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March 2001 - Geographically, Greece and Turkey are separated by only a few miles of the Aegean Sea. However, in terms of unsettled issues, the distance between them sometimes seems more akin to the distance that separates earth from Alpha Centauri. In the last 27 years, Greek-Turkish points of contention over Cyprus and the Aegean have brought these NATO allies into crisis situations that could have led to war at least three times.

January 2001 marked the fifth anniversary of the 1996 Imia crisis. Even more so than the Aegean crisis of 1987, the Imia crisis brought Greece and Turkey nearer to war than at any time since the Cyprus crisis of 1974. During the evening and morning hours of January 30-31, 1996, Athens and Ankara came perilously close to using the modern weaponry and military expertise they had developed over almost half a century as NATO allies-on each other.

Given the sovereignty issues at stake and the forces concentrated in the vicinity of the Imia islets on the evening of January 30, a Greek-Turkish war would have developed prior to first light if President Bill Clinton had not intervened by talking with Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis and Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller to defuse the crisis.

One player conspicuous in its absence during the Imia crisis was NATO. The alliance, designed to protect its members from attack by non-member states rather than from each other, has, since 1974, often found itself at a loss to deal with Greek-Turkish differences.

Moreover, the alliance, though keenly aware since 1974 that war could break out between Greece and Turkey, has done little to adapt itself to the possibility of war between the member states anchoring its southeastern flank.

NATO's ability to act as a moderating force in Greek-Turkish relations from 1974 to the end of the 1990s was hamstrung by Greece's departure from the alliance's military wing in the aftermath of the Cyprus crisis and the difficulties of fully reintegrating Greece back into that structure between 1980 and 1999, when a NATO headquarters was established on Greek territory.

From the Cyprus crisis to the Imia crisis, Greek-Turkish animosities presented issues for the alliance that it could not, given its structure, effectively address or, at the same time, avoid. With no NATO headquarters on its territory, Greece often relegated itself to the status of an interested, yet outside, observer with regard to NATO exercises, particularly those in the Aegean.

Greece's decision to reintegrate into the alliance's military structure in 1980 proved to be considerably more difficult than its decision to withdraw in 1974. Indeed, a significant failure on the part of NATO in the 1990s was its apparent inability to take a more assertive role toward resolving differences between Greece and Turkey concerning the establishment of a NATO headquarters in Greece, following agreement on the matter among alliance members as early as 1992.

A headquarters in Greece, in addition to enhancing NATO's regional effectiveness during a dangerous time in the Balkans, could have served as a conduit for enhanced communication and cooperation between the alliance and Greece and between the Greek and Turkish militaries. More importantly, such a headquarters might have served, even informally, to ensure greater communication between key NATO military leaders, such as the Commander in Chief Allied Forces Southern Europe (CINCSOUTH) and the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), and the chiefs of defense of Greece and Turkey early on in a situation like the Imia crisis.

In 1996, Clinton's intervention in the Imia crisis probably prevented a war. There is no guarantee that a U.S. president will always be available to personally mediate in a future crisis between Greece and Turkey, should one occur. Greece and Turkey have to feel confident that it is in their best interests to contact alliance leaders, formally or informally, in an emergency. The traditional framework of any large NATO headquarters is more conducive than not to keeping people like CINCSOUTH and SACEUR informed and thus ensuring their early involvement in a pending or actual crisis.

In the years since the Imia crisis, Greece, Turkey, and NATO have had their successes. In addition to working together in NATO's various headquarters and participating together in exercises, Greece and Turkey have worked well within the NATO framework to support alliance missions such as the Implementation Force (IFOR) and Sustainment Force (SFOR) operations in Bosnia and the more recent Kosovo Force (KFOR) operations. About 2,020 Greek and 2,360 Turkish troops serve in alliance missions in Bosnia and Kosovo.

A particularly significant success story concerning Greek-Turkish cooperation within the alliance has been the establishment of a long-awaited NATO headquarters in Greece. Joint Command Southcenter in Larissa, Greece, was officially activated on October 1, 1999, as one of four NATO sub-regional headquarters authorized in the alliance's recent reorganization. The other sub-regional headquarters are Joint Command Southeast in Izmir, Turkey; Joint Command South in Verona, Italy; and Joint Command Southwest in Madrid, Spain. In Larissa and Izmir, alliance military personnel, including Greek and Turkish officers, work side by side. The chief of staff in Larissa is a Turkish major general, while a Greek major general is chief of staff in Izmir. U.S. major generals are the deputy commanders in both headquarters.

The NATO headquarters in Greece and Turkey enhance the alliance's ability to conduct ongoing missions in the strife-torn Balkans and to more effectively deter or react to regional threats. Moreover, these headquarters reinforce Greek-Turkish cooperation within NATO and bilaterally. Greece and Turkey, despite some recent bumps in the road, are, after a hiatus of decades, once again participating together in NATO exercises in the Aegean. This has eliminated an important bone of contention between Athens and Ankara, which made crisis situations like Imia more, rather than less, probable in the 1990s.

However, the most significant benefit of a Greek-based NATO headquarters is psychological. The U.S. and NATO are interested in expanding confidence-building measures between Greece and Turkey. The Larissa headquarters not only accomplishes this, but it also represents the most significant confidence-building measure that NATO could have put in place to reinforce its confidence in Greece and, in turn, Greece's continuing commitment to the alliance.

Today, the dispute over Imia is no closer to resolution than it was during the height of the 1996 crisis. Indeed, Imia is just one of a number of issues between Greece and Turkey that often appears to be growing larger rather than getting smaller. That number is at least a little smaller today because of NATO's reorganization and the headquarters in Greece. The Larissa headquarters promotes greater harmony between Greece and Turkey in NATO and, by default, is a positive force for both nations as they move to resolve current and future differences peacefully. Since October 1999, the distance to Alpha Centauri has somehow appeared to be a bit shorter.

-----------------------------------------------Harry Dinella, Policy Advisor, Western Policy Center, is a former NATO Liaison Officer to the Hellenic National Defense General Staff. He is completing a doctoral program in History and Education at George Mason University.


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Henry Dinella

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Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program is focused on Europe’s capabilities, and how it engages on critical global issues.  We investigate European approaches to critical global issues. We examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our initiatives include “Ukraine in Europe” – an examination of what it will take to make Ukraine’s European future a reality.  But we also examine the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE, Europe’s energy security, transatlantic trade disputes, and challenges to democracy. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more