New York Times: Turkey and Greece trade jabs in island dispute

Turkey and Greece have reignited a decades-old disagreement over the sovereignty of a pair of uninhabited Aegean Islands, in a spat that analysts say risks aggravating other diplomatic disputes between the two countries.

The Greek defense minister, Panos Kammenos, flew over the two disputed islands on Wednesday, the Greek government said, in a pointed response to a visit three days earlier to nearby waters by the commander of the Turkish armed forces, Hulusi Akar.

The exchange is the most public disagreement over the tiny islands’ sovereignty since 1996, when soldiers from both countries landed on them — known as Imia in Greece and Kardak in Turkey — before American-led mediation persuaded both sides to leave the area.

Turkey disputes Greece’s claim that the islands entered Greek ownership in 1947, after first being assigned to Italy in 1923 following the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Analysts said that Turkey’s recent incursions were a response to the decision by the Greek Supreme Court last week to block the extradition of eight Turkish airmen accused of participating in the failed attempt last July to oust the Turkish government. They also warned that the dispute risked complicating negotiations over the reunification of Cyprus.

Turkey has itself said the case could derail a migration pact between Greece and Turkey, which has helped to significantly stem the follow of migrants between Turkey and Europe.

Sinan Ulgen, a Turkey scholar at Carnegie Europe, said he did not believe the dispute would spiral into military conflict. “But there certainly may be other consequences because it comes at a very inopportune time for the Cyprus talks, for instance,” he said by telephone.

A spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry said he was unavailable for comment, while the Turkish presidency did not respond to enquiries.

A spokesman for the Greek Foreign Ministry declined to link the escalation over the islands to last week’s court decision, but said his government had no ability to deport the airmen against the wishes of the Greek judiciary.

“From the very first moment, the Greek government condemned the July coup,” said the spokesman by telephone. “We said the people who participated in the coup are not welcome in our country, but of course the Greek government is different to the independent Greek judiciary.”

Turkey has already sent a second request for the airmen’s extradition, suggesting that the dispute has room to grow, said Soner Cagaptay, who heads Turkey research at the Washington Institute, a policy research organization.

“If Greece rejects the second request, then Erdogan will escalate further, and this could include the Cyprus talks, the migration pact and military escalation along the Aegean,” Mr. Cagaptay said, referring to the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Turkey’s toolbox is full of items that are almost infinite in nature,” Mr. Cagaptay added.

Source: The New York Times