Turkey Pulse

Is US redesigning southern flank?

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Article Summary
Amid Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia, the United States has stepped up military cooperation with Greece, Turkey’s traditional regional rival, heralding shifts in geostrategic balances in the Balkans, the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean.

In parallel with Turkey’s growing defense and security rapprochement with Russia, the United States is forging closer military bonds with Greece, heralding shifts in geostrategic balances in the Balkans, the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a crucial visit to Greece, Turkey’s historical regional rival, Oct. 5-7 that paved the way for enhanced defense cooperation between the two countries. Pompeo and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias inked a protocol expanding the scope of the US-Greece Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement, which relates to the use of Greek military facilities by US forces. 

The amendment protocol, signed on an open-ended basis, lays the ground for the following:

  • The transfer of US military technologies to Greece in the fields of drones, smart munitions and army aviation;

  • A more active use by the US Navy, including submarines, and the US Air Force of the military port and airbase at Souda Bay on the island of Crete, which is considered a gateway to the eastern Mediterranean;

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  • The establishment of military facilities at the port of Alexandroupolis, which allows control over the northern Aegean, dominates Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula and eastern Thrace region and is very close to the Turkish border, and opening them to the use of the US Navy;

  • Augmenting the fleet of MQ-9 Reaper drones, which are already operating out of Larissa, located halfway down Greece’s eastern side near the Aegean coast, and stationing KC-135 tankers there;

  • Enabling the Greek military to access intelligence gathered by the Reapers and through other means and establishing a mechanism for further military intelligence sharing;

  • Pilotage, maintenance and operational training at the Stefanovikeio airbase near the Aegean for the seven MH-60R Seahawk helicopters that the United has recently agreed to supply to Greece. 

What is the significance of those steps in geostrategic terms?

By enhancing military cooperation with Greece and deploying various strategic assets to that country in terms of drones, naval and submarine warfare and military intelligence, the United States is seeking to turn up pressure on Russia in the Balkans, the Black and Aegean seas and the eastern Mediterranean and create an anti-access area-denial shield, centered in Greece, to limit Russia’s access to warm waters. The latest protocol aims to enable the movement of forces to the Balkans and then to continental Europe via the port of Alexandroupolis and a well-developed railway network, without using the Turkish Straits. Pompeo’s visits to North Macedonia and Montenegro, in addition to Greece, were significant in this context. Pompeo’s tour was important also in terms of controlling China’s growing infrastructure and technology investments in the Balkans. 

According to Washington’s strategic thinking, Russia’s military presence in Syria appears destined to be a long-lasting one. Hence, the strategy of containing Russian access to warm waters through the Turkish Straits and the Black Sea has become meaningless, giving way to a new strategy of containing Russia through an anti-access area-denial shield in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean. To pull this off, the United States needs Greece’s support.

By bolstering its military base at Souda Bay in Crete, both in terms of aerial surveillance and naval and submarine warfare, the United States is seeking to counterbalance the geostrategic superiority that Russia has attained in the eastern Mediterranean in the past four years. Tensions in the region have grown over hydrocarbon reserves, with Greece, the Greek Cypriots, Israel and Egypt forming a bloc against Turkey. Washington has so far held back from explicitly taking sides, but its growing cooperation with Greece in terms of drones, naval and aerial surveillance and military intelligence should compound Ankara’s concerns. Also, the US Air Force’s increasing presence in Larissa, from where Greece controls all its air operations in the Aegean, appears to reflect an American effort for a closer monitoring of the Aegean, where Turkey and Greece are embroiled in long-standing territorial disputes

During Pompeo’s visits, officials from the two sides said they discussed ways of advancing common goals in regional cooperation, defense and security, trade and investment, energy, law enforcement, counterterrorism and people-to-people ties. This indicates that in its rapprochement with Greece, the United States is not focusing on military ties alone, but is also seeking to bolster economic and diplomatic ties as well as public diplomacy.

And how does Turkey view the growing military cooperation between the two sides?

Many in the anti-US camp in Ankara, which now has the upper hand, believe that the US military has been taking gradual yet decisive steps to encircle Turkey in the Aegean by strengthening its presence in the region through the bases provided by Greece. For example, retired Turkish navy officer Cahit Dilek says the United States is trying to hem in Turkey militarily in a vast area spanning the Aegean, the eastern Mediterranean, Syria and Iraq, along an axis from Alexandroupolis to Raqqa. What needs to be done to break the siege “is to give the United States a diplomatic note and a short time to leave the eastern bank of the Euphrates [in Syria] and launch an operation afterwards,” Dilek wrote in an Oct. 5 article, days before Turkey did launch a military offensive in the said region.

In a recent commentary titled “What business does the US have in Alexandroupolis?” Bulent Erandac, a columnist for the pro-government daily Takvim, warns that efforts by the United States and NATO to expand their influence and activities in the region will not only fail to aid in the solution of existing problems, but could exacerbate them. 

For Atlanticists, a breed near extinction in Ankara, however, the visible increase in US military cooperation with Greece stems from Turkey’s misguided strategic choices in recent years and shows that Washington has given up hope on Ankara, leaving Turkey to Russia and trying to build a new axis with Greece to contain Russia in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean and curb China's trade surge in the region.

A retired Turkish ambassador, known as an Atlanticist, told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “For two centuries, Russia has been seeking to overcome Turkey and the Straits to reach the warm waters and attain a lasting military presence in the Mediterranean basin. Because of Ankara’s mistaken diplomatic choices and ill-conceived policies in Syria, Russia in the past five years has managed to secure access to the warm waters — something it has been trying to do since Ottoman times — and establish a lasting military presence in Syria. We have to adjust to the grim reality of having Russia as a neighbor in Syria. The United States, too, appears to have found the way to attain a lasting presence by enhancing cooperation with Greece. With the big powers moving their rivalry to our region, the existing problems will become more complicated.”

In other words, the already fat crisis dossier between Ankara and Washington will apparently grow thicker with the United States’ deepening military partnership with Greece and its growing military posture in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean. Does this mean that dogfights between Turkish and US warplanes or Turkish jets intercepting American drones in the Aegean airspace will be making the news in the near future? It is hard to say, but one thing is certain — the crisis of confidence between Turkey and the United States is becoming increasingly ossified, shaping the strategic choices and geostrategic orientations of the two sides. It is perhaps safe to say that Turkey and the United States will stay frenemies for now — up until the day Turkey deploys one of its newly acquired Russian S-400 batteries on the Aegean coast and identifies US planes flying in the region either as friends or enemies on its radar.

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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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