The dawn of February 1st 1996 was the end of the Imia crisis that unfortunately created unsubstantial ground for a challenge on the Greece’s claim on the Dodecanese islands and other parts of the Aegean.

Whatever could go wrong that night, didn’t hesitate to do so: poor political administration, inefficient coordination due to factional interests mainly from the political side, equipment inadequacy.

Yet, no matter how frustrating the loss was, it was also a waking call for the Greek political scene to show a little more faith in the armed forces that despite their better reading of the situation and their proposals, were not heard.

The Crisis Timeline

On December 25, 1995 the Turkish cargo vessel “Figen Akat” ran aground on one of the Imia rocky islets. Although the accident occurred within Greek territorial waters the captain of the “Figen Akat” refused assistance from the competent Greek authorities claiming that he was within Turkish territorial waters. Despite assurances to the contrary, the captain sought assistance from the Turkish authorities. Finally, in agreement with the Turkish company that owned the vessel, the “Figen Akat” was towed to the Turkish port of Gulluk by a Greek tug boat.

Mia Islets. In the foreground the western Imia islet where the SAT team landed

Greek and Turkish warships in standoff in Aegean Sea

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On December 29, 1995, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs addressed to the Greek Embassy in Ankara a Note Verbal, asserting, for the first time in more than half a century, that Imia constitutes part of the Turkish territory, registered in the land registry of the Turkish province of Mugla. Greece reacted and on January 10, 1996 it addressed a Note Verbal to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. By that Note Greece rejected the Turkish claims and underlined that Imia is Greek territory by virtue of cession from Italy, to which it belonged in accordance with the 1932 Italo-Turkish Agreement and the subsequent Proces Verbal.

While legal and diplomatic staffs in both Athens and Ankara started to dig the archives and to develop more elaborate arguments, the incident escalated to a crisis. On January 25, 1996, the Mayor of Kalymnos together with three other Greek citizens raised a Greek flag on the larger of the Imia islets. On January 27, 1996, Turkish journalists from the Turkish daily Hurriyet landed on this same islet, took down the Greek flag that was posted there and raised the Turkish flag. Although the Turkish Government did not officially endorse the action of the Turkish journalists, the Turkish Prime Minister at that time, Ms Tansu Ciller, insisted a few days later: “We can’t let a foreign flag fly on Turkish soil. The flag will come down.”

On January 28, 1996, a Greek navy UDT detachment replaced the Greek flag. At the same time a major naval build up was developing around the Imia islets and at various times up to 20 vessels were reported in the area. On January 30, 1996, Turkey sent several ships to the region, prompting Greece to send an equal number. A Turkish frigate violated Greek territorial waters targeting a Greek gunboat that was patrolling the area and a Turkish helicopter flew over the Imia islets. The same day the entire Greek fleet left its naval base near Pireus and sailed to the Aegean.

The crisis reached its peak in the early morning hours of January 31, 1996 when the Turkish army landed some men on the smaller of the Imia islets that had remained unguarded, since the Greek government from the beginning clung to the political aspect of the crisis, guarding only the symbol and not the territory and believing the intervention of the USA to be the ultimate solution. So, no effort to recapture the islet was made, despite the suggestions of the military command. The crisis was resolved with the intervention of  US envoy Richard Holbrooke and the return to status quo ante..[1]  An outcome that leaves a bitter taste, since three Greek navy officers died in the crisis, as a result of a helicopter crush while conducting a recon on the western Imia islet, and however unsubstantial the claims, a new issue appeared in the already troubled relations between Greece and Turkey.

Why the lack of faith up to that moment? The 7-year military junta had benefitted the rise of not-so-military-friendly political ideologies. The SOF units were used as scape goats, despite their minor if any participation in the junta’s actions. Moreover, the not-so-military-friendly ideologists were also anti-American and the SOF units’ collaboration with American forces AND the CIA made them all the more evil. The paranoia reached its peak in the late 80s, with the disbandment of the 3rd Raiders Division and the revelation of the Greek SOF’s participation in the operation “Sheepskin”, a plan implement throughout Europe under different names since the 50s in collaboration with the CIA, in order to face potential Soviet occupation.

