Will Washington transfer forces from Incirlik to Crete?

Move would show US unhappiness wUS prioritising Saudi ties ahead of presidential elections
ith the policies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the eastern Mediterranean.
Tuesday 29/09/2020
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C) stands alongside Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (R) during their visit to the US Naval Support Activity base at Souda on the Greek island of Crete. (AFP)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C) stands alongside Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (R) during their visit to the US Naval Support Activity base at Souda on the Greek island of Crete. (AFP)

ATHENS – US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Crete, today, at a time of increasing news that the United States may choose to transfer its forces and equipment from the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to a base on the Greek island of Crete, to show its unhappiness with the policies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the eastern Mediterranean.

The US move would also come at a time of increasing diplomatic moves to pressure Turkey to stop its fait-accompli policies in the eastern Mediterranean carried out by exploring for gas in sea areas outside its jurisdiction or still disputed.

On Monday, a British newspaper reported that Washington was planning to transfer its troops and equipment from the Incirlik base in Turkey to the Greek island of Crete, as punishment to Erdogan for his actions.

Washington’s dissatisfaction with Ankara does not stop at Turkish provocation of the Eastern Mediterranean crisis. It also goes back to Ankara’s decision to acquire S-400 missiles from Russia, as well as Turkish hostility to the Syrian Kurds loyal to the United States.

The Times revealed, on Monday, that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be studying, during his official visit to Greece, this week, proposals for transferring “vital warfare means from Incirlik base to Crete.”

Observers said that Ankara needs a firm stance from Washington in the face of the hesitation that has characterised the European Union’s reaction to Erdogan’s moves that are threatening NATO’s unity and causing division among its members, especially as the alliance did not react to Turkey’s purchase of the Russian missile system.

Observers pointed out that European officials were greatly concerned that the hesitation of Western capitals would encourage Turkey to continue its policy of arm-twisting with the alliance as a whole, and with certain countries such as Greece, France and the United States, which has repeatedly expressed its annoyance with Turkey’s foreign moves, whether in Syria or in Libya, and now in Greece.

Withdrawing part of the American forces from Incirlik could represent a strong signal to Turkey that it cannot enjoy the advantages of being a member of NATO and yet work to challenge it, a position that has become shared by the majority of NATO member states.

Last May, Ron Johnson, who chairs the US Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee for Europe, announced that the United States was studying the possibility of transferring its weapons and equipment from the Incirlik base, which has long played a pivotal role in securing US strategic interests in the Middle East, to Crete.

Last October, the US Secretary of State had signed a defence agreement with Athens that allows US forces to use Greek military facilities on a wider scale.

In particular, the agreement gives the United States priority in using Alexandroupolis Port in the north of the country, which is a transit gateway to the Balkans and the Black Sea and is of strategic importance to the US Navy and to NATO.

Diplomatic circles and analysts see Pompeo’s visit to Greece, during the current context of an escalation between Athens and Ankara, as a move to show US support for Greece and its demand to stop the Turkish expansion and the fait accompli policy adopted by the Turks, whether in Greek or in Cypriot waters.

The United States had previously imposed a series of sanctions on Turkey because of Erdogan’s bold policies, sanctions that caused a sharp decline of the Turkish lira and a remarkable halt to foreign investment and tourism. Despite the lifting of those sanctions, their impact on the turbulent Turkish economy is still strong.

A joint statement by Pompeo and his counterpart Nikos Dendias said Turkey and Greece’s dispute over potentially resource-rich areas under the Mediterranean should be resolved “peacefully in accordance with international law.”

About two weeks ago, Pompeo visited Cyprus, where he urged Turkey to stop the activities that cause tension in the eastern Mediterranean, calling on all parties to pursue diplomatic means.

Before this tour, a senior US official stressed the need to “stop the escalation in the eastern Mediterranean,” saying to reporters that Pompeo “expressed his deep concern” about the situation.

The official stressed the need to “reduce the risk of accidents” and “refrain from taking any unilateral action that fuels tension,” urging Greece and Turkey to “reach an agreement.”

He further explained that Washington “encourages all countries to settle issues related to maritime border demarcation peacefully and in accordance with international law.”