Turkey Pulse

Deteriorating US-Turkey ties weaken Ankara's hand in other problems

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Article Summary
Intensive diplomatic traffic between Athens and Washington that emphasizes military cooperation raises the question of whether the United States is seeking an alternative strategic ally to Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean.

As Turkey drifts away from its Western allies, the United States is distancing itself from its neutral position on international conflicts involving Turkey.

The latest showcase of how deteriorating ties between the United States and Turkey are further shrinking Ankara’s room for maneuver in conflicts that have essentially been frozen for decades is increasing US military cooperation with Cyprus and Greece.

It has been a year since I explained how drones would impact clashes between Greece and Turkey. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's attendance to an energy summit held in Athens in March indicated that Athens received the support of the United States on the matter.

Athens countered Turkey’s move to increase UAV operations by procuring MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles. According to Greek press reports, discussions between Athens and Washington revolve around the Larissa military air base, where two US military MQ-9 Reaper drones are stationed. Athens now intends to purchase these sophisticated drones. Greek media reports say Athens seeks to make a deal, estimated at approximately 50 million euros ($56 million), involving the purchase of three General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper UAVs (“Predator B”) and the construction of two ground control stations in Greece.

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The MQ-9 attracts attention with its long ranges and long flight times. The MQ-9, developed from the MQ-1 Predator, has a Honeywell 950-horsepower TPE331 turboprop engine, which gives it a serious load capacity. The Reaper can carry AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and GBU-12 Pave II and GBU-38 guided bombs. The MQ-9 can climb to 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) can take off with a load of 4,760 kilos (10,494 pounds).

The MQ-9 can cruise at 200 knots and has a range of 1,850 kilometers (1,150 miles). With that capability, an MQ-9 taking off from Larissa base could easily carry out reconnaissance flights over the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. Today Germany, Australia, Belgium, France, the UK, Spain, Italy, India and Netherlands have already purchased or ordered MQ-9s, which entered US service in 2007.

Also, according to Greek media reports, contacts are taking place between Athens and Washington to deepen defense cooperation and to boost the US military presence in Greece. Media reports say the United States wants to deploy more UAVs at the Larissa base, to use Greek ports in the Aegean more often and to increase the number of military exercises with Greece.

A bill titled the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019 submitted to the US Congress last month by US Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., calls for an increase in military support to Greece.

The draft legislation seeks restrictions on the delivery of F-35 warplanes to Turkey because of Ankara’s persistence on acquiring Russia's S-400 surface-to-air missile-defense system and seeks full support for the energy and security partnership set up in the eastern Mediterranean between Israel, Greece and Cyprus. The legislation also calls for the lifting of the arms embargo on Cyprus that has been in force since 1987. The bill emphasizes four points:

  • To increase energy cooperation between the United States, Israel, Greece and the Greek Cypriots by approving the establishment of a US-Eastern Mediterranean Energy Center.
  • To provide Greece with $3 million of military support.
  • To provide Greece and Greek Cypriots each with $2 million of military training support.
  • To ask the White House for a report to Congress on comprehensive energy and security cooperation strategy with countries in the eastern Mediterranean and the harmful activities of Russia and other countries in the region. The report would also examine airspace violations of Turkish warplanes over Greece and the territory led by Greek Cypriots.

Last week, in a interview with Greek media, Greek Defense Minister Evangelos Apostolakis said Ankara’s acquisition of the S-400s would totally change the operational picture in terms of airspace control over the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. At the same time, he stressed the need for Greece to acquire F-35s or other aircraft to boost its middle-range air defense so that there is a balance of power after Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400s.

In recent months, the US and Greek militaries have been engaging more in comparison with the past three to four years. The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mitscher, for instance, arrived in Greece’s Piraeus on April 13 for a scheduled port visit aimed at enhancing US-Greek military ties. Cmdr. Ian Scaliatine welcomed a small group of Greek journalists for a tour of the destroyer, confirming an increased American presence in Greece's seas in recent weeks.

“Our presence in the Mediterranean and our cooperation with Greeks is vital to security in this extremely important region,” he said.

In first days of April, Iniohos 2019, an exercise involving most of the Greek air force jets and a number of aircraft from the United States, Cyprus, Italy, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, aiming to dominate the Mediterranean with a multinational air force commanded by a single air base, was conducted in the Mediterranean.

On April 25, Greece completed the 2019 three-week long trilateral Noble Dina exercise, aiming to promote the level of cooperation and mutual understanding with American and Israeli naval forces in the Mediterranean.

With this growing military cooperation, Athens now wants American ships to dock more frequently at Greece’s Aegean Sea ports. The US Navy operates a base at Souda Bay on Crete but, according to the Greek media, also seems eager to have another base and aims to increase its profile in the eastern Mediterranean region thanks to deepening military ties with Greece.

This intensifying traffic and diplomatic exchanges between Athens and Washington pose the question for Turkey as to whether the United States is seeking an alternative strategic ally to Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean.

What seems obvious is that the more Ankara turns to Moscow in the eastern Mediterranean, the more Washington will play its Athens card. This would mean a change in the traditional Israel- and Turkey-centered security structure of the United States in the eastern Mediterranean. Is the United States planning to exclude Turkey from its established US-Israel-Turkey security bloc and replace it with Greece and Greek Cypriots? We may well get the answer to this question by the end of 2019, and critical developments in coming months should provide us with ample clues.

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Metin Gurcan is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He served in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Iraq as a Turkish military adviser from 2002 to 2008. After resigning from the military, he became an Istanbul-based independent security analyst. Gurcan obtained his PhD in 2016 with a dissertation on changes in the Turkish military over the preceding decade. He has published extensively in Turkish and foreign academic journals, and his book “What Went Wrong in Afghanistan: Understanding Counterinsurgency in Tribalized, Rural, Muslim Environments” was published in August 2016. On Twitter: @Metin4020

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