NEW YORK: The US is exploring plans to relocate some of its important assets from the Incirlik air base in Turkey to Greece.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will discuss such proposals on his visit to Souda Bay, a US naval facility on the northern shores of the Geek island of Crete.
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee for Europe, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Jonson, had already mentioned earlier in September that the US is considering Souda Bay as an alternative to Incirlik.
Jonson told the Washington Examiner that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “disturbing” foreign policy has spurred American officials to intensify preparations to withdraw from Incirlik.
“It’s very concerning, which is one of the reasons (we) certainly are improving our military cooperation with Greece ... beefing up our presence in Souda Bay, because our presence, quite honestly, in Turkey is certainly threatened,” said Jonson.
Pompeo’s visit to Greece, the second to the region this month, comes as tensions in the eastern Mediterranean are at an all-time high between Greece and Cyprus on the one hand, and Turkey on the other.
Last year, Ankara signed a maritime accord with Libya’s Government of National Accord and sent its vessels, accompanied by the military, to begin gas exploration operations in areas of the Mediterranean that Greece considers part of its economic zone.
Disputes over rights to energy resources have raised concerns that they could escalate into open conflict.
The rebasing plans come at a time when Turkey has become an “increasingly unreliable NATO ally and partner to the US,” Paul Gadalla, a Washington DC-based analyst focused on the eastern Mediterranean who worked at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told Arab News.
Erdogan decided last year, against strong objections from American and other NATO allies, to buy the sophisticated Russian S-400 air defense system.
“It’s unprecedented for a NATO member to make such a big weapons purchase from basically an enemy country,” said Gadalla.
Erdogan has also threatened to kick the US military out of the Incirlik air base if Congress imposes sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of Russian weapons.
“Pompeo is now telling Erdogan, ‘You know what? If you want to kick us out, we have an alternative’,” said Gadalla.
“Greece is more than willing and prepared to take on the role of the new, reliable partner. The Greeks are looking for a way to gain more diplomatic leverage over Turkey. They know Turkey wouldn’t attack US troops in Greece.”
For a decade, Greece had been mired in an economic crisis. It had a far-left government that was at loggerheads with the EU.
Now, Gadalla said, “Athens is really trying to bolster its reputation and prove that it’s a stable force in the eastern Mediterranean. It’s also looking for diplomatic support to protect its energy and geopolitical interests. Greece is also looking to expand its ties with the US in hopes of getting new weapons to revamp its military.”
He added: “The US, for its part, sees a major opportunity in Greece as well. As the country is in the process of privatizing its ports, the US is trying to limit China from buying those ports.”
The Chinese already own a controlling stake in the Port of Piraeus in Athens, one of the busiest Mediterranean ports.
China and Russia have been pushing to gain more influence in the region. Their endeavors are likely to intensify to fill the void that would be left by a possible American withdrawal from Incirlik.
Taking over the air base would “give Russia an even bigger bridgehead in the eastern Mediterranean to increase its presence,” said Gadalla.