US position on arming Greece is 'questionable'

  • Murat Sofuoglu
  • 30 Sep 2022

Washington's provision of heavy weaponry to Greece is part of a troubling pattern that clashes with Türkiye's national security, according to analysts.

Greek Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos, left, delivers a speech in the northern Greek port city of Alexandroupoli, near the Turkish border, July 23, 2020, ( / AP Archive )

As the war in Ukraine rages on, the US continues to play a central role in maintaining Kiev’s weapons supply to bolster the country’s fight against Russian forces. But on the other hand, Washington is also sending weapons to a distant location: Greece — a NATO ally that has locked horns with fellow NATO member Türkiye over a range of issues, old and new.

While the US maintains that the weapons it provides to Ukraine and other European allies are transferred through Greece to contain any further security threat from Russia, Türkiye does not buy that argument — especially because Washington has, in the past several months, established 10 military bases in Greek territories.  

Responding to these developments, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slammed the US, asking against whom these military bases were established.

“The answer they give is ‘against Russia.’ We don’t buy it, take no offence,” said the president. 

The expansion of US military bases and an increasing supply of weapons to one particular port, Alexandroupoli, has many regional analysts questioning Washington's real intent. 

Ulas Pehlivan, a Turkish military analyst and a former army officer, told TRT World that while many Western analysts tend to accept Washington's position that expanding its footprint in Greece is done to counter a prospective Russian threat and strengthen NATO solidarity, it also "serves simultaneously as an indirect support to Greek foreign policy at odds with Türkiye in the Aegean Sea.”

For instance, Washington’s militarisation of Alexandroupoli — described by the New York Times as “a sleepy Greek port” before “US military supplies started arriving” in the Aegean tourist hub — has particularly drawn Ankara’s attention. 

“The US transports large quantities of military equipment used by American troops in Eastern and Northern Europe through the Alexandroupoli port, located just 45 kilometres west of the Türkiye-Greece border. In addition to this largest base, it has been known that US military presence is scattered across Greek territory with more than 10 other spots,” Pehlivan said. 

Washington has drastically increased its weapons delivery to Alexandroupoli, a Greek tourist hub in the Aegean Sea near the Turkish border, turning into “a dynamic military operations hub.”(TRTWorld)

According to the NYT, Alexandroupoli received 14 times more military supplies from the US in 2021 than in previous years, marking a dramatic increase which cannot solely be explained by the Ukraine war — because the Russian offensive began in February. By July 2022, the number of US arms arriving in this once-sleepy town had already reached 2021’s levels. 

Another alarming development in the eyes of Ankara is the US’s approval of Greece's acquisition of 20 F-35 fighter jets while Washington has been dithering on Türkiye’s acquisition of the same warplanes for years, making Ankara furious, according to Pehlivan. 

In addition to offering Greece substantial grants of military equipment, active US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to the country stood at $10.5 billion in 2021, he says. 

Against whom? 

The US also recently lifted a decades-long arms embargo over the Greek Cypriot Administration, a Greece-backed state on the divided island. The move directly threatens the national security of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which Ankara supports. Furthermore, the US reportedly sent weapons to Greek Cypriots, angering Türkiye and leading to a rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara on the Cyprus dispute. 

In light of a string of developments that directly clash with Ankara's foreign policy interests, regional security experts find the US's role “questionable.” 

Technicians work on US forces helicopters in the northeast Greek port of Alexandroupoli, near the Turkish border, where thousands of American troops, dozens of helicopters and hundreds of vehicles disembarked.(AP Archive)

“As a part of the US geopolitical game, they are stockpiling weapons to Greece, saying that it’s part of the West's defence planning in response to the Russian offensive in Ukraine,” says Ismail Bozkurt, a Turkish Cypriot political analyst who has extensive experience with the Greece-Türkiye politics. 

