US moving big Navy asset to Greece as it hedges on Incirlik’s base in Turkey

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Tuesday that the US Navy is moving its giant ship Hershel “Woody” Williams to the Souda Bay military base in Greece.

Speaking from the military base located on the Greek island of Crete, Mr Pompeo made the announcement assuring Athens of the strong defence relation with the US and as it faces a standoff with Turkey.

“Today, I have an announcement that the prime minister foreshadowed, where the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams, the US Navy’s newest expeditionary sea base, will call here – will call Souda Bay home,” Mr Pompeo said.

“It’s literally the perfect choice in light of the facility’s strategic location and it’s symbolic of a defence partnership that will continue to expand and to grow,” he added.

A senior US official saw the move as a long-term investment in US military assets on the Mediterranean.

“We are leveraging the unique asset that Souda Bay provides: its geographic location in this dynamic Eastern Mediterranean region, outstanding support from our Hellenic Armed Forces hosts, and the ability to quickly deploy into an active theatre and then use Souda Bay as a gas station, replenishment site, a place to swap crews while maintaining the operational effectiveness of our military assets,” the official told reporters, on condition of anonymity.

The US official mentioned strategic shifts in the East Med region. “There are a lot of strategic shifts that are happening: the Greece-Israel-Cyprus trilateral and 3+1, which, again, began under Syriza with Secretary Pompeo going to Jerusalem with Tsipras; the rapidