US needs to walk a fine line between Turkey and Greece
One month after the British government ended its military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey in 1947, former US President Harry Truman made one of the most significant speeches of the post-Second World War era by requesting authorization to extend substantial military and economic assistance to both Athens and Ankara.
His speech was considered to be the first and most crucial statement behind the Americans’ interest to keep Turkey and Greece away from Soviet influence. Truman was acting in order to preserve US interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.
Taking over Britain’s role in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, Washington, through the Truman Doctrine, made clear its geostrategic perception of Greece and Turkey as key states in the context of security in the region. Since then, these two crucial regions have served as a testing ground for US relations with both Ankara and Athens.
Last week, during the two leaders’ meeting on the sidelines of the recent G20 Summit in Rome, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly told his American counterpart, Joe Biden, that the “US military base in Alexandroupolis seriously disturbs Ankara.” On his return from the summit, Erdogan told reporters that the sale of F-16s from the US to Turkey was at the center of his meeting with Biden, but he also protested against the US and France for establishing a military base in Greece’s Alexandroupolis port near the Turkish-Greek border.
The Greek media announced that a massive military shipment from the US to the Alexandroupolis port is set to arrive this month for a military exercise. The US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey R. Pyatt also confirmed that a record number of planes and helicopters will arrive at the Alexandroupolis port. His country attaches great importance to the port, which serves as a large arsenal to strengthen both NATO and the US forces in the Balkans and the Black Sea.
In October, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias signed a deal in Washington to expand their Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement to allow US forces to train and operate “in an expanded capacity” at four additional bases in Greece. Seeking a stronger position in an area where Russia has expanded its naval operations, the US has stepped up its military activities in Greece over the past several years. Also, Greece, which spends a high percentage of its GDP on defense, has engaged in efforts toward major military modernization by purchasing US-made military hardware.
In remarks at the joint press conference, Blinken described Greece as a “reliable ally” and a “pillar of stability” in the region. Blinken’s remarks about Greece were no doubt a message to Turkey, which was already disturbed by the recent deal. Under this new deal, US troops will be deployed just a few miles away from Turkey. Also, the new deal was signed for five years, whereas in previous years, it was renewed annually.
Moreover, the details of the deal that Blinken spelled out in a separate letter spurred debate in Turkey. The Biden administration’s inking of a defense deal with one NATO ally (Greece) that is trying to bolster its military deterrence against another NATO ally (Turkey) was characterized by the Turkish media as a “provocative” move at a time when exploratory talks are in progress between the European rivals. Some pro-government Turkish journalists interpreted the deal as Washington either flexing its muscles at Turkey or that Turkey itself was being targeted. The intense military cooperation between Washington and Athens even led to speculations that the US is considering the Greek islands as an alternative to the Incirlik air base in Turkey. Many of these comments are exaggerated and do not help the process that Turkey has engaged in with both Greece and the US.
Historically, Washington has tried to maintain its long-term balancing act between Greece and Turkey — two NATO member states that have been in a long-running dispute over sea and air rights in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. During the Cold War era, the US succeeded in preventing a war between Athens and Ankara yet failed to address the disputes between its two entangled allies. For years, Turkey was given strategic priority given its geostrategic value when compared to Greece. However, Greece has gained strategic importance in the past few years for the US given the tension it has with Ankara.
For the Biden administration, which seeks diplomacy rather than tension in the region, Turkey and Greece should be considered as two indispensable allies that are the different sides of the same coin.
Many commentators believe the US is strengthening its relations with Ankara’s rival, Athens, to push Turkey to the negotiating table. Needless to say, in the past few years, several developments have tested the relationship between Ankara and Washington, with Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile-defense system being the most challenging one. However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday that Turkey and the US would establish a joint working group on disagreements about the S-400s and that officials from two countries would hold the second round of talks for the resolution of the F-35 fighter jet issue. Turkey’s purchase of S-400s from Russia has prompted Washington to remove Turkey from the new generation F-35 program.
However, despite the problematic state of the relationship, the Biden administration can only achieve its ultimate goal to increase its sphere of influence in the Eastern Mediterranean if it follows the same path of its predecessors, which was a neutral and balanced policy toward both Turkey and Greece and managing the tensions between them through mediation. For the Biden administration, which seeks diplomacy rather than tension in the region, Turkey and Greece should be considered as two indispensable allies that are the different sides of the same coin.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz