Tension in the Mediterranean:

Competing Turkish and Greek Claims on the Island of Kastelorizo


In the eastern Mediterranean, two kilometers off the coast of southern Turkey, lies the Greek island of Kastelorizo. In the context of the greater (generally non-violent) conflict between Turkey and Greece, an island with an area of less that twelve square kilometers seems inconsequential when one considers the sheer length and breadth of the tension between the two NATO allies. However, Kastelorizo’s geostrategic and economic importance is difficult to overstate: its location allows Greece to extend its maritime borders much further east than the mainland would otherwise allow, pushing it far enough eastward that it borders on the maritime boundary of its close political ally and cultural sister, Cyprus. As such, I will briefly summarize and interpret the history of Kastelorizo with regards to the competing claims, explain the importance and relevance of the island to the geostrategy of both Greece and Turkey, and attempt an interpretation of the existing international law to examine how a legal solution might be found.



To begin, we must understand the history of Kastelorizo and why its status is so contentious. Instructive here is Islands Off the Beaten Track, a book compiled by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which surveys the history of the island[1], and Luigi Bertarelli’s Guide to Italy[2], the relevance of which will shortly become apparent. Stampolidis et al recount the ancient Rhodian habitation of the island, initially under the Athenian League around 400 BC and later under sovereign Rhodian control until the first century AD, when it, along with Rhodes, was incorporated into the Roman Empire, and later, the Byzantine Empire on account of its being a vital stop for merchant vessels in the Mediterranean.[3] The island then changed hands for a number of years between 1306 and 1512, when it was finally conquered by the Ottomans.[4] The inhabitants of the island joined the Greek insurgency against the Ottoman Empire for five years between 1828 and 1833, but remained under Ottoman control after Greece achieved independence. In 1923, under the Treaty of Lausanne, the island was awarded to Italy[5] until 1932 when Turkey and Italy signed an agreement clarifying their maritime borders, finally assigning Kastelorizo to Turkey[6]. This lasted until 1947, when, in the wake of World War II and the British occupation of the island, Kastelorizo was assigned to Greece[7], under whose legal authority it has since remained.

Today, the island’s population is small – only 492 people in 2011 – and almost entirely Greek Orthodox and Greek-speaking.[8] Given its ancient Hellenic history and Greek cultural standing, it is no wonder that Greece lays claim to the island, especially for a nation that sees itself as inextricably connected to the Ancient Greece of Socrates and Alexander. On the other hand, it is easy to imagine the Turkish side of the argument – allowing a state with whom one maintains a tense relationship to retain control of an island so close to one’s border is geostrategically unwise, especially as it pertains to sea control. In cultural and historic terms, Greece has the upper hand. In strategic terms, it seems as though Turkey has more at stake.



The location of the island provides an interesting case study for the effects of maritime border delimitation. In short: if Greece is allowed to retain the island, and further, to extend its maritime borders to include Kastelorizo, it gains an enormous swath of ocean to add to its Exclusive Economic Zone, bringing it right up to within a single kilometer of Turkey’s land border (see Figure 1). If, however, Greece is not permitted to extend its EEZ thusly, Turkey retains much more sea control than it would otherwise (see Figure 2).

Figure 1

Figure 2

Note that in Figure 1, the EEZs of Greece and Cyprus border each other, further connecting Greece to the EEZ of ally Israel, whereas in Figure 2 Turkey inserts itself, preventing the three allies from maintaining a single contiguous section of the ocean. The relevance of this becomes clear when one considers the locations of the Leviathan, Aphrodite, and Tamar oil fields (see Figure 3). All three provide new sources of economic productivity and energy independence for Israel and Cyprus, and could easily become important sources of energy for Europe. In this vein, consider also the subsea oil pipeline currently being proposed by Italy, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel to market gas from Israel and Cyprus’s EEZs to Europe (see Figure 4).[13]

Figure 3

Figure 4

This would allow Europe access to oil free of the political implications of Turkey’s overland pipelines. In short, Turkey has an interest in forcing Middle Eastern oil to travel through its territory in both the form of revenue and geopolitical leverage. Insofar as Turkey remains Russia’s ally, it also has an interest in assisting Moscow in maintaining European dependence[14] on Russian oil and gas, which has proven strategically frustrating to both the U.S. and Europe, as observed in the difficulty of enforcing EU-wide sanctions on Russian hydrocarbons in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine in 2014.

