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Emerging Security Prospects in the Eastern Mediterranean

By Col. Stephen Ross Norton1 (U.S. Army, Ret.)

Senior Policy Advisor, the Western Policy Center2 August 1999

The well-versed foreign policy analyst can become accustomed to reading negative reports emanating from the eastern Mediterranean: Greece and Turkey are at the brink of war over the Imia islets; the S-300 missile crisis in Cyprus brings the threat of military action by Turkey; Turkish warplanes fly freedom of navigation flights in the Aegean and are intercepted by the Hellenic Air Force; Turkey accuses Greece of supporting terrorism; Greece is caught hiding Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan at its Kenya embassy; Turkey questions Greece's ownership of certain Aegean islands and islets; and Greek Cypriots are killed along the "Green Line" dividing Cyprus. This list could go on and on.

The sheer number of these reports, especially when coupled with the conventional wisdom that Greek and Turkish differences go back to at least the fall of Constantinople in 1453, effectively ending the Greek-dominated Byzantine Empire, lead many to believe that peace in the Aegean and in Cyprus is illusory. At an even more emotional level, there are those who view Greek-Turkish differences through the prism of religion, culture, and history.

Present-day disputes are said to be a continuation of the largely negative historical experience shared by Greeks and Turks, which began in 1071 at the battle of Manzikert in eastern Anatolia. It is a case of Christianity versus Islam, East versus West; it is, in short, believed to be too deeply rooted in fact, fancy, and perception to change. But is it?

The recent positive signs coming out of the eastern Mediterranean have been under-reported in the press. They are individually small, spaced apart in time, and usually overshadowed by more dramatic events such as the arrest and trial of Ocalan or the NATO war in Kosovo, but they chip away at the pessimism and negative perceptions that surround Greek-Turkish relations and the Cyprus question. While acknowledging the serious problems linking Athens, Ankara, and Nicosia, a hard look at what has been achieved on the diplomatic and military fronts recently is warranted.

NATO officials have been putting final arrangements together for a new command structure in the Southern Region. This had been one of the most vexing, emotional, and frustrating issues faced by NATO since Greece pulled out of the integrated military structure of the alliance in August 1974 over Turkey's military response to the Greek coup in Cyprus. While Greece rejoined the military structure in October 1980, it has not had a major NATO headquarters, and command structure questions have constantly exacerbated Greek-Turkish relations.

Now, thanks to the extraordinary work of the NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Gen. Wesley Clark; the Commander of Allied Forces Southern Europe, Adm. James O. Ellis, Jr.; and his predecessor, Adm. T. Joseph Lopez, as well as senior Greek and Turkish military and defense officials, new NATO headquarters will be established in September throughout the Mediterranean, including Larissa, Greece, and Izmir, Turkey. Joint Sub-Regional Commands, or JSRCs, will be established in Madrid, Spain (JSRC South West), Verona, Italy (JSRC South), Larissa, Greece (JSRC South Center), and Izmir, Turkey (JSRC South East).

In the context of relations between Greece and Turkey, having a NATO headquarters in both countries will assuredly ameliorate many military problems in the Aegean, serve as a key channel of communication, and foster understanding. A Greek lieutenant general will command the Larissa headquarters, and it will have an American deputy commander and a Turkish brigadier general as chief of staff. The Izmir headquarters will be a mirror image of this structure, with a Greek brigadier general serving as chief of staff and working for a Turkish general officer, again with an American as the deputy commander.

Since 1974, with the exception of military attaches at their respective embassies, Greece and Turkey have not exchanged military personnel. That situation changes with the new command structure, as dozens of Greek and Turkish military officers and personnel prepare to serve on each other's territory. This is significant and symbolically important. The defense ministers and military chiefs from both countries should be commended for the vision, courage, and perseverance to make this new command structure a reality, one that will help achieve peace and stability in the eastern Mediterranean.

Another piece of good news in 1998 was the formation of the 5,000-strong Southeast European Brigade (SEEBRIG) by seven regional nations, including Greece and Turkey. Greek and Turkish military officers and diplomats worked for months to sort through the problems of creating a multinational military unit, and they succeeded. There is no doubt that some long-held negative perceptions were changed for the better during the meetings about SEEBRIG. (See the October/November 1998 issue of The Strategic Regional Report for additional details.)

Now, enter the new Greek foreign minister, George Papandreou, and the diplomatic relationship between Athens and Ankara gets even more revitalized and begins to move in measured, but positive, steps. Papandreou assumed his position on the heels of the disastrous Ocalan affair in February. His predecessor, Theodoros Pangalos, had been relieved of his post by Prime Minister Costas Simitis for his role in harboring Ocalan in Kenya. The enormity of this episode for Turkey was such that many knowledgeable regional experts predicted that any chance of improving relations between the two countries was doomed for a long time to come.

Overcoming this acrimonious atmosphere, Papandreou and his Turkish counterpart, Ismail Cem, initiated a series of meetings in July between Greek and Turkish foreign ministry officials to discuss their respective differences. The meetings dealt with tourism, commercial and environmental cooperation, crime, drugs, illegal immigration, and terrorism. Both countries considered the talks to be a success and plan to continue them in September.

Yes, the problem of Cyprus still exists, and grave issues in the Aegean will confound even the most adroit statesmen attempting to promote fundamental change in the eastern Mediterranean. Nevertheless, there have been significant positive developments, both militarily and diplomatically, involving Greece and Turkey bilaterally, regionally, and within NATO. As they continue to work together, the bigger problems concerning Cyprus and the Aegean will eventually be discussed, formally and informally. This can only lead to a better understanding of each other's views, the first necessary step to making progress and achieving solutions to these decades-long problems.

The NATO campaign in Kosovo made it very clear that southeastern Europe is too important to the U.S. to be simply crisis-managed. The West is working hard to stabilize the Balkans. If Greece and Turkey continue working together to stabilize the eastern Mediterranean, U.S. national security interests in the region will surely be advanced.

1 A member of the U.S. Army's Foreign Area Officer Program, Col. Norton served as the Assistant Army Attaché in Ankara from 1980 to 1983, the Defense and Army Attaché in Nicosia from 1987 to 1991, and the Defense and Army Attaché in Athens from September 1996 to June 1998.

2 The Western Policy Center is a public policy corporation promoting U.S. geostrategic interests and Western institutions in southeastern Europe by strengthening the debate on American foreign policy toward NATO allies Greece and Turkey, and toward Cyprus. The Center analyzes current U.S. foreign policy toward southeastern Europe and develops policy recommendations for the region. It cooperates with other nongovernmental organizations, leading educational and foreign policy institutions, and the media in providing forums for the analysis of issues concerning the region. For more information, please call (202) 530-1425.