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Politics

Pompeo Says Laws Turkey Won’t Accept Should Settle Greece Disputes

September 29, 2020

ATHENS — Hoping to de-escalate still-simmering tension between Greece and Turkey over rights to the seas around Greek islands, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on both sides to let international laws – which Turkey doesn't always accept – be the guide.

After meeting Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias in Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city and port, Pompeo gave US support to Greece but said any solution to the dispute with Turkey should be resolved without a conflict.

“The United States and Greece shared views on the Eastern Mediterranean and reaffirmed their belief that maritime delimitation issues should be resolved peacefully in accordance with international law,” the statement said. 

That came ahead of a scheduled Sept. 29 visit to the US Naval Base on Souda Bay on Crete, near where Turkey plans to drill for oil and gas as he wants to do as well off the Greek island of Kastellorizo.

That brought the naval forces of both countries into near contact with each other before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, saying he wanted to give diplomacy a chance, pulled out his warships and the energy research vessel the Oruc Reis.

European Union leaders are scheduled to meet with him for an Oct. 1-2 showdown but sanctions that Greek Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis demanded be put on Turkey will likely be on hold until Greek and Turkish officials meet in Ankara to discuss seas boundaries.

Although US President Donald Trump considers Erdogan a friend and admires his near-dictatorial style, Pompeo's visit came as the US said it wants to boost its military presence in Greece on all the bases included in the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement signed by Greece and the US last year.

There is strong US interest in investing in defense infrastructure, with upgrades of Greek F-16s already in the works and plans for the construction of four new frigates as well as the upgrade of four existing ones., said Kathimerini. 

Commenting on the planned resumption of exploratory talks between Greek and Turkish officials later this week, Pompeo said he hoped they would work to prevent a conflict that could engulf the region.

“The way conflict is resolved is not through show of force or through demonstration of power; it’s through dialogue, international systems, agreement,” he told the Athens-Macedonian News Agency. 

“We’ve watched Greeks move in that direction trying to achieve that; we hope Turkey will see it the same way,” he said.

Erdogan though has gone back and forth between offering talks and being bellicose ahead of the EU showdown, saying he will go ahead no matter what happens with drilling near or in Greek waters.

“We’re not guests but owners,” he said, referring to the East Mediterranean, Turkey claiming large swathes of the seas there and in the Aegean under a maritime deal with Libya no other country recognizes.

Greece countered with a similar deal with Egypt, leading Erdogan to scuttle talks that are now going to resume as he faced possible EU sanctions that could be tougher than soft penalties for drilling off Cyprus, which didn't deter him.

European Council President Charles Michel referred to “tensions and unpredictable developments” in the East Med, adding that pressure is being exerted on both countries while the EU so far has mostly watched.

Turkey does not recognize the United Nations Law of the Sea unless invoking it to Turkey's advantage, nor does Erdogan accept the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that set borders between the countries, and he's not willing to take the case to the international court in the Hague as Greece offered.

HOT WATERS

Pompeo said the US will use its diplomatic and military influence in the region to try to ease a volatile dispute between NATO allies Greece and Turkey over energy rights in the eastern Mediterranean.

Pompeo began a five-day regional tour in Thessaloniki, days after the countries  committed to restarting a diplomatic dialogue on the dispute that triggered a dangerous military build-up — and fears of military conflict.

But while Pompeo said the US backs Greece, the State Department has called the areas around Greek islands “disputed” waters, supporting Turkey as well, Washington wanting to satisfy both countries.

The US and Greece “reiterated their dedication to enhancing their close cooperation as NATO allies, using all appropriate means at their disposal, in order to safeguard stability and security in the wider region,” said a joint statement from Pompeo and Dendias.

It didn't refer to NATO long refusing to intervene over repeated Turkish violations of Greek airspace and waters, jumping in only recently to try to keep the two sides from battling over the waters.

Pompeo welcomed the decision of Greece and Turkey to restart exploratory talks and said maritime disputes should be solved through dialogue, not demonstrations of power.

“We hope the exploratory talks not only get kicked off right, but it’s important that they’re resolved in a way that delivers outcomes that each of the two nations find more than acceptable,” he told ANA.

Erdogan voiced support for the peaceful resolution of disputes and renewed a call for solutions that would protect everyone’s right at the same time he said he's not willing to make concessions he demanded from Greece.

“I invite all countries in the Mediterranean that are our neighbors, and especially Greece, to stop viewing the eastern Mediterranean as a zero-sum game. Come, let’s together turn the Mediterranean into a basin of peace once again … let’s make energy a matter for cooperation, not conflict,” Erdogan said.

In October, 2019, Last October, Pompeo visited Athens and signed a revised defense cooperation agreement with Greece that provided for increasing joint U.S.-Greece and NATO activity at three locations in Greece as well as infrastructure and other improvements at Souda Bay.

Amid the tension with Turkey, Greece has announced major arms purchases, including fighter jets from France, as well as warships, helicopters and weapons systems, Turkey saying it would arm up as well, drawing even more worry.

Pompeo was the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Greece’s second-largest city of Thessaloniki. Security was tight, with the venue of Pompeo's meeting with Dendias changing from the originally planned location, a local ministry, to a hotel for security reasons, authorities said.

About the time Pompeo was due to fly to Crete, about 1,500 people gathered in Thessaloniki's center for two separate demonstrations to protest his visit.

They carried signs reading “The hawk of war is not welcome in our country,” and “The murderers of the peoples are not welcome.” The protests were organized by left-wing groups and the Communist Party.

Protesters later burnt a U.S. flag in front of the American Consulate building. A similar, smaller protest was also held by leftist groups in Athens. 

Anti-American sentiment is still strong among many Greek leftists — who still adhere to the tradition of left parties and groups that supported Communist countries during the Cold War.

Curiously though, the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA – now called SYRIZA Progressive Alliance – had embraced US military support after then-premier Alexis Tsipras said he would removed any American military presence and take Greece out of NATO before reneging on both.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)

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