At the Seam of Three Regions: The Case for More Basing and Access in Greece and Cyprus
At the dawn of the Cold War, President Harry Truman argued in favor of major security investments in Greece and Turkey, suggesting that an investment in regional security would pay dividends for American security. 75 years later, anti-American communists in Greece still chafe at the American presence in the country, but both Athens and Washington have sought to deepen military relations this past half-decade. This contrasts with Turkey, which has been an exceptionally difficult ally of late.
In this context, it is worth considering how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has prompted the Biden administration to devote considerable time and resources to thinking about European security. Of course, this is also unfolding as negotiations with Iran over the future of its nuclear program falter and threaten to collapse, which could lead to cascading military challenges across the Middle East. This is a problem set that inherently requires tradeoffs given Washington’s prioritization of competition with China and the simple fact that the U.S. military has a finite number of platforms and personnel to meet America’s global commitments and interests. So, how can Washington best balance security interests in Europe and the Middle East while still prioritizing the Indo-Pacific?
The answer might be found in deepening the military partnership with Greece, one of Washington’s most consequential allies, as well as the Republic of Cyprus. Specifically, Washington should consider taking advantage of current basing and access agreements in the two countries and think creatively about how to deploy and employ U.S. and allied forces in order to realize more stability in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
This process has already started, but the United States should lay the groundwork to expand the scope of the forces deployed in Greece and work with Athens on a shared understanding of how to hedge against the Russian naval presence in an integrated approach with broader U.S. and NATO efforts in the Black Sea region. Further, the two sides should leverage Greece’s improved ties with the Arab world to conceptualize how American forces in the country could respond to crises in the Middle East and North Africa, thereby leveraging Athens’ strategic location for American interests outside the European theater of operations.
Balancing American Interests
The rationale for this might not seem immediately obvious. Let’s start with geography and geopolitics: The Eastern Mediterranean sits at the seam between two American adversaries — Russia and Iran. Greece and much of the Arab world get along well. Athens also works closely with Israel. And bases Greece and Cyprus are now used to monitor Russian naval deployments in the Eastern Mediterranean and operations in Syria. The U.S.-Greek partnership provides Washington with considerable regional flexibility to hedge against the Russian presence in Syria while retaining options to project power in the Middle East and Africa.
In late 2021, the United States and Greece reached an agreement to expand and extend the U.S. military’s presence in the country. The expansion of the American basing access in Greece closely aligns with what I wrote in these pages about the future of the American-Turkish relationship, following Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400. In two separate articles, I argued that the purchase would deal a body blow to U.S.-Turkish relations (and it did) and require thinking about how to retain favorable basing arrangements in the region (and it has). In a third article, Becca Wasser and I argued that America’s current basing infrastructure in the Middle East was built for a bygone era, and that Iran’s precision-missile capabilities require investment in smaller, distributed basing infrastructure farther away from Iran.
The United States should explore how to expand on the access agreements with Greece to further American interests in the surrounding region. Washington should secure basing and overflight options from its regional partners, which then stitches together the inherent challenges of two different combatant commands working together. In this sense, the inherent challenges Washington now faces are bureaucratic, and stem from the way in which the American military is deployed abroad and responsible for different geographical areas. The developments in Greco-Arab ties, however, may provide an opportunity to leverage intra-regional bandwagoning and alliance-building to America’s advantage. In recent years, Athens has deepened its ties with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, three important American partners in the Middle East, in part to balance shared regional concerns about Turkey and its aggressive foreign policy.
Traditionally, the United States has sought to balance its military support for Greece with the same support for Turkey. Washington has no interest in deepening regional tensions, but recent Turkish decision-making has upset Washington’s historic preference for balance between these two NATO allies. Ankara has sought to use displays of military force to coerce Greece to make concessions on the delineation of sea boundaries and, in recent months, has repeatedly suggested that it could stake a claim on Greek islands. The two sides disagree over territorial claims along the Turkish coast and the surrounding Greek islands. The pathway to de-escalation is fraught and requires dialogue, but Ankara’s turn to the hard nationalist right has made this solution more difficult. For many in Greece, it is obvious that Athens will have to compromise with Ankara over this issue, but the Turkish leadership’s irredentist rhetoric and embrace of a maximalist policy, dubbed “Blue Homeland,” has made it politically impossible to pursue meaningful dialogue.
