Let’s only have a war of words between Turkey and Greece
A journalist from a country that has problematic relations with its neighbors, with potential military encounters, becomes familiar with military terminology.
Turkish and Greek journalists are, for instance, very familiar with terms like “dog fight.” Aerial battles between fighter aircraft, conducted at close range, dog fights are almost part of daily life in the airspace over the Aegean Sea. As Ankara and Athens disagree on sovereignty and related rights in parts of the Aegean, what one sees as the exercise of a sovereign right is seen by the other as violation. Because they want to show each other that they are sticking to their positions, we end up having dog fights between Greek and Turkish war planes.
Recently, a Turkish patrol boat and a Greek gunboat collided near a disputed group of islands in the Aegean. Just as I was joking about naming it a “dolphin fight,” the latest incident was explained to me with another animal name: Sea bream.
“It is the sea bream season,” a Turkish official told me. Apparently this is the season to fish sea bream, as they are found in abundance between November and January. As Greek and Turkish fishermen start casting their nets in the area, frequent patrolling from Turkish and Greek coast guards is prompted.
This is followed by a phenomenon that is good for peace between Turkey and Greece but bad for the ecosystem: Trolling, a method of fishing that is detrimental for the fish population in seas around Turkey.
The area around the Imia/Kardak islets in the Aegean get their share of “trolling,” with Turkish fishermen heading to the Aegean after the Black Sea, fishing all the sea breams in the area. Then comes a hiatus, as fishing in the area goes on a long break and military activities thus become possible.
However, sea bream season actually witnessed the famous Imia/Kardak crisis in January 1996, when an ownership dispute over this pair of two small uninhabited islets, whose names were almost entirely unheard of until then among both Turks and Greeks, led the two nations to the brink of war.
The anniversary of the crisis has gone unnoticed in Turkey for at least a decade, but thanks to Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos it has become a date that journalists have to be ready for in order to look for potential news stories.
The first thing Kammenos did just days after he first took office in 2015 was to fly with military chiefs in a military helicopter over the islets, dropping wreaths in memory of three Greek Navy officers who died when their helicopter crashed during a reconnaissance mission in the area.
Kammenos who heads the small, Eurosceptic, right-wing Independent Greeks party, dropped a commemoration wreath by helicopter again in Jan. 31, 2017. As in the previous case, this prompted Turkish jet fighters to take off and fly over the islands after his helicopter left the scene.
The crisis in 1996 ended without the ownership issue being solved. It was quashed with an intervention from the U.S., which convinced the two sides to accept status quo ante bellum, returning to the “state existing before the war.” In this case, it means leaving these islets alone, enjoying the luxury of not being known to anybody.
Sea bream do not care about the status quo ante, as they would rather prefer a no-go zone for all people. But unfortunately Kammenos does not care about it either, as he does not want to miss an opportunity to underline Greek ownership of the islets.
Often dubbed a “nationalist” by international news outlets, Kammenos is very vocal about Turkey but his often hostile rhetoric is largely ignored in the Turkish media.
Let’s see what Kammenos gets up to next week. Let’s hope he just opts for a “war of words,” refraining from any move than could spiral into unwanted incidents.
The Turks know what war really means. First Iraq then Syria, Turkey has been living in a warzone for more than two decades. The Greeks should appreciate that it is a blessing to be relatively distant from warzones.