Greece, Turkey Avert War over Islet, but Tension Remains

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Greece and Turkey pulled back from the brink of war this week but remain sharply at odds in an ongoing dispute that remains a constant threat to peace.

"Sure, we've bypassed this crisis for now, but the nexus of the problem remains on the table," a Greek diplomat said in Washington this week.

He said recent events only "added a new chapter" to problems in the Greece-Turkey relationship.

A Turkish official was equally candid, saying the overall situation had changed very little despite the widely praised intervention of the United States.

"Despite the fact that it is now calm," he said, any further provocation "could stir up a new misunderstanding. Both sides will have to act with the utmost restraint."

That new misunderstanding could even flare up on the same tiny islets that were the focus of this week's standoff. There were unconfirmed reports yesterday of people on both sides who planned to return to the scene in an effort to score political points for or against the respective governments in Athens and Ankara.

Others noted the danger of renewed conflict breaking out elsewhere.

There are "at least 2,000" of the rock and islet formations in the Aegean Sea of the size and type that sparked the latest crisis, said Sabri Sayari, executive director of the Institute for Turkish Studies at Georgetown University. He also spoke of the open-ended nature of the conflict.

The key differences between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean - just one of many conflicts between the two states - involve a series of international agreements, dating back to 1923, that Athens says clearly mark a certain grouping of Aegean islands as Greek territory.

"There is no room for discussion on the issue of sovereignty rights," said the Greek official, who left open the possibility of international mediation on other aspects of the Greece-Turkey dispute.

That position does not satisfy Turkey, which questions the legality of the agreements and says the sovereignty of the islands has not been firmly established.

"As long as Greece will refuse any dialogue, these issues will remain the same, and any solution will remain an illusion," said a Turkish source.

Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke will travel to the area this month in an effort to ease tensions. But given the difficult political situation in both countries, observers see little room for progress.

The Greek Socialist government of Prime Minister Costas Simitis was harshly criticized for its handling of the crisis and lost two deputies in a parliamentary vote of confidence on the issue. Continued pressure from the conservatives also makes it unlikely Mr. Simitis will do much negotiating with Turkey over the Aegean or anything else.

The situation is even less certain in Turkey, where Prime Minister Tansu Ciller heads a caretaker government while she tries to gather enough support to form a ruling coalition. …