Instead, Greece and Turkey lurch from crisis to crisis, including Ankara’s maritime seismic activity and the tension over controlled islands along the Turkish coast. Ankara’s behavior in the region has further soured its relations with the United States and Europe, at a time when Turkish-Western relations have cratered over issues ranging from Russia policy to the war against Islamic State. The United States and Turkey never agreed on how to respond to the war in Syria, and the two sides had a falling out over the way to fight the war against the Islamic State. Ankara viewed the war against the Islamic State as part of a broader problem set, which included toppling the Assad regime. The United States sought to keep its involvement limited and partnered with the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, recognized as a terrorist organization across the West, to prosecute the war. The break has never healed and, in Turkey, the American partnership with the Syrian Kurds has deepened paranoia about Ankara’s place in the region.
Ankara has pointed to the agreement with Greece as a threat, suggesting that the United States and Athens are working in concert to militarily pressure Turkey from the bases at which Washington has gained more access. This rhetoric, in turn, is designed to feed the narrative underpinning Blue Homeland and justify the coercive policies that have undermined Turkish relations with basically every country in its near abroad.
Ankara’s policy choices, too, have stalled elements of its military modernization plans. Turkey was removed from the F-35 program following its decision to purchase the S-400. Ankara’s subsequent actions in Syria and its irredentist and hostile rhetoric toward the United States have also led Congress to impose an arms embargo, complicating Turkey’s purchase of new F-16s. In parallel, Greece has deepened its connections with Washington, and has pushed ahead with an armament program that includes the F-35 and the modernized F-16s Ankara now covets, in part to ensure that its own military keeps pace with the developments in Athens.
The Natural Tilt
In general, the United States retains an interest in balancing its ties between these two neighbors, especially given the presence of Russian forces in the region and NATO concerns about Moscow’s intentions in the area. However, Ankara’s own foreign policy has shifted and Turkish leaders have sought to maintain cordial ties with Moscow, even after the invasion of Ukraine. Turkey has pursued its own independent foreign policy that now seeks to balance its support for NATO and Ukraine with its economic and political ties with Kremlin. Ankara has resisted joining U.S. and E.U. sanctions, put in place to punish Moscow for its invasion, and appears to tolerate Russia’s illegal export of stolen grain via Turkish ports. Turkey has sought to deflect criticism for this policy by pointing to its export of the TB2 drone, but the drone is sold to Kyiv, rather than included as part of the European and American effort to provide aid to Ukraine to support the defense of the country.
The Turkish-Russian relationship is complicated, but it also impacts how the United States should view its future options for basing and access to counter Moscow’s naval activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Russian presence in the region began to expand in 2010, amidst the broader regional turmoil that followed the Arab Spring. In 2013, Moscow stood up the Mediterranean squadron as an appendage to the Black Sea fleet. The ships attached to the Mediterranean squadron have played a role in enabling Russian operations in the Syrian civil war dating back to 2011, and more prominently since 2015.
The Russian focus in the Mediterranean has been to develop “green-water” capabilities, designed to sail in littoral areas and in enclosed seas. This is a change from the Soviet Union’s focus on blue-water operations, far from Russian shores to challenge Western navies. The scaled-down approach represents a change in Moscow’s thinking and is linked to its broader efforts to modernize its armed forces in a way that controls spending and avoids the type of resource allocation endemic to unsustainable Soviet defense spending. The Russian Air Force has used the Syrian war as a pretext to bolster its presence in the Mediterranean, using basing infrastructure in the country to sustain an open-ended air campaign in the country and to support air operations in Northern Africa.
