Greece and Turkey almost went to war in 1996 over a territorial dispute.

The dispute began over Imia, a pair of uninhabited islets. The islets have a combined surface area of about 10 acres. They are part of Greece and are close to Turkey.

A Turkish freighter ran aground on one of the islets. Turkey rejected Greece's sovereignty over the islets after a dispute over the salvage claim.

Both countries moved naval forces. Turkey followed Greece in landing special-operations forces there. The opposing forces were a few hundred yards apart. The two countries, both members of NATO, were involved in a standoff for several days.

Internal politics in both countries, as well as longstanding nationalist sentiment, were seen as driving factors at the time, but the crisis was very real, and in the end, US diplomacy and political pressure prevented a conflict from breaking out.

The Imia crisis

Imia islets in Aegean Sea
The Imia/Kardak islets in the Aegean Sea in December 2009.

Turkish officials were prepared to challenge Greece's possession of the islets after the freighter ran aground.

The residents of a nearby Greek island raised their national flag on January 25. Turkish journalists took down the Greek flag on Imia on January 28.

The Turkish flag was taken down by the Greek Navy on the final days of January in order to deter Turkish action.

The seven frogmen landed on Little Imia and prepared, while a second Greek SEAL squad on a missile patrol boat was on stand-by. The Greek frogmen on Imia requested that their colleagues land on Big Imia, but Greek political leaders denied their request.

The Turkish side was preparing a military response. A Turkish helicopter flew over Little Imia and saw the Greek Navy Seals. The helicopter flew over the islet that was empty.

If the Turkish helicopter came back, the Greek military ordered the special forces to shoot it down. The order was reversed by Greek political leaders.

A Turkish navy contingent was on the empty Big Imia. The Turks and Greeks were on Little Imia. The Greek leaders gave the green light for the Greek Navy to land on the other island, but the order was changed a few hours later.

Turkish commandos Imia Kardak
Turkish commandos return after landing on the disputed Imia/Kardak islets after Greece withdrew, January 31, 1996.

On the night of January 31, a Hellenic Navy helicopter went to Big Imia to see if the Turkish troops were still there. The weather conditions were so bad that flying was almost impossible.

The two pilots and the crew chief were killed in the helicopter crash. The helicopter crashed into the water at almost 100 mph, but it was not clear what caused it. There were rumors in the years that followed that it was shot down by Turkish soldiers, but Turkish media reported in 2012 that the Turkish soldiers were alive.

The two NATO allies were able to prevent a war because of US diplomacy.

US assistant secretary of state for European Affairs Richard Holbrooke was involved in mediation efforts. Holbrooke said at the time of the resolution that threats of war were not a bluff.

Athens and Ankara did not communicate directly, instead sending messages to each other through Washington. At the time, officials said that the clash was only solved after Clinton spoke to the Greek and Turkish leaders.

The White House and the State Department tried to calm the two sides without appearing to take sides in the dispute, which drew ire from Athens.

Relations between Greece and Turkey fell to a low point after the crisis and the situation in the Aegean remained tense.

A watershed event

Turkey Greece coast guard Imia Kardak
Turkish and Greek coast guard boats patrol around the Imia/Kardak islets on the 21st anniversary of the 1996 crisis, January 30, 2017.
Ali Balli/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The US has close relations with both Greece and Turkey. Both countries send their special-operations operatives to other US courses, including the US Navy's Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training.

The Imia crisis was a turning point for the Greek special-operations community. The Greek Navy SEALs were used in a defensive role that was incompatible with their training and orientation towards offensive action. Greek commanders sent them because of the weather conditions.

The Imia crisis was a formative event for the Greek Navy. We had to accept the incident and put our egos aside. It was the only way we could benefit from it.

Greece Panos Kammenos Imia Kardak islet
Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos prepares to throw a wreath over the Imia islets in memory of Greek troops killed there during the 1996 crisis, February 2, 2017.
STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

Greece has thousands of islands, islets, and reefs, and the Greek military created a new special-operations unit after the Imia crisis.

The Greek special-operations community has made strides over the past two decades and we are recognized as one of the best.

The Greek Special Paratroopers Section was recently formed.

American diplomacy succeeded in getting the two sides to withdraw and accept the status quo ante, in which each claimed sovereignty over Imia. Both still claim the islets.

A defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran, and a graduate of the University of Baltimore, are some of the things that Stavros Atlamazoglou is.