Twice in the past week, the United States has clumsily weighed into mounting tensions in the East Mediterranean between Greece and Turkey.
First, Washington announced last weekend the opening of a maritime security base on the island state of Cyprus, which is allied with Greece. Then the U.S. followed up by formally clearing the way to send weapons to Cyprus, ending a 33-year arms embargo. Washington claims the arms are “non-lethal”, but we have seen that semantic ruse played before with regard to U.S. weaponizing Ukraine and other places. Never mind the hairsplitting, the move is a military involvement whichever way it’s presented.
Both U.S. moves have infuriated Turkey, which lies to the north of Cyprus and which maintains territorial claims over the northern part of the island populated by Turkish-Cypriots. The main part of the island, the Republic of Cyprus, is historically aligned with Greece. Cyprus became divided in 1974 after Turkey invaded following a coup led by the Greek military. The territory has been a source of tensions ever since and a recurring cause for confrontation between Greece and Turkey over competing claims.
This year tensions have flared up again over disputed rights to oil and gas exploration in the East Mediterranean Sea. The area is reckoned to be rich in untapped hydrocarbon resources. There are even fears of a military confrontation escalating between patrolling Greek and Turkish navy vessels.
What is remarkable too is that both neighboring states are members of the U.S.-led NATO military alliance, which claims to be a protector of global peace and security. Yet here we have its own members jostling on a hair-trigger which could erupt into war on the southern arc of Europe.
What’s even more remarkable is the ham-handed, destabilizing way that the U.S. is intervening in the dispute. The establishment of a new “security” (read “military”) base at Larnaca in southern Cyprus and the supply of weaponry are viewed by Turkey as a flagrant attempt by Washington to put its thumb on the scale in favor of Greece and Cyprus against Ankara.
Last weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, where he signed a memorandum of understanding to set up the maritime base at Larnaca. Ironically, the installation is to be known by the acronym, CYCLOPS, after the mythical one-eyed giant of ancient Greek legend.
During his visit, Pompeo rebuked Turkey for stoking tensions in the region and he called for diplomatic resolution of the dispute. Pompeo went on to make a jab at Russia, saying: “Increased tensions help no-one except adversaries who would like to see division in the transatlantic unity.”
The U.S. top diplomat appeared to be referring to a visit to Nicosia only days earlier by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In his meeting with the Greek-Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, Lavrov offered Moscow’s help in mediating the conflict with Turkey. Given Russia’s cordial relations with both sides, the offer by Lavrov was certainly a reasonable and pragmatic one. Why Pompeo should seek to portray the Russian intervention as pernicious only betrays the typical reflexive Russophobia that dominates in Washington.
In any case, the reality is that it is the United States which is evidently fomenting tensions in the East Mediterranean through its destabilizing initiatives. Its exhortations for diplomatic resolution is empty hypocrisy belied by its actions.
What is behind the U.S. moves? One reason is the intense umbrage taken by Washington over Turkey’s decision last year to purchase the Russian S-400 air defense system. That represents a big commercial loss for the American military-industrial complex. Ankara’s adopting of Russian air-defense technology also grievously undermines NATO propaganda seeking to portray Russia as a security threat to Europe.
Another factor is Turkey’s warnings that due to American bullying over the S-400 issue it may shut down the NATO base at Incirlik in southern Turkey. If that were to happen, then the U.S. loses an important power-projection point against Russia. Therefore, it seems that the U.S. move to set up a new base at Larnaca in Cyprus may be a hedge against potential closure of Incirlik.
A third factor is proximity to Syria. Cyprus is only 200 kilometers from Syria which hosts strategically important Russian naval and military air bases at Tartus and Hmeimim. Those bases have been crucial in Russia’s alliance with Syria to defeat the U.S.-sponsored covert war for regime change in Damascus. By gaining a foothold in Cyprus, Washington may be trying to curb Russia’s pivotal support for Syria.
Whatever the precise calculus, it is nonetheless clear that Washington’s posturing is both reckless and hypocritical. Cyclops, the ill-fated clumsy giant outwitted by Ulysses, has a 21st century counterpart – the United States.