US Troops Numbers in Greece Grow as Turks Plan to Withdraw

US Troops Numbers in Greece Grow as Turks Plan to Withdraw

( – The US has stepped into the growing tension between Greece and Turkey, with a new deal to increase American forces in the region. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Tuesday, September 29, that he’s reached an agreement with Greece to move new US units to Crete, a Greek island that’s strategically placed close to both countries’ mainlands.

Uneasy Allies

Although Greece and Turkey are both members of NATO, relations between them have been tense for decades. Historical grudges going back to Turkey’s occupation of Greece under the Ottoman Empire, combined with Turkey’s 1974 invasion of northern Cyprus and the expulsion of ethnic Greeks from the area, have turned the countries into bitter enemies that aim their weapons at each other more than at NATO’s enemies. Under strongman president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has become an increasingly unreliable ally, and Pompeo’s deal with Greece is aimed at both protecting US interests in the region and calming the situation down.

The US, along with the Turkish Air Force and Royal Air Force, jointly operates a NATO airbase at İncirlik in southern Turkey. This base has been vital for US operations in the Middle East and also as a layover for flights to Afghanistan. In the last four years, the Turkish government has repeatedly threatened to cut off US access to the base, which could leave 5,000 American airmen trapped there – along with several dozen B61 nuclear bombs. Relations have gone downhill even faster this year, with the US expelling Turkey from the F-35 strike fighter program in retaliation for Erdoğan’s decision to buy advanced Russian air defense systems.

Strategic Shift?

Last month, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) suggested expanding the US base at Souda Bay on Crete as an alternative to İncirlik. Following Pompeo’s announcement of the deal with Greece, State Department officials were quick to deny any link with İncirlik – but expanded US facilities at Souda Bay, which like İncirlik has a 10,000-foot runway, would seriously reduce our dependence on Turkey for facilities in the region.

The centerpiece of Pompeo’s deal is the permanent transfer of USS Hershel “Woody” Williams to Souda Bay. The 80,000-ton Williams is an expeditionary sea base ship, which can accommodate up to 300 troops and mount operations using attack and transport helicopters, raiding boats, or armed drones.

While the State Department is playing down talk of the US realigning its alliances in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey’s aggressive behavior is one of the few remaining areas of bipartisan agreement in Congress. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said Sunday that “We cannot continue to act towards Turkey as we wish it were. We have to act towards Turkey as it is under Erdoğan.”

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