Reneging on vows to end a US military presence and take Greece out of NATO, Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras instead has become their best friend, wooing closer cooperation with American troops and helping the defense alliance.
Tsipras’ party came to power with a near-virulent anti-American policy and had demonstrated against NATO before he made a deal to rename the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and open the door for its entry into NATO.
After saying no Greek soldiers would go to foreign lands, he sent an accompaniment to help the defense alliance’s long-running battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan and is now said to be even leaning toward allowing another US base in Greece after saying he would go as far as even shutting out the US Naval Base on Souda Bay on Crete.
The move toward greeting a greater US military presence has shown his sharpest divergence from far-Leftist policies, even more so than backing down on pledges to end austerity, accepting more from the Troika of the European Union-European Central Bank-European Stability Mechanism (EU-ECB-ESM) to get a third bailout in 2015.
That was for 86 billion euros ($97.94 billion) and came with more brutal measures he swore to reverse before agreeing to implement, but though got support from the United States which culminated in a recent US-Greece Strategic Dialogue in Washington, D.C.
US and Greek troops have joined in military exercises, including near the historic Mount Olympus, The Wall Street Journal noted in a report on how the two countries - who have been allies in every major war but fell out after US support for a military dictatorship in Greece from 1967-74 - have become more cozy.
The exercises in January, —the first by the two longtime NATO allies to include aviation units, officials said—involved U.S. and Greek troops who have been training together at the Volos base nearby. Some 350 U.S. troops are staying in Volos and about 20 U.S. Apache, Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters are operating out of another nearby base in Stefanovikeio, according to U.S. and Greek officials.
Great to have @USArmyEurope Chief, LTG Chris Cavoli back in #Greece to observe Task Force operations in Thessaly & fantastic synergy between US and Greek forces exercising together. @Hellenic_MOD https://t.co/irayvx6q35 pic.twitter.com/ps3h7cPdJc— Geoffrey Pyatt (@USAmbPyatt) February 1, 2019
Greece’s geography is ideal for exercises, said U.S. Lt. Col. Jamie LaValley, whose combat aviation brigade took part. “We can have operations over the Aegean Sea and at high altitude over Mount Olympus in a very small area,” he said. “This is the only place I’ve been during 18 years in the U.S. Army that combines all these: mountainous, flat areas and sea.”
Even overlooking Tsipras and SYRIZA support for leniency for a notorious terrorist whose group, November 17, killed five Americans attached to the US Embassy over the years, and the Premier’s backing of Venezuelan strongman President Nicolas Maduro, the US has looked the other way to get the Greek leader to accept the US military.
U.S. and Greek forces have been training together since October, 2018 at a base in the town of Volos near Mount Olympus and last year, unarmed MQ-9 Reaper drones began operating out of Greece’s Larisa Air Force Base.
And the U.S. military has occasionally been using bases in Alexandroupolis and Araxos, according to U.S. and Greek officials. More U.S. port visits and training exercises are under discussion, the Journal said.
The U.S. Navy has shared the use of a naval base at Souda Bay on Crete since the 1950.s. But U.S. and Greek diplomats say the two NATO allies are now closer than ever before, ironically under an alleged anti-American far-Leftist government and a Premier who was a Communist Youth leader whose heroes include Fidel Castro, Che Guevara - and Maduro.
“It is important for Greece to have such a strong ally and it is important for the U.S. to align with a stable country in such an unstable environment,” Greek Brig. Gen. George Fasoulas, who observed the joint exercises, told the paper.
The increasingly close cooperation comes at a time of strains between the U.S. and Turkey as well as between NATO allies Greece and Turkey, which has stepped up provocations in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean where it has sent fighter jets and warships to violate Greek airspace and waters.
Tsipras also scored big points with the US with his deal to rename FYROM as North Macedonia, negotiated with the help of United Nations envoy Matthew Nimetz, an American lawyer who had failed for two decades to find a solution.
But with the anti-nationalist SYRIZA in power, Nimetz last year reopened talks after a three-year break and helped bring home the deal that opens the door for what would be North Macedonia to join NATO as a bulwark against Russian interests in the Balkans.
Surveys have long shown that most Greeks feel some affinity with Russia, a fellow Christian Orthodox nation and Greece’s Left has long-held enmity against the US, which backed nationalist forces against Communists during a civil war after World War II.
The U.S. is Greece’s “best strategic ally in the region” Tsipras said without mentioning his previous anti-American views, as he also is wooing American investors to help what he claimed is a recovery from a more than 8 ½-year-long economic and austerity crisis.
Under SYRIZA, which has long derided US imperialism and capitalism, Greece is closing in on signing a near $2 billion contract to upgrade F-16 fighter jets - at the same time Turkey wants to buy more superior F-35 jets that critics said could be used against Greece.
“SYRIZA politicians who in their youth demonstrated outside the U.S. Embassy in Athens now rub shoulders with American officials at glitzy receptions inside,” The Journal report by Nektaria Stamouli noted.
Greek municipal officials see benefits to getting closer to the US as well, the feature added, with the Mayor of the northeastern city of Alexandroupolis, which has had close ties to Russia, asking U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt for a permanent U.S. military base there.
In September, 2018, the U.S. was the country of honor at the Thessaloniki trade fair, Greece’s biggest annual business event, with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and dozens of American companies attending.
And last November, the Greek base in Volos hosted a Thanksgiving feast for guests that included American military personnel and featured turkey, octopus pasta and the strong Greek spirit tsipouro. After the speeches, American and Greek soldiers smashed plates on the ground, a traditional celebratory gesture in Greek culture, the paper said.
“Greece is a crucial pillar of stability in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Balkans,” said U.S. Army attache Reed Anderson, who is based in Athens said. “We are currently exploring with the Greek army different places and opportunities to train together and improve our readiness.”