“But it’s questionable how much the flow of weapons to Greece is against Russia or Türkiye,” Bozkurt told TRT World. As a result, both Russia — which has traditionally maintained strong connections with Athens due to common ties, like the two countries’ common Orthodox Christian faith — and Türkiye have expressed their disapproval of US arms flowing to Greece. 

The US’s arming of both Greece and Greek Cypriots is “a very negative development” vis-a-vis both Turkish-US ties and the evolving regional political equation in the Eastern Mediterranean, where coastal states compete with each other to explore newly discovered gas-rich reserves, according to Bozkurt. 

But Matthew Bryza, a former top American diplomat, does not think that the US’s arming of Greece is a measure against Türkiye. 

“I don’t believe that the US is sending heavy weaponry to Greece in reaction to Türkiye in any way,” he told TRT World. 

Bryza also disagrees with recent assertions that the US is thinking of replacing Türkiye with Greece. “Alexandroupoli is located in a very strategic region when it comes to the entire alliance, given the proximity to the Mediterranean Sea as well as its distance to the Black Sea,” says Bryza. 

“But all of these are also true in Türkiye. In fact, Türkiye’s strategic position is even more significant from Washington’s perspective,” Bryza said, referring to the country’s central position in Eurasian geography, as well as its critical straits and its coasts, which stretch across both the Mediterranean and Black Seas. 

“There is no need to choose between one NATO ally and the second one. From Washington’s perspective, it’s not a case of favouring Greece over Türkiye. It’s a case of expanding NATO to deter, first and foremost, Russian aggression,” said Bryza. 

Incirlik versus Alexandroupoli

But Bryza also confirms that there have been “discussions” in relation to thinking of an alternative to Türkiye's Incirlik air base, a critical NATO location, in US military and national security circles for a long time, “beginning in earnest back in early 2003 when the Turkish parliament did not approve the US request to invade Iraq via Türkiye.”

There have been discussions in higher places in Washington to replace Greece's Alexandroupoli with Türkiye's Incirlik air base, according to experts.(TRTWorld)

Despite those ongoing discussions, Bryza does not believe that the US military wants to leave Incirlik — because it “is very happy with its access” to the base. 

But in the US Congress, there are plenty of members of various diaspora communities, including Greek Americans, pushing forward this idea that the US must leave Incirlik, according to Bryza. “I personally don’t take it very seriously,” he says. 

However, Mehmet Emin Koc, a Turkish military expert, finds the Greek diaspora’s anti-Turkish efforts concerning. “The recent US-Greece bilateral political and military ties, which have been bolstered thanks to the strong lobbying of the Greek diaspora, have led to the reasonable speculation that the US is seeking an alternative to the Incirlik air base,” he told TRT World

There are serious signs that Washington aims to turn Alexandroupoli into “a dynamic military operations hub,” indicating US intentions related to the Greek port. “Nothing like it has been done here before,” a US official told the NYT.  Last month, Robert Menendez, a US senator with a problematic record concerning Türkiye, also visited the port. 

Bryza accepts that increasing anger in Türkiye toward the US militarisation of Greece shows that the US government is not doing “a sufficiently good job” in informing Ankara about its intentions or planning, nor as to how Türkiye and Greece fit into NATO strategic planning in the region. 

Viewing US miscommunication with Türkiye as an opportunity, Greek politicians also want to utilise their diaspora support to sour Turkish relations with both the US and the EU, aiming to garner support from the Western alliance in relation to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Islands, according to Koc. 

But Greek actions risk serious repercussions from Ankara, as per Turkish officials and observers. While Türkiye's role as a reliable arbiter between Ukraine and Russia has elicited praise from all over the world, Ankara has repeatedly highlighted the Greek military build-up to the world. 

Erdogan and some top Turkish officials, including Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, have recently warned Greece not to commit provocative actions after the country’s defence minister suggested that he wanted to swim from a Greek-controlled island to the Turkish coast. 

“If they go with this mindset, knowing how to swim will come in handy,” Akar said, in a metaphoric reference to how some members of the invading Greek army ended up in the Aegean Sea at the end of the Turkish Independence War in 1922.