            Europe, then, has an interest in increased flexibility with regards to energy sources, which would subvert Russian arm-twisting by means of alternative fuel sources. However, Europe is also unlikely to go out of its way to frustrate and potentially anger Ankara over an oil pipeline when the blowback could include shrinking support for cooperation on the refugee crisis from the Erdogan regime. In the short term, stymying the flow of immigrants from the Syrian war trumps energy politics in every case – even for the Greeks, who bear the brunt of the refugee crisis on their easternmost islands. In this context, despite the benefits and independence such a pipeline (and, by extension, acceptance of Greek maritime border claims based on Kastelorizo) would bring, European allies are unlikely to endorse such a course of action in light of the transactional approach Erdogan has thus far taken with regards to cooperation on the refugee crisis (see: Turkey’s demands for cash assistance and eased visa requirements for Turkish citizens in return for border security to stop the flow of migrants to Europe[15]). The risk of reduced Turkish cooperation is not worth the potential energy independence such a course of action might afford – at least in the short term.

            To summarize, Turkey has a great deal of interest in blocking Greece from using Kastelorizo as a means of extending its EEZ so far East ­­– to allow Greece to do so would undercut its ability to use energy as a means of leverage, reduce revenue from oil and gas pipelines, and set a precedent for the free exercise of Greek sovereignty extremely close to its shores. On the other hand, Greece, along with the rest of the EU has an interest in allowing Greece and Cyprus to bring their EEZs up against each other in order to allow for the construction of a pipeline that would increase energy independence in Europe and rebalance the European-Russian relationship in Europe’s favor. However, this is unlikely in the extreme, as the refugee crisis is a far more pressing issue, and one that requires Turkey’s cooperation.



The final piece of this puzzle is what is actually legal. What is the current status quo? The relevant international law here comes from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982 (herein referred to as UNCLOS). Within UNCLOS, two articles are particularly relevant - Articles 7 and 57. Article 57 concerns the breadth of a state’s EEZ:

The exclusive economic zone shall not extend beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured.[16]

Article 7, in turn, defines the term “baseline.” I will include here only what is relevant to the delimitation of boundaries around Kastelorizo, namely sections 1, 3, 5, and 6.

1. In localities where the coastline is deeply indented and cut into, or if there is a fringe of islands along the coast in its immediate vicinity, the method of straight baselines joining appropriate points may be employed in drawing the baseline from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured.

3. The drawing of straight baselines must not depart to any appreciable extent from the general direction of the coast, and the sea areas lying within the lines must be sufficiently closely linked to the land domain to be subject to the regime of internal waters.

5. Where the method of straight baselines is applicable under paragraph 1, account may be taken, in determining particular baselines, of economic interests peculiar to the region concerned, the reality and the importance of which are clearly evidenced by long usage.

6. The system of straight baselines may not be applied by a State in such a manner as to cut off the territorial sea of another State from the high seas or an exclusive economic zone.[17]

Currently, Greece does not claim an EEZ that extends to include Kastelorizo, as seen in Figure 1. To do so would, for Turkey, constitute a casus belli.[18] Indeed, the above UNCLOS articles do not seem support a Greek claim for such an extended EEZ. Article 7 provides little in the way of hard and fast rules, and depends largely upon interpretation. However, it seems unlikely that the International Court of Justice would determine that extending the EEZ from Rhodes to Kastelorizo does not “depart to any appreciable extent from the general direction of the coast,” as in Article 7, Section 3. Furthermore, while there are indeed “economic interests peculiar to the region concerned,” i.e. the potential for an eastern Mediterranean pipeline, such interest is not “evidenced by long usage” seeing as the pipeline has not yet been constructed and the oil fields only recently discovered. Finally, such an extension of an EEZ would indeed seem to cut off Turkey’s territorial sea from any possible EEZ it might claim in the Mediterranean, insofar as it would bring Greece’s EEZ within the 6-mile delimitation of Turkey’s territorial waters.

However, according to Article 121 of the UNCLOS, islands are entitled to their own territorial seas and continental shelves.[19] In such complex cases, the principle of proportionality is used to determine the delimitation of such maritime boundaries, and has been used by the ICJ in every such determination.[20] In short, the rule of proportionality takes into account whether the area of the EEZ afforded to a state is proportional to the length of the coastline of that state as compared to its neighbor. In the case of Kastelorizo, we can observe that the island has a coastal perimeter of about 15 kilometers. By comparison, Turkey’s coastline in the affected area (measured from Marmaris to Antalya) is approximately 320 kilometers. The area of the sea that Greece would gain were it to extend its EEZ to include the area afforded by Kastelorizo is almost 53,ooo square kilometers (see Figure 5), and would leave Turkey with less than 27,000 square kilometers (see Figure 6).  As such, it seems absurd to award such a large amount of sea to Greece based on such a tiny island.

Figure 5

Figure 6

The ICJ could very well disagree and point out that the historical maritime usage of Kastelorizo dating back to the ancient Rhodians constitutes a clear historical right to those waters and agree with Greece. However, the legal argument seems to favor the Turkish side. It might here be useful to note, then, that Greece, who would likely be stymied by the convention, has ratified UNCLOS, while Turkey, who would probably benefit from an ICJ decision based on the same laws, has not. As it stands, the status quo is that Greece will not make such claims, and the delimitation of such boundaries would require bilateral negotiations to which Turkey would never agree. As such, the status quo benefits Turkey, and is therefore unlikely to change insofar as Greece cannot drum up the support necessary from her European allies, as discussed above.



Thus, Kastelorizo has an important role to play in coming years. As the refugee crisis subsides, and as Erdogan’s government evolves, will we see similarly evolving attitudes towards accommodating an increasingly transactional and adversarial NATO ally? Could international opinion shift in favor of Greece? Kastelorizo, as it stands, is the linchpin of a cascade of geopolitical effects, but one which is unlikely to be pulled any time soon. The status quo has a great deal of inertia, and to move it would require a Herculean feat of political strength.




[1] Stampolidis, Nikolaos Chr., Yorgos Tassoulas, and Melina Filimonos-Tsopotou. Islands Off the Beaten Track...: an archaeological journey to the Greek islands of Kastellorizo, Symi, Halki, Tilos, and Nisyros. Athens: Museum of Cycladic Art, 2011.

[2] Bertarelli, Luigi V. The Italian Touring Club’s Guide to Italy. Milan: Italian Touring Club, 1916.

[3] Stampolidis ibid 27-30

[4] Bertarelli ibid 132

[5] Treaty of Peace with Turkey. signed at Lausanne, July 24, 1923.

[6] Convention between Italy and Turkey, signed at Ankara, Turkey, January 4, 1932.

[7] Paris Peace Treaties, signed at Paris, France, February 10, 1947.

[8] Hellenic Statistical Authority. (2011). General Population Census 2011. Athens.

[11] See Figure 3.

[12] See Figure 4.

[13] “Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Israel eye longest offshore gas pipeline”. Euractiv. 3 April 2017. http://www.euractiv.com/section/energy/news/italy-greece-cyprus-and-israel-eye-longest-offshore-gas-pipeline/

[14] http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Energy_production_and_imports

[15] Selcan Hacaoglu. “Turkey Refugee Deal With EU at Risk, Erdogan Adviser Warns”. Bloomberg. 2 Feb 2017. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-02-02/turkey-refugee-deal-with-eu-at-risk-erdogan-adviser-warns

[16] United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Article 57, Breadth of the exclusive economic zone.

[17] United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Article 7, Straight baselines.

[18] http://www.danielpipes.org/10630/kastelorizo

[19] United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Article 121, Regime of islands.

[20] Ryuichi Ida. The role of proportionality in maritime delimitation revisited: the origin and meaning of the principle from the early decision of the court. In Liber Amicorum Judge Shigeru Oda. 2002. P.1037. Also see: Tanaka Yoshifumi. Reflections on the concept of proportionality in the law of maritime delimitation. International journal of marine and coastal law. 16(3) September, 2001. P. 433.