- - Thursday, September 20, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Aegean Sea separates two NATO members, Greece and Turkey, by less than 200 hundred miles. The political gulf separating them is so much wider that is has become strategically significant. Because Turkey has aligned itself with Russia and Iran, it’s necessary for us to relocate the substantial American military forces now based there.

The actions taken by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an autocratic Islamist, against the United States have effectively dissolved our alliance with Turkey. Recognizing that reality, our military leadership is negotiating with Greece to determine whether that nation — in as strategic a location as Turkey — will be a more reliable ally.

Under socialist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Greece recently emerged from its financial bailout by the European Union and is struggling to avoid another. The Turkish economy is in free fall because of Mr. Erdogan’s actions and the responses they have generated such as President Trump’s imposition of tariffs and sanctions.

Though both nations’ economies are weak, Greece spends about 2.4 percent of its GDP on defense more than the 2 percent NATO members are committed to spend. Turkey spends only about 1.5 percent and much of that goes to buying Russian military systems, such as the S-400 anti-missile system, which bring with them Russian technicians and intelligence agents.

Mr. Erdogan rarely misses an opportunity to demonstrate his ever-escalating enmity toward the United States and his realignment with NATO’s adversaries.

Mr. Erdogan has signed a treaty with Russia and Iran to protect the terrorist Assad regime in Syria. His troops are battling U.S.-allied Kurdish forces there.

Mr. Erdogan’s government is creating a banking and trade relationship with Iran which functions only in the Turkish and Iranian currencies, avoiding U.S. banking mechanisms, to enable Turkey and Iran to avoid U.S. economic sanctions on Iran.

Mr. Erdogan has also restricted U.S. operations from our Incirlik Air Force Base near Adana. On at least one occasion, he has cut electric power to the base.

Perhaps worst of all, Mr. Erdogan’s government holds American pastor Andrew Brunson hostage. He has made it clear that Mr. Brunson will not be released until the United States extradites Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen who Mr. Erdogan blames for the abortive 2016 coup. Mr. Erdogan sticks to his demand despite the fact that his government has presented no evidence that would give us grounds to extradite Mr. Gulen. In response, Mr. Trump imposed sanctions on two Turkish officials and doubled U.S. tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum.

Greece is as concerned with Mr. Erdogan’s actions as we are, though not entirely for the same reasons. During the height of Europe’s 2015 refugee crisis, more than 800,000 of the more than 1 million refugees who entered Europe first landed on Greek islands. When Turkey threatens to let loose another flood of refugees, Greece is an obvious target.

Incirlik’s location is strategic. Aircraft from there can reach the Middle East and Southwest Asia rapidly. Replacing it would be costly but not impossible. Greece is an attractive alternative.

At the apparent behest of Defense Secretary James Mattis, confidential talks have been going on between Army Gen. Curtis Scaparotti, the supreme allied commander for Europe (i.e., NATO) and his Greek counterparts, to move from Turkey many U.S. assets to Greek air force and naval bases. These talks may soon come to fruition as evidenced by the visit to Greece earlier this month by Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As he had to, Gen. Dunford said that our bilateral relationship with Greece “is not in any way intended to be at the expense of Turkey.” But he emphasized that, “The geography of Greece and the opportunities here are pretty significant.” And so they are.

The significance of our opportunities in Greece is measured by their effect on our military capabilities, stability of our alliance with the host country and the financial cost to each nation.

Moving air force and naval assets from Turkey to Greece would give us greater ability to base forces there and would also benefit the Greek economy. Southern Greece is about one hour’s flying time farther from, say, Syria than Turkey is. U.S. Navy ships visiting Greek ports would still be susceptible to port facility labor strikes, but that risk is as great or greater in Turkish ports because the Erdogan government could incite such strikes. The costs of moving our forces from Turkey to Greece will be (at least) in tens of millions of dollars, but the military capabilities, both enhanced and less susceptible of disruption, will more than make up for the cost.

No alliance, not even NATO, is eternal. NATO may be worth saving, but evidence supporting that idea is scant. Mr. Erdogan’s realignment with Russia and Iran worsens the problem severely. That fact compels us to seek different, sometimes smaller, alliances both within and outside the NATO framework to meet our national security needs.

In 1848, British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston told Parliament, “We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal, and it is our duty to follow them.” In respect to Turkey, Mr. Mattis, Gen. Dunford and Gen. Scaparotti are following Palmerston’s theory of strategic alliances. They will need to apply that theory to other NATO members as well.

• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”


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