Greece aims to outflank Turkey in Mediterranean

by H�l�ne COLLIOPOULOU, John HADOULIS
Over the past month, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has revamped a defence agreement with the United States, sent a warship to join a French naval battle group and will deliver defensive missiles to Saudi Arabia

Greece has sought to bolster its Mediterranean presence in recent weeks in response to heightened tension with Turkey, ramping up its meanoeuvres but sparking accusations of adventurism at home.

Over the past month, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has revamped a defence agreement with the United States, sent a warship to join a French naval battle group and will deliver defensive missiles to Saudi Arabia.

The latest flurry has exposed the recently elected, US-educated prime minister to accusations of "adventurism" in a particularly volatile Middle East.

"You are embroiling the country in adventures that lie beyond its capacity and change decades-old foreign policy," leftist former PM Alexis Tsipras told Mitsotakis last month.

Mitsotakis, who became prime minister in July, has shrugged off the criticism as short-sighted.

"We are strengthening the framework of our strategic alliances, not just with the US... our military cooperation (with France) has never been better," he told lawmakers in January as parliament prepared to approve the US defence deal.

A few days earlier, a Greek warship had joined the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, whose battle group is on a mission against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

According to diplomats, France has encouraged Greece to be more "autonomous" and play a more active role in EU defence initiatives.

And after a decade-long debt crisis that saw Greek arms spending drop by over 70 percent, the Mitsotakis government wants to be heard, says Spyridon Litsas, professor of international relations at the University of Macedonia.

- 'Idle is risky' -

"Being idle during these days of high volatility is equally risky and has nothing substantially to offer to Greece's attempt to achieve a return to international politics after the economic crisis of 2010," he says.

Greek relations in Turkey -- never particularly warm -- have taken a turn for the worse in recent months under the added burden of migration and an energy exploration scramble in the eastern Mediterranean.

Right now, "France is the ideal Greek ally", Panagiotis Tsakonas, a professor of international law at Athens University, told AFP.

"The two countries share views on the situation in the eastern Mediterranean," he said, citing involvement of French firms in energy exploration off Cyprus, historically Greece's chief ally.

Turkey has pushed ahead with drilling activity in Cyprus's designated exclusive economic zone (EEZ) despite EU threats of sanctions.

Greece last month signed an agreement with Cyprus and Israel on EastMed, a huge pipeline project to ship gas to Europe.

The rivalry has extended to Libya.

Turkey signed a maritime and military cooperation memorandum with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in November, carving out energy spheres of influence in the Mediterranean at the expense of Greece.

Athens retaliated by expelling the GNA ambassador and by seeking to build ties with Khalifa Haftar, a general based in the east who controls three-quarters of Libyan territory.

Other Middle Eastern states wooed by Athens -- the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- are foes of Turkey and back pro-Haftar forces.

Constantinos Filis, executive director of the Athens-based Institute of International Relations, agrees that Athens "must demonstrate its presence and secure backing in the face of Turkish claims in the region".

But he is less sanguine about Greece's February 4 announcement that it would send a batch of US-made Patriot defensive missiles to Saudi Arabia to guard energy facilities.

"This could risk involving (Greece) in a confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran," says Filis.

Mitsotakis, whose father Constantine served as prime minister in the early 1990s and cultivated close links with the family of US President George HW Bush, has faced furious criticism of being too pliable towards Western allies, especially Washington.

The PM drew fire last month when, ahead of a visit to the White House, he called Greece "the most reliable and predictable ally of the United States in NATO in this region", according to state agency ANA.

- Fighter jet upgrade -

Rejecting the attacks, Mitsotakis insists that "predictability in foreign policy is a big advantage".

"In the United States I said it's good to be predictable. All alliances are based on the notion of predictability," he told parliament.

Athens has agreed a $1.5 billion upgrade to its fleet of F-16 fighter jets and is also interested in US-made drones and possibly F-35 warplanes.

The Greek defence ministry also insists that a greater US presence is good for the country's struggling arms industry.

It says US forces will invest over 12 million euros ($13 million) on airbase infrastructure in Larissa and around six million euros at Marathi, part of the US base of Souda, Crete.

Over the past month, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has revamped a defence agreement with the United States, sent a warship to join a French naval battle group and will deliver defensive missiles to Saudi Arabia