During the run-up to the Ukraine conflict, Moscow leveraged this presence to signal to the United States that NATO naval forces should not pass through the Turkish straits and interfere with the invasion. Moscow used its bombers and fighters to simulate missile strikes on American carriers and paired this action with statements from political leaders about the risks of escalation if outside powers intervened in the conflict. The risk of escalation has subsided, but both sides have used the threat of nuclear war to deter the other from either intervening directly in Ukraine or targeting NATO facilities that support the Kyiv government.
Ankara has sought to balance its relationship with Moscow throughout the crisis and has positioned itself as a neutral actor, willing to sell weapons to Ukraine, while also working with Russia and Ukraine to export grain and fertilizer. Turkey has its own interests in pursuing this policy, but it differs from future U.S. interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey and Russia are not allies, but the political elites dictating policy have agreed on the need to decrease the U.S. role in Syria (albeit for different reasons). This top-level agreement does not preclude clashes. Russia bombed Turkish forces in Idib, killing 34 soldiers, and each side has vastly different views about how to end the Syrian civil war. Yet, despite these disagreements, Ankara has sought to modulate its policy vis-à-vis Russia, and is far more willing to countenance Moscow’s intransigence and legally dubious actions than American support for the Syrian Kurds in Syria.
Turkey has clearly opted for a more neutral foreign policy, designed, Turkish officials argue, to account for perceived American decline, facilitate Turkish foreign goals independent of the West, and to work with Russia and China on areas of mutual interest. Therefore, the quest for balance should not deter Washington from deepening its alliance with a partner that is eager to host more American forces, and which retains cordial relations with all of America’s regional allies. A more agile American policy should seek to leverage this fact and use its presence in Greece to advance its regional interests. These interests span from retaining forces to hedge against the continued Russian presence in Syria to the need for more flexible basing options, well outside the range of Iranian missiles.
Agility and Flexibility
The American presence in the Eastern Mediterranean also allows for the United States to project power into the Black Sea without having to transit the Turkish straits, which Ankara has closed to Russian — and American — warships during the Ukraine war. The Navy supported air operations in Romania during the early days of the Ukraine war by deploying fighters from the Harry S. Truman in the Eastern Mediterranean to an airbase in Romania. Souda Bay hosts an American aircraft carrier and, as part of the recent agreement, the two sides will expand access to the Alexandroupolis port, which is close to the Black Sea.
Presence at the Seam
This flexibility is important because, as I argued in 2019, Ankara’s entente with Moscow had a series of secondary effects on U.S. interests in the region, and the United States should invest in facilities in Romania and Greece to increase flexibility to deploy forces along Russia’s periphery. The American response to the war in Ukraine underscores the need to invest in these facilities further, given their proximity to Russia, and the ongoing commitment to support the air policing mission in Romania and Poland.
The United States has long-standing, vested interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. American forces in the region have the flexibility to deploy forces in Europe to multiple different areas. It makes strategic sense to deepen cooperation with Greece and use basing agreements as a hub from which to maintain American security commitments in southern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The United States will also have to contend with the Russian presence in Syria and, by extension, deployments in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The American presence in the region has several benefits, including the rewards of burgeoning Greco-Arab relations. The expansion of the U.S.-Greek defense ties has heightened Turkish paranoia, but Turkey tends to be paranoid no matter what the United States does or says. It would behoove the United States to explain its actions to Turkey and to continue to engage with Ankara on other areas of shared interest. However, the fact is that one side — Greece — is keen to expand the American role in the region, while the other — Turkey — is eager for the United States to decrease its regional footprint. This cannot be wished away, nor do trends in Turkish domestic politics suggest that a future government will be more amenable to American interests in the region. The United States has a bevy of options in the region and, if it exploits them, it can creatively use its footprint to retain the capabilities to project power through the Mediterranean, Levant, and North Africa.
Aaron Stein is the chief content officer at Metamorphic Media. He is also the author of The US War against ISIS: How America and its Allies Defeated the Caliphate.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ethan Robert Jones