The United States is considering relocating its Turkish military base in Greece

In view of the increase in tension in the eastern Mediterranean, the US Secretary of State began a tour of Athens and Cyprus to bring positions closer together between Greece and Turkey
United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

REUTERS/Jim Young/Poola  -   United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

In the midst of the regional tension between Greece and Turkey with energy resources at the centre of the conflict, Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, has visited Greece and, according to the British daily The Times, Pompeo has taken advantage of this visit to "explore different proposals for relocating key US assets from the Incirlik airbase in Turkey to Crete and at the same time strengthening its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean".

According to the newspaper, many observers saw the visit of the secretary of state as an indication that "Washington's patience with the actions of the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is about to run out". This trip to the Greek country comes after visiting Cyprus, in an attempt by the White House to bring closer the positions between Greece and Turkey and to discuss the improvement of the military cooperation with Athens with the purchases of arms to compensate for years of military cuts imposed during the decade of the country's debt crisis. Mitsotakis' Greek government has also raised the possibility of extending compulsory military service-an additional gesture in view of a possible conflict. 

This military push follows the Athens diplomatic campaign that has led Brussels to express its support for both Greece and Cyprus. Despite the possibility of settling the conflict through diplomatic channels, the latest movements of the Turkish army both in the Aegean waters and on the Cypriot coast have led Mitsotakis to reveal the purchase of arms and a review of the Greek army.

El prospector naval turco, Oruç Reis
PHOTO/REUTERS-El prospector naval turco, Oruç Reis

"The time has come to strengthen the armed forces," he said. "These initiatives constitute a solid programme that will become a national shield," said the Greek Prime Minister. Athens will purchase 18 French-made Rafale fighter planes, four multi-purpose frigates and four naval helicopters, nine anti-tank weapons, naval torpedo boats and missiles from the air force. It will also recruit 15,000 new soldiers and allocate resources to the national arms industry and defence against cyber attacks.

US Senator Ron Johnson, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe, said in the Washington Examiner that "we don't know what's going to happen with Incirlik". Incirlik has been fundamental to America's strategic operations in the region, such as the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, but the deterioration in relations between Washington and Ankara has put the withdrawal of the US presence from Turkey on the table.

"I think that, from a defensive position, we have to look at the reality of the situation in which the path Erdogan is on is not good," Johnson said.
These statements coincide with the naval artillery exercises that have been carried out by the Turkish Army during the weekend off the coast of Sadrazamkoy in Northern Cyprus, an area of the island controlled by Ankara but not recognised by the international community.

According to the Cyprus Joint Rescue Coordination Centre, which is adjacent to the Ministry of Defence, it called these exercises illegal as they "violate the sovereignty and sovereign rights of the Republic of Cyprus".

Since Turkey launched its naval prospector, the Oruç Reis, accompanied by warships, the eastern Mediterranean has been the centre of tension for two members of the North Atlantic Alliance. Disputes over gas reserves in the area have brought the two neighbouring countries closer to a war than at any time since 1996, when the two countries almost clashed over an uninhabited island in the Aegean Sea.

Closing the gap

Although Erdogan announced the return of the Oruç Reis to the waters off southern Turkey, a measure that Greece defined as a "positive step", days later Ankara extended the operations of its energy drilling vessel Yavuz in the disputed area off Cyprus until 12 October, which Cyprus denounced as a sign that Ankara was expanding its "illegal drilling".​​​​​​​

In view of this situation, the conservative government of the Greek Kyriakos Mitsotakis presented a 6.8 billion euro defence plan to acquire new anti-tank weapons, navy torpedoes and air force missiles, according to the British newspaper The Guardian. A few days ago, the Greek Foreign Ministry announced the resumption of exploratory talks between Ankara and Athens for a "diplomatic" resolution of the conflict, which had been at a standstill since 2016.

This came after Erdogan, under pressure from the European Union and the United States who have shown their support for Greece, returned the Oruç Reis to his base. The Turkish president held talks with the president of the Council of the European Union, Charles Michel, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to escape the sanctions that were put on the table in view of the belligerent attitude of Ankara.​​​​​​​

Erdogan showed his willingness to talk to the Greek prime minister in order to address the tension between the two countries over maritime rights in the eastern Mediterranean. Cyprus, protesting at the presence of two Turkish exploration vessels in the waters of the divided island, maintained its position that the appropriate punishment should be imposed on Turkey and blocked the European Union's actions against Belarus for alleged electoral fraud until its demands are met.