The ever-intensifying U.S. political and military relations with Greece and its military build-up and joint military exercises close to the border city of Dedeağaç (Alexandropoulos) drew increased attention in Turkey. The pro-government media tried to sell this development to the public with an inconceivable argument that the “US is containing a rising Turkey.” It is necessary to analyze how the U.S. has made inroads for itself by taking advantage of the 2008 economic crisis in Greece, the country’s dissatisfaction with the EU (Germany), and the contribution of the nationalists to this process in both countries.
Balance in East Med
There have been two axes in the configuration of forces both in U.S.-Turkey-Greece ties and in the regional politics that have been established during the Cold War years. The first rested on the Greece-EU and Turkey-US axes within the Western system. The Turkey-Israel and Greece-Arab world closeness helped to cement that balance regionally. This situation did not result in a lack of diagonal relations but these axes were maintained for a long time until the Erdogan government disrupted the long established balances. As an extension of Turkish-Israeli ties, the Jewish lobby supported Turkey, while the Greek lobby was naturally close to Greece and Cyprus.
As is known, the Turkey-Israel axis collapsed between 2009-2010. While Greece hastened to fill that emerging vacuum, Israel wanted to punish Turkey. Following the Gaza flotilla raid in May 2010, Benjamin Netanyahu went to Athens in August 2010. The relations between Greece and Israel began to develop rapidly, not only diplomatically but also in the energy, defense and military domains. Then Greece, Israel and the Republic of Cyprus got together to initiate the strategic cooperation platform with the formula of 3 plus 1, the latter being the U.S. Even Mr. Pompeo attended their sixth summit convened in 2019. Later, another tripartite dialogue between Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, and Egypt was formed, leaving Turkey more isolated.
U.S. engagement in Greece
The U.S. engagement in Greece has been accelerated in recent years and three developments forced the US to take a more active involvement: First, Greece’s economic problems led that country to search for alternatives and sell the Piraeus Port near Athens to China. The Chinese prime minister at the time announced Greece to be the intersection of the Maritime Silk Road and the Land Silk Road, and a gateway to Europe.
Second, the left-wing Syriza Party under Alexis Tsipras came to power in Greece in 2015. The Greek left’s traditional closeness to Russia and distanced relationship with Israel led to the fear of Greece becoming closer to the China-Russia axis and distancing itself from the West. None of these things happened; Mr. Tsipras, who had formerly announced ending military relations with Israel, did exactly the opposite and reinforced them.
The Greek government did not veto the EU sanctions on Russia and even announced some Russian diplomats as personae non grata by claiming their involvement in the Macedonian issue. The Tsipras government ended the 26-year-old Macedonia problem in 2018 and did not veto Northern Macedonia’s membership in NATO.
Thirdly, the ruling Erdoğan government’s development of a leaders’ diplomacy with Vladimir Putin after 2015 and launching of the Astana Peace talks with Russia and Iran to solve the Syria problem along with the purchase of the Russian S-400 defense missiles, prompted the search for a backup to Turkey’s strategic role in NATO.
In all published reports and foreign diplomacy rhetoric, Greece began to be called, “a predictable ally in an unpredictable and unstable region,” whereas, Turkey emerged as “a more unpredictable ally in an unstable region.”
The Greece-U.S. strategic dialogue gained a new boost starting from 2018. The U.S. deputy secretary of state clearly stated Greece’s critical role in countering the growing weight of Russia and China in this region. Bases in Greek mainland and the island of Crete intensified its facilitating operations for the US 6th Fleet. The Dedeağaç/Alexandropoulos near the Turkish-Greek border, both as a base and a port, emerged as a significant location between the Aegean and the Black Sea, and as an intersection of energy transit routes.
Greece began to increase its defense spending; it purchased drones from the U.S. and Rafale fighters from France, started to modernize its F-16 warplanes, and considering further purchase of F-35s fighter jets. With the coming to power of the New Democracy Party, which is traditionally close to the U.S., in 2019 paved the way for smoother Greece-U.S. relations.
In the meantime, Turkey’s implementation of the Blue Homeland doctrine in the Eastern Mediterranean, its military engagement in the Libyan civil war, active navy presence in the surrounding seas, and blocking the Republic of Cyprus from exploring oil and natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean provided the necessary pretext for the Greek governments to sell growing military ties with the U.S. to the Greek public. This perception has helped the U.S. to alter its own image in the eyes of the Greek public and to strengthen their bilateral relations. Until the 2010s, Greece was perceived as being a pain in the neck in the EU and NATO, a close friend of Russia, and a country that was not able manage its own economy. The current situation has led to a transformation of its political image in the West.
U.S. military involvement in Greece overshadows its growing economic interests. The American IT companies such as Microsoft, Google, Cisco declared their plans to open up new operation centers in Greece. The chairperson of Microsoft travelled to Athens to announce that they were going to build a huge datacenter c there, that it was going to be the biggest “cloud” infrastructure in the world, and that they were to train 100,000 people. Pfizer also announced that they were to establish a research center in Greece.
Lobbies in action
The developments in the U.S.-Turkey-Greece triangle also have a lobby dimension. The Israel lobby in the U.S. used to have a pro-Turkey approach in the past, but the disruption of Turkey-Israel relations resulted in cooperation between the Israeli and the Greek lobbies as of 2010. Greek lobbyists American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) and American Hellenic Institute (AHI) organized visits to Greece, Israel, and Cyprus in 2014 and 2016.
One of the conservative Jewish lobbies, JINSA (Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs), also supported the development of the U.S.-Greece relations, mentioning this in their published reports. We saw the establishment of the Hellenic-Israeli Forum in 2019 and their initial meeting in Jerusalem. Both parties emphasized that this cooperation was to continue even if their relations with Turkey improved in the future.
For the moment, the U.S. looks like it is the winner of this unnecessary and meaningless rivalry between Turkey and Greece. The U.S. benefited from this competition and gained a foothold in Greece, minimized the Chinese influence, and managed to have them put a distance between Athens and Moscow.
Moreover, it managed to form tripartite relationships in the eastern Mediterranean among Greece-Southern Cyprus-Israel and Greece-Southern Cyprus-Egypt. The U.S. strengthened the relations between their allies in the region and even succeeded in engaging Saudi Arabia and the UAE on a military level in the geopolitics of Eastern Mediterranean which is an unprecedented event.
The U.S. 6th Fleet, which had notorious connotations for the left wing movements both in Greece and Turkey, can now fortifies its military presence and operations in Crete and Alexandropoulos, and at the same time, it can conduct joint military exercises with the Turkish navy in the Black Sea, with no visible reaction from the public of those two countries.
The left came to power with an anti-U.S. and anti-imperialism rhetoric in Greece. The Islamist/nationalistic government in Turkey claims that it defies the U.S. power projection in the region. However, at the end of the day, they both found themselves serving the strategic targets of the US in the region which is symbolized with the operations of the 6th Fleet. The U.S. needs to be thankful to the nationalists of both countries.