Don’t Count on Trump for Greece

Αssociated press

American military convoy stops near the town of Tel Tamr, north Syria, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad)

Many, perhaps a plurality of Greek-Americans support President Trump, even to the point of treating him as a cult-like figure that can do no wrong. They have every right to their views for whatever reason. However, after the events of the last two weeks, I would hope none are so delusional as to believe that Trump would deter Erdogan should he provoke a crisis with Greece and Cyprus. Erdogan has achieved in Northern Syria his first step in righting the wrongs inflicted on the Ottoman Empire after WWI. He will, almost certainly, proceed to continue to restore Turkish glory. We should expect him to start by moving to control the economic riches of the Eastern Mediterranean as ordained by history, Erdogan, and God (the latter two being occasionally indistinguishable).

He has clearly laid out the next step: asserting control of the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of Greece and Cyprus currently denied him by the terms of the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST). Turkish geologic exploration and drilling ships already operate in the Cyprus EEZ directly over proven gas deposits between Cyprus and Lebanon. Turkey refuses to recognize the Greek EEZ extending south from the Island of Kastellorizo. Turkey asserts the right to exclusive exploitation of the seabed all the way to the Egyptian EEZ. Grab a map. If Turkey’s claims go unchallenged, you can say goodbye to Cypriot natural gas development and pipelines from Cyprus to Greece. So far, the United States has issued warnings even flabbier than the sanctions imposed on Turkey for slaughtering our Kurdish allies. We imposed tariffs on Turkish steel we do not buy and stopped a trade negotiation that had already stopped. In any event, we “withdrew” these sanctions after Erdogan rolled Pence and Pompeo a week later.

Let’s assume one very likely scenario. A Turkish drilling ship parks itself about twenty miles south of Kastellorizo and starts drilling in what the LOST recognizes as the Greek EEZ. Athens protests to the United States and the EU who in turn protest to Ankara. The Turks keep drilling; every day they drill Greek legal rights erode. Greece threatens to remove the drilling ship by force; Turkey responds by surrounding it (and Kastellorizo) with warships and dares Greece to shoot first or accept a fait accompli. The EU gesticulates and NATO paralyzes (as always) in a dispute between two Alliance allies. We have seen this movie before; it was called “The Imia Crisis of 1996.” Greek warships were a couple of hours away from striking Turkish forces on Imia when, at the 11th hour, President Clinton telephoned Ankara and the Turks withdrew. Clinton was not the first American President to intervene to prevent the two countries from going to war. Dwight Eisenhower intervened after the 1955 Constantinople massacres. Lyndon Johnson called off a Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1964.

Does anyone seriously expect Donald Trump to force Erdogan to step back and stop drilling? Not if what just happened in Syria with the Kurds is any indication. Trump took a call from Erdogan. The next day he blindsided his entire administration by ordering the withdrawal of U.S. troops and inviting Turkey to enter Syria and establish a 20-mile deep “security corridor” over the dead bodies of our Kurdish allies.

Greece has established a new and very strong relationship with the U.S. military. The Kurds were actually fighting side-by-side with the U.S. military. Trump tossed that relationship into the garbage can. He then derided the Kurds saying “they never fought at Normandy” and “they live in the sand.”

Trump’s admiration for the Turkish strongman never ceases to surprise. He apologized to Erdogan after his goons beat up demonstrators in front of the Turkish Embassy. He tried extralegal pressure on the Justice Department to extradite a Turkish exile in the United States to Turkey. Trump insulted General Mattis, his Secretary of Defense, who resigned in disgust at Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds to the tender mercies of the Turks. Trump tried to keep the Turks in the F-35 fighter program despite the decision of the U.S. Military to expel Turkey after it bought the Russian S-400 missiles.

Trump’s relationship with Erdogan rivals his bromance with Putin. But, why? Admittedly, Trump has no compunction about advancing his business interests over those of his own country. In 2016 Erdogan called for removing Trump’s name from his towers in Istanbul over Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric; by 2019 Trump speaks glowingly of those Towers. What transpired in the meantime? Promises of more Towers? Trump seems to particularly admire Erdogan for turning a nascent Turkish democratic system into one-man rule; perhaps because he wants to learn how to do the same in the United States? Nor should we assume that Trump has any particular affection for Greek-Americans. The half-life of Greek Americans serving in the administration is about six months. Remember some guys named Priebus, Gigicos and Papadopoulos?

One’s mind occasionally drifts into more sinister explanations. Erdogan’s management of the Khashoggi murder in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate was a masterpiece of political choreography. He exploited with genius the achievements of what most admit is Turkey’s superb intelligence service. He singlehandedly torpedoed a seventy-year-old alliance between the Saudis and the United States. If the Khashoggi affair is any indication, the Turks can run circles around the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight in the White House at digging up dirt. Perhaps, there is something on Trump or his kids...?

Erdogan must be salivating at the opportunities for his ambitions that five (or more) years of Trump as President could provide. Some of those ambitions will come at the expense of Greece and Cyprus.