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Crete at center of converging, conflicting interests for Turkey, Greece in EastMed

Greece recently announced the creation of a new naval base on the strategic island of Crete, amid increasing tensions over Ankara’s activities in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C-L) and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visit the Greek Naval frigate Salamis during their visit to the Naval Support Activity base at Souda, the foremost US naval facility in the eastern Mediterranean on the Greek island of Crete. - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on September 29, 2020, concludes a two-day visit to Greece on with a tour of a strategically vital NATO base on a trip aimed at easing tensions between Greece and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean.

Greek Minister of Defense Nikos Panagiotopoulos has announced plans to create a new Hellenic naval base on Crete as Greece leverages its southernmost island as a pillar of security policy in the Eastern Mediterranean amid ongoing tensions with Turkey.

Periklis Zorzovilis, head of the Athens-based Institute for Security and Defense Analysis, told Al-Monitor that from a geostrategic standpoint, the increasing militarization of Crete is well placed.

“The most important island for Greek security in the Eastern Mediterranean is Crete because it contains established military infrastructure and it is located in a very central geographic position,” he said.

The move comes as Greece’s Arab partners, who share the Hellenic country’s concerns over Turkish aggression, are drawn to the island as well.

Last year, Egypt took part in the Medusa 9 naval, air and special forces exercises held on Crete with Greek and Cypriot counterparts. In August, the United Arab Emirates dispatched four F-16 fighter jets to the island for joint training with the Hellenic Air Force.

Stavros Drakoularakos, editor-in-chief at the Center for Mediterranean, Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Peloponnese, told Al-Monitor, “These public displays also have Turkey as their first recipient, emphasizing on Greece's part that they are neither alone in the region against Turkish expansionism and clout, nor dependent on the European Union's response to Turkey's actions.”

As Greece’s partnerships manifest themselves on the island, so do its tensions with Ankara. Part of Greece’s objection to the 2019 maritime accord between the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) and Turkey was that it ignored Greece’s claim to an exclusive economic zone via Crete, valid under international law.

In a recent interview with CNN Turk, Vice President Fuat Oktay stated, “Of course we can carry out exploration wherever we want, and we do so. We will continue our work. The deal signed with Libya, the region just south of Crete, is part of this.” Turkey has announced plans to extend the Oruc Reis research vessel’s hydrocarbon exploration activities through Nov. 14.

Both Greece and Cyprus have pushed for the EU to take a tougher line on Turkey’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, EU leaders are divided on the issue. Germany in particular is taking a softer stance. At an EU summit this October, the possibility of any sanctions was delayed until December. 

Greece has found strong support from its Mediterranean neighbor Egypt, a nation with which it has deep historic ties, and more recently the UAE.

Marwa Maziad, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute’s Defense and Security program, says that Ankara’s actions have gone a long way in contributing to the type of cooperation occurring on Crete and in the broader Eastern Mediterranean.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, she stated, “Egypt’s security concern is Turkey as a pan-Islamist, ideologically expansionist regional menace that has so far destabilized the Middle East and extended this destabilization to the East Mediterranean. Those concerns are shared by Greece.”

Constantinos Filis, executive director at the Institute of International Relations at Athens Panteion University, told Al-Monitor, “Greece is not seeking enemies of Turkey as allies of Greece. But it is concerned about Turkish revisionism.”

As Arab states look for partners against Ankara, Greece’s value lies in part in its status as a linchpin in the Western security umbrella of the region. Crete is a centerpiece. 

During Operation Unified Protector, the island was a launching pad for NATO forces in their campaign to oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi from Libya in 2011. Today, two key NATO facilities located there include the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Centre and the NATO Missile Firing Installation.

The latter is the only location in Europe where forces can test-fire ground, surface and air missiles. In addition, the island’s deepwater Souda Bay port is the centerpiece of the United State’s massive US Naval Support Activity Base.

Drakoularakos said, “The better relations are between Greece, the UAE and Egypt, the better it is for all countries' policies regarding their role as a partner to the US,” and the joint military exercises held on Crete “mean that Egypt and the UAE train with a NATO partner of the US, inching closer to the strategic partnership that they strive for with Washington.”

Mazaid told Al-Monitor that while Arab countries are eager to draw on Greece’s EU and NATO pedigree as a partner against Turkey, the relationship works both ways.

“Greece needs countries like Egypt and its ally the UAE as it stands up to a pan-Islamist Turkey.” She added that such cooperation as the high visibility exercises on Crete “sends strong signals that Egypt as a Muslim-majority country sides with Greece.”

If the common threat of an aggressive Turkey has brought Greece closer to its neighbors on the eastern side of the Mediterranean, the relationship is proving itself more dynamic than one founded solely on defense.

Part of this complexity is due to Greece’s economic condition. According to Zorzovilis, whatever desire Greece has to advance its military capabilities, including on Crete, is still constrained by a domestic economy that never fully recovered from the financial crisis. While the Greek defense minister called for the new naval base to match the size of Greece’s largest facility on Salamis Island, he didn't provide a timeline for construction.

Drakoularakos told Al-Monitor, “What we see in the Eastern Mediterranean region are soft power initiatives and shows of good faith as the countries look toward future economic benefits from potential energy reserves.”

That does not mean Crete, laying about 200 miles (320 kilometers) from the shores of Libya, will lose its value as a crossroads in the Eastern Mediterranean. For Greece and its partners in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, the island is a crucial junction on the envisioned EastMed gas pipeline expected to be complete by 2025. Crete also has potential access to its own massive hydrocarbon deposits.

In this way, the island may take its place among a number of other positive economic developments in the region, as the continued efforts of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum as a platform of cooperation and plans for electricity interconnection between Greece, Egypt and Cyprus via the EuroAfrica Power Interconnector attest.

Maziad says that this is the real future value for Arab states as they turn to work with Mediterranean countries like Greece.

Pointing to the military exercises on Crete, she said, “The UAE will be present during peacetime, not just in terms of the current important military leverage over Turkey.”

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