The dispute between Greece and Turkey over the island of Imia-Kardak almost sparked a war
- In early 1996, two NATO allies nearly went to war over two small islands in the Aegean Sea.
- A cargo ship running aground on one of the islets has inflamed a long-running dispute between Greece and Turkey.
- The confrontation was resolved peacefully, but the threats of war were “not a bluff”, a US diplomat said.
In January 1996, Greece and Turkey almost went to war over a territorial dispute in the eastern Aegean Sea.
The dispute began over Imia, a pair of uninhabited islets – “small” and “big” Imia – known in Turkey as Kardak. The islets are about 1,000 feet apart and have a combined area of about 10 acres. They are part of Greece, but only a few kilometers from the Turkish peninsula of Bodrum.
The confrontation took place after a Turkish cargo ship ran aground on one of the islets. A dispute over the rescue request quickly escalated into an international incident, with Turkey rejecting Greece’s sovereignty over the islets.
Both countries have moved naval forces to Imia. Greece landed special operations forces there, and Turkey followed soon after. The opposing forces were only a few hundred yards apart. The showdown lasts several days as the two countries, both members of NATO, mobilize for war.
Domestic politics in both countries, as well as long-standing nationalist sentiment, were seen as driving factors at the time, but the crisis was very real and, in the end, American diplomacy and political pressure prevented a conflict to break out.
The Imia crisis
After the cargo ship ran aground in December 1995, Turkish officials prepared to formally challenge Greece’s possession of the islets.
Residents of a nearby Greek island raised their national flag over one of Imia’s islets on January 25. On January 28, Turkish journalists arrived in Imia, removing the Greek flag and raising their own.
In the last days of January, Athens sent a Greek Navy SEAL squad to bring down the Turkish flag and stay on Imia to deter any Turkish action.
The seven frogmen landed on Little Imia and prepared, while a second Greek SEAL squad on a missile patrol boat was on standby as a quick reaction force. The Greek Imia frogmen asked their colleagues to land on Big Imia, but the Greek political leaders rejected their request.
The Turkish side was preparing its own military response. A Turkish helicopter flew over Little Imia and saw Greek Navy SEALs. The Turkish helicopter then flew over the other islet and saw that it was empty.
Initially, the Greek military leaders ordered the commandos to shoot down the Turkish helicopter if it returned because it was carrying out an operational mission on Greek territory. The order was rescinded after the intervention of Greek political leaders.
Meanwhile, a Turkish frigate deployed a Turkish Navy SEAL contingent to the empty Big Imia. A tense confrontation ensued between the Turks and Greeks on Little Imia. At one point, Greek leaders gave the go-ahead for Greek SEALs to land on the other island, but the order was retracted hours later.
On the night of January 31, a Hellenic Navy AB 212 helicopter scouted Big Imia to see if the Turkish commandos were still there. The weather conditions were horrendous, with rain and winds reaching severe storm levels and making flight nearly impossible.
The Greek helicopter crashed, killing the two pilots and the crew chief. An investigation found the helicopter crashed into the water at almost 100mph, but was inconclusive as to the cause. In the years since, there has been speculation that he was shot by Turkish commandos on Big Imia, including rumors that these Turkish SEALs were deliberately killed due to their involvement, but Turkish media reported in 2012 that the commandos were alive.
American diplomacy played a key role in preventing a war between the two NATO allies.
Richard Holbrooke, then US Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, was actively involved in the mediation efforts. At the time of the resolution, Holbrooke said the threats of war were “not a bluff”.
Throughout the crisis, Athens and Ankara have refused to communicate directly, instead relaying messages through Washington. Officials said at the time that the confrontation only aired after President Bill Clinton spoke to Greek and Turkish leaders.
The White House and State Department sought to appease both sides without appearing to take sides in the dispute, angering Athens, which felt the US stance undermined its sovereignty.
Following the crisis, the historically strained relations between Greece and Turkey fell to a low point and the situation in the Aegean Sea remained tense.
A decisive event
The United States has had close relations with Greece and Turkey for decades. SEALs from both countries complete the US Navy’s Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training and SEAL Qualification Course and both send their commandos to other US Special Operations courses.
The Imia crisis was a watershed event for the Greek special operations community. The Greek Navy SEALs had been used in a defensive role, which conflicted with their training and focus on offensive action. The Greek commanders had sent them because the weather conditions required more competent personnel.
“The Imia crisis was a formative event for us,” a retired Greek Navy SEAL told Insider. “The whole community came together and reassessed what worked and what didn’t. We had to put our egos aside and accept the incident. It was the only way we could benefit from it.”
After the Imia crisis, the Greek army created a new special operations unit, the Zeta Amphibious Raider squadron, specializing in the recovery of islands, islets and reefs, of which Greece has thousands .
“Now we are doing much better,” the former Greek SEAL, who requested anonymity for personal security reasons, said of the crisis. “The Greek special operations community has made progress over the past two decades and we are recognized as one of the best special operations forces in NATO.”
Recently, the Greek paratroopers’ special section – Ειδικό Τμήμα Αλεξιπτωτιστών or ΕΤΑ – received NATO’s highest readiness qualification, placing it in the ranks of British SAS or American SEALs.
In the end, American diplomacy managed to get both sides to withdraw and accept the “status quo ante” in which each claimed sovereignty over Imia. To this day, the two still claim the islets.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a veteran of the Hellenic Army (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.