ATHENS – After a visit to the US Navy Base at Souda Bay on Crete, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said neither Greece nor Turkey should act first in their fight over seas boundaries, adding that America is willing to broker a solution.
Pompeo was the first in his position to visit the base, not far from where Turkey said it plans to drill for oil and gas there and around other Greek islands, pulling back for now to give diplomacy a chance.
The two countries are set to talk in Ankara – not Athens – but no date has been set and the European Union is expected to hold off during an Oct. 1-2 showdown with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on any sanctions for now.
Pompeo was accompanied by Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, both sides touting that relations between Greece and the US have never been closer.
But while the US wants a bigger military presence in the country, President Donald Trump still leans toward Erdogan, whom he has called a friend, a “hell of a leader,” and for whom he reportedly often does personal favors.
The US is trying to prevent a conflict over who has rights to seas in the East Mediterranean and Aegean after Turkey twice sent the energy research vessel the Oruc Reis and warships near the Greek island of Kastellorizo, shadowed by Greece's navy.
Pompeo told Kathimerini in an interview that the US is prepared to further intervene to prevent a shooting conflict if the Greece-Turkey talks don't work out and the EU, reluctant to confront Erdogan, fails.
But he didn't give any details or plans to do so beyond trying to jawbone down the tension with Turkey.
“There is a window of opportunity here and I think President Trump has said we’ll play any role that’s appropriate and useful and constructive, and I think both parties lean in the right direction,” Pompeo told Kathimerini’s Executive Editor Alexis Papachelas.
He repeated that the troubles should be resolved on the basis of international law but didn't mention that Turkey doesn't accept the United Nations Law of the Sea that would be the basis for that, although Erdogan has invoked it in his favor.
“What’s not useful is when countries directly or unilaterally act in a way that causes conflict and creates the risk of escalation,” he said. “We are driving towards the single objective of resolving this in a way that is consistent with international law, diplomatically.”
“A nation ought not take unilateral action to try to gain an advantage,” he said.
Earlier, in joint comments with Mitsotakis after the Souda Bay stop, Pompeo said the US “strongly” supports dialogue between Greece and Turkey and described the relationship between the US and Greece as “at an all-time high.” “We look to Greece as a true pillar for stability and prosperity in the Eastern Mediterranean and are incredibly proud to support its leadership,” Pompeo said, adding that “security cooperation is especially important as Russia continues to destabilize the region.”
Mitsotakis, whose calls for the EU to sanction Turkey have been either ignored or blocked by Germany, home to 2.774 million people of Turkish heritage, kept up his criticism of Erdogan's belligerent stance.
Mitsotakis said that “Turkish actions contradict Western values.” Greece is “against unilateral actions,” Mitsotakis said, adding that he was optimistic that “the time for diplomacy has arrived,” while wanting sanctions on the table.
Turkey is claiming waters near or in Greece's Continental Shelf under a maritime deal with Libya that's unrecognized by any other country, Greece countering with a similar deal with Egypt that led Erdogan to scrap a first round ot talks.
Mitsotakis also announced that Souda Bay would become the permanent home for s US expeditionary sea base, the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams, named for a 96-year-old Marine hero who won the Medal of Honor during the Battle of Iwo Jima in WWII.
Greek and US fighter jets at Souda Bay are “guarantors of stability,” Mitostakis said, referring to the renewal of the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement signed last year between the two countries and upgrading 84 F-16 fighter jets.
Pompeo's visit to Greece didn't sit well in Turkey. Omer Celik, spokesman for Turkey’s governing AK Party, said the US' role has been “one-sided” and has not helped in efforts to relaunch dialogue.
“Turkey is a country of diplomacy if they want to solve the problem with diplomacy, but if they do not want, we will solve it on the battlefield,” he said, reported the Sydney-based Greek City Times.
Pompeo first had gone to Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city and port, seen as showing American intent to ward off Russia's attempts to gain a stronger foothold in the Balkans.
The Russian Embassy said that “it is not the first time that American officials are trying, with public remarks, to pull the country into the anti-Russian front.” “The anti-Russian hysteria can hardly find a sympathetic ear among the friendly Greek people,” it added as well.
The Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee for Europe, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, said in September that the US is considering Souda Bay as an alternative to using Turkey's Air Force base at Incirlik.
Johnson told the Washington Examiner that Erdogan’s “disturbing” foreign policy has spurred American officials to intensify preparations to withdraw from Incirlik.
“It’s very concerning, which is one of the reasons (we) certainly are improving our military cooperation with Greece … beefing up our presence in Souda Bay, because our presence, quite honestly, in Turkey is certainly threatened,” said Johnson.
The rebasing plans come at a time when Turkey has become an “increasingly unreliable NATO ally and partner to the US,” Paul Gadalla, a Washington DC-based analyst focused on the Eastern Mediterranean who worked at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told Arab News.
Turkey bought the S-400 Russian-made missile defense system that could be used against Greece and undermine NATO, the defense alliance to which Greece and Turkey belong, Turkey siding with an ideological enemy of the group.
“It’s unprecedented for a NATO member to make such a big weapons purchase from basically an enemy country,” said Gadalla.