turkish ship ran aground on the islet off Imia, and its captain rejected Greek help.

For President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has built his long rule on the claim that he is restoring Turkey’s imperial glory—in part, by asserting Ankara’s military power not just in the Aegean, but also in Libya and Syria. The Turkish military has intervened, directly or through proxies, in multiple regional civil wars, often bringing it into conflict with its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation partners in Europe.

Emmanuel Macron, France’s President, even ordered his military to pull out of NATO peacekeeping operations last month, after Turkish warships allegedly threatened a French frigate inspecting a Tanzania-registered cargo vessel for illegal arms. France has long accused Turkey of sending illegal weapons shipments to its proxy in Libya, the warlord Khalifa Haftar—a claim for which persuasive evidence has surfaced.

Erdogan’s net-imperial foreign policy has alienated Turkey across West Asia and Europe—it’s no small thing to have angered Iran as well as its arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—but it’s yielded rich domestic political dividends. Even as economic ruin has begun to cripple his country, Erdogan has projected himself as a defender of Islam, Turkish heritage and national pride.

Kastellorizo checked all these boxes: This summer, when a Turkish gas-prospecting vessel crossed into the Exclusive Economic Zones of both Greece and Cyprus, supported by warships, Ankara let it be known it was willing to use military force to back up this violation of their sovereignty. Greece and Cyprus don’t have the military heft to defend themselves, but Macron stepped in, using French military resources to protect its fellow-NATO members from Turkey’s “revisionist fantasies”.

Ankara’s argument isn’t outrageous, per se: Few would claim it’s just for a country to be denied a reasonable EEZ because of a colonial-era treaty it signed under pressure. The United Nations Law of the Sea, or UNLCOS, gives coastal states claim to 200 nautical mile territory from their shores; Greece gets a disproportionate share because of its possession of Kastellorizo. Turkey, moreover, never signed UNCLOS, and interprets it to exclude islands from EEZ calculations.

The appropriate means to resolve the issue, though, was through international law fora, or diplomatic negotiations, not through force. The problem is, ever-fewer powers across the world believe those mechanisms work: Force seems easier, cheaper, and more effective.

Large numbers of crises not dissimilar to Kastellorizo dot our world. This month, as United States under-secretary of state Keith Krach visited Taiwan, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force flew missions unprecedented in scale—involving H-6 bombers, Y-8 anti-submarine aircraft and J-16 J-11 and J-10s—across the informal ‘median-line’ that has long divided the island from China. The Chinese foreign ministry followed that up by claiming that “there is no so-called centre line in the Taiwan Strait”. In essence, a kind of high-tech arial version of the Ladakh crisis appears to be coming to a head.

In the South China Sea, China has similarly tested the states around its rim by building air bases and naval facilities on reefs and islands in disputed waters, and backing up its claims to the legally-indefensible so-called Nine Dash Line  border with naval force. Even though the Philippines won its case against China in The Hague four years ago, it since learned that pieces of paper, irrespective of how many judges sign them, aren’t worth much in the brute world of geopolitics.

Even in more limited contexts—Pakistan’s support of jihadist proxies in Afghanistan, for example, or the grinding conflict in South Sudan and North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programme—international institutions have proven remarkably ineffectual.

Kastellorizo tells us important things about how the toxic cocktail of resources, ultra-nationalism and religion can drive a geopolitical crisis. The more important question, though, is this: If even tightly bound alliances like North Atlantic Treaty Organisation are no longer able to mediate their internal crisis using norms and laws, what prospect is there of the international order resolving more dangerous conflicts, like those involving China and its neighbours?

"The strong do what they can”, the great historian of antiquity Thyucidides observed, “and the weak suffer what they must”.  The web of international institutions that emerged from the ruins of the Second World War marked a hope—not, it must be admitted, always a well-founded hope—that there might be a better way to structure the world.  As a new age of disorder rises, that hope lies buried.
Praveen Swami
first published: Sep 26, 2020 11:04 am
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