ATHENS – U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, in Greece after visiting Cyprus, promoted his co-sponsorship of legislation that would allow the United States to support a trilateral partnership of Greece, Cyprus and Israel in energy and defense deals.
That includes lifting a US arms embargo on Cyprus, which doesn’t affect Turkey, unlawfully occupying the northern third of the island since 1974, and where it keeps a 35,000-strong standing army, a key reason why unity talks broke down in 2017.
“The opportunities to deepen security ties that bring peace, security and prosperity have never been more promising,” he said.
He delivered the 15th Manuel Chrysoloras keynote speech on security cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean. At a speech hosted by the European Public Law Organization (EPLO) and talked about geostrategic opportunities for the region and laid out a strategy to promote peace and prosperity in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“I have been a stalwart supporter of the deep American bonds with Greece, Cyprus, Israel and others in the region,” the New Jersey Democrat said in prepared remarks that focused on energy and security.
The Eastern Mediterranean Security and Partnership Act, said Menendez “is a good place to start” in addressing these and other challenges, as it “sends a clear message from the Senate to the region and the world.”
He also described as an “important step forward” the recent US-Greece Strategic Dialogue and praised US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, who has repeatedly said Greece is “a pillar of stability in the region,” but come under criticism for continuing to back SYRIZA, which has sympathies for a jailed leader of the former November 17 terrorist group which killed five Americans attached to the US Embassy over the years.
“I am proud to say that under Ambassador Pyatt’s leadership, our defense relationship with Greece is the strongest it’s ever been,” said Menendez.
He said that is “glad that (Pyatt) and the US Embassy team here in Athens are working every day to strengthen this critically important bond between our countries,” although the Ambassador’s remarks have been interpreted as supporting the faltering Radical Left SYRIZA in an election year.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is far behind the major opposition New Democracy, the party he unseated in 2015, but as he fell in polls after four years of repeated reneging on anti-austerity promises and hammering workers, pensioners and the poor while letting politicians, the rich and tax cheats largely escape a nine-year-old economic crisis.
TOUGH TURKEY TALK
Menendez had warned off Turkey, which has kept up provocations in the Aegean and East Mediterranean, including sending fighter jets and warships to violate Greek airspace and with trying to keep foreign energy companies from drilling for oil and gas in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ.)
He said earlier there’s no chance that Turkey will be able to buy American-made F-35 fighter jets – that could be used against Greece in a conflict – as long as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan persists in plans to also buy the Russian S-400 missile defense system at the same time.
Speaking of the challenges facing the Eastern Mediterranean, Menendez pointed to Turkey as the “root” of “some of the most deep-seated problems in the region,” saying that the “2016 coup attempt and its aftermath have debilitated the democratic process.”
He stressed concerns about warming relations between Ankara and Moscow, saying it is “disturbing on many levels,” as the Kremlin “is an adversary of NATO and has made its intentions crystal clear on the world’s stage.”
“This is not a reliable partner. And yet Turkey insists on treating it as such,” Menendez said, pointing to “Turkey’s unfathomable intention” to buy the S-400 system, which, he added “is dangerous in the context of NATO and reckless in the context of its own long-term security.”
Turkey and Greece both belong to NATO which has said nothing about Turkish violations.
The US threatened Turkey with sanctions if it takes the S-400 for delivery under a US law that penalizes significant transactions with the Russian defense sector. “The law is clear and unambiguous. These sanctions could have devastating consequences for Turkey’s economy and defense sector,” Menendez warned.
He said Turkey should realize it would lose the F-35 purchase by going ahead with the Russian deal as Erdogan essentially has thumbed his nose at the US.
“The sooner that President Erdogan comes to this realization, the better off we will all be. This view is held by the administration and by a broad bipartisan group in the Senate and House. Rarely do we find such consensus on any issue,” he said.
THE COSCO EFFECT
Curiously, he also questioned plans by the Chinese company COSCO to keep upgrading the port of Piraeus, where it has a major stake with the backing of the former anti-American, anti-NATO SYRIZA of Tsipras, now one of the US” best friends.
While a 600-million euro ($674.93 million) overhaul of the port has been stymied, upsetting the Chinese company that has revitalized the area, Menendez said he was worried there was too much influence from Beijing in Greece and the European Union.
The region has also “increasingly become a platform and crossroads for Russian and Chinese influence. As we all have come to realize, China plays four-dimensional chess around the world, militarily, economically, diplomatically and culturally,” Menendez said.
“Globally, China’s brand of international diplomacy is best described as manipulative investment … I have similar concerns about Chinese investments in infrastructure, like the Port of Piraeus here in Athens. What may seem like regular economic transactions can have serious security implications. While these ports may be commercially desirable, can they be relied upon at times of national emergency when the movement of goods or military vessels become critical?
“As I understand it, Greece engaged in the Piraeus deal when in the depths of its economic crisis. Had the international community woken up to the potential implications of Chinese investments at the time, perhaps something could have been done to support Greek efforts to find alternative investors,” Menendez said.
He said that Turkish interference in Cyprus’ EEZ is “unacceptable,” and continued violations of Greek airspace over the Aegean are “dangerous, reckless and could result in a miscalculation that plunges the region into conflict,” a shooting war.
Menendez expressed confidence that “if left to their own devices and without undue influence from Ankara … an agreement could be reached. The people of Cyprus, on both sides of the green line, should be allowed that right to determine their own future.”
He praised the Cypriot government for “charging ahead towards a new future,” for “moving forward with potentially historic efforts to explore for energy” and for “taking a bold stand in support of its sovereignty.”
“The momentum in US-Cypriot relations is truly changing…, but now we must put meat on the bones,” Menendez said. “That is why I am leading the effort in the United States Senate to finally lift the arms embargo on Cyprus. It is overdue. It was the wrong policy under Democratic administrations, it was the wrong policy under Republican administrations and it must come to an end. Any lifting of the arms embargo is not about weapons alone. It is an indication of political support. It is about treating an EU country with the respect it deserves. And it is an acknowledgment of the sovereign right that it has to defend itself.”