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Renewed Greek-US Defense Pact Expected to Roil Turkey

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks as Greece's Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias looks on during an event at the State Department in Washington, Oct. 14, 2021.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks as Greece's Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias looks on during an event at the State Department in Washington, Oct. 14, 2021.

Greece is lauding a renewed defense pact with the United States as a “resounding vote of confidence” from Washington to Athens. The deal is seen by Greece as an added swipe against its age-old foe -- but NATO ally -- Turkey, in a long-running dispute over sea and air rights in the Aegean, eastern Mediterranean and beyond.

In a rare televised statement on national defense, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the deal raised strategic ties between Greece and the United States to a higher level.

The deal, signed in Washington earlier this week by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Greek counterpart, Nikos Dendias, extends an existing defense pact between the two countries, enabling U.S. forces to train and operate in at least three more locations in Greece.

However, the details of the agreement that Blinken spelled out in a separate letter, quickly relayed to Mitsotakis after the signing, are spurring debate here.

In this letter, Mitsotakis said, the United States explicitly backs Greece’s call for respect of its sovereignty, integrity and sovereign rights in line with international law.

That is diplomatic shorthand for what Greeks believe could be an assertive U.S. response in defense of Greek interests in case of a near-war crisis with its longtime foe, Turkey.

A copy of the two-page letter, obtained by VOA in Athens, said the deal displays Washington's "determination to mutually safeguard and protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of both countries against actions threatening peace, including armed attacks."

The letter, however, did not spell out what either side would do explicitly.

While both are NATO allies, Greece and Turkey have been at loggerheads for years over competing rights in the Aegean Sea that divides them. In the past year, the two came to the brink of war over drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean, off the coast of Cyprus, which has been divided between Greece and Turkey since 1974.

Critics, such as Pavlos Tsimas, a political analyst, warn that the U.S. commitment should be read carefully.

Does it mean that we will see U.S. Navy SEALs or battleships fighting on our side in the case of a crisis with Turkey, “definitely not,” Tsimas said. But it does build a strong enough deterrent for Turkey to think twice if it does move to strike against Greece, in any way, he said.

Like other analysts here, Tsimas said the importance of the deal is in its timing: it comes about a week after Mitsotakis signed a landmark defense deal with French President Emmanuel Macron, in which Athens purchases at least three French-built frigates, and along with a similar commitment of military support for Greece.

Opposition parties have denounced the U.S. deal, saying Greece offered too much for too little – more bases for U.S. troops to use and train in the country, for an indefinite period of time. They say the Blinken letter offered nothing in return, which they say should have been pressure on Turkey to rescind its long-standing threat of war against Greece if Athens moved to assert its rights in the Aegean Sea.

Critics now are fearing Turkey’s response, pointing to statements Defense Minister Hulusi Akar made shortly after the Greek-U.S. deal was renewed.

We are peace-loving and respect international law, but will not allow for any change in the status quo, he warned.

Analysts in Athens tell VOA the chances of Turkey moving to provoke an incident in disputed waters in the Aegean, look weak. But Ankara, they warn, may instead move to test the reflexes of both defense deals with the U.S. and France in areas in the Eastern Mediterranean, closer to Cyprus, or on a different front entirely.

Just hours after the signing, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that his country was preparing to take military action against a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in northern Syria, if its relations with the U.S. do not improve.

Government officials in Athens told VOA they were watching the developments closely.