After the crisis of Imia thought was put in the armed forces performance and especially the SOF, as their vital role in similar situation was acknowledged. One of the major problems was that, with the Greek army being one of compulsory national service, with the exception of the Special Paratrooper Section which is a reconnaissance unit of the Greek SOF, there were no fully manned operational teams and every team was reinforced by recalled reserve troops. Another issue was that the existing amphibious units had limited areas of responsibility, that is, the islands where they were stationed, leaving the higher command without a strategic asset with DA capabilities. And thus the creation of a new unit was decided, responsible for all of the Greek territory and manned only by full-time career NCOs and officers.

Machine gun section deployed (FN-MAG58)

The first members of the Zeta Amphibious Raiding Squadron (Z is the seventh letter of the Greek alphabet)  is the  were selected for their military education and training in foreign SOF schools, their positive evaluation by superiors and the good name they had in a community as small as the SOF (the personnel had already passed the selection course in the Unconventional Warfare Center as is obligatory to enter the Greek SOF). Not a very methodical selection, but proved to be an effective one, due to the professionalism and dedication of the personnel. A 2nd and a 3rd company were created shortly after, this time after a training and a toughened up selection process. Because of the preceding crisis and the renewed interest in the Special Forces, and with the support of both political and military leadership, the unit enjoyed an abundance of equipment and training aids.

Its mission was and remains to implement the Greek defense doctrine of deterrence conducting direct action, guerrilla warfare and amphibious reconnaissance. It can rapidly deploy anywhere in the Greek territory, by sea, land and air, as all of its members are also paratroopers. It consists of three assault Companies and one Headquarters Company.

Greece and Turkey; the ongoing crisis.

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In Greece, there are two ways to make army your profession: through officer and NCO schools, or replying to one of government’s proclamations. I did in the second way. After my compulsory military service (SOF service is voluntary) in the 35th Raider Battalion in Cyprus, where officers and NCO’s coming from the Zeta Amphibious Raiding Squadron and the Special Paratrooper Section resembled demi-gods, what I least expected was for my first post to be there. But life, like the bitch she is, can bite you in the ass the one day and lick you in the face the next. It happened so that the Zeta had a change of guard and so I found myself in the 3rd Platoon of the 3rd Assault Company as a machine gunner.

The funny part is that five of us was were runner ups and had not yet passed the selection and as you can imagine, for five guys with field caps among 300 with green berets, the first month until our specialty training went by very fast. Almost as fast as we ran from one working party to another and tried to absorb all the information our seniors gave us.

3rd Assault company personel moving during training on islet. Nowadays the unit uses a digitized version of the greek lizard camo.

The next half year was spent almost entirely on training, specialty training, selection and jump school. And then the fun began!  Mountain warfare and guerrilla warfare field exercises, CQB training, amphibious raids, all in 6-month training cycles,  and the experiences this kind of training brings.

I always enjoyed enjoyed any training that had to do with the sea, and so I loved being in the Zodiac, especially at night. That’s when and where the only thing you hear is the monotonous buzzing of the two-stroke engine and the splash of the waves on the hull. A nice ride, although not so comfortable for the FN minimi gunner (that is, me) who usually had to sit at the prow.

My four and a half years in the squadron are still reflected upon with pride for becoming member of a unit that I had admired since childhood, for overcoming the obstacles I found in my way and doing things that are nowhere near the ordinary.

That was an extremely brief presentation of the Zeta Amphibious Raiding Squadron, as I did not want to dwell upon the technical details. However important the equipment, weapons and materials may be, what makes the “Special” in SOF is the people that form them. I will always consider myself lucky to have served among such men.

1. Krateros Ioannou, Professor of Public International Law, Democritus University of Thrace. A tale of two islets

Dedicated to: Christodoulos Karathanasis, Panagiotis Vlahakos, and Ektoras Gialopsos who were killed in the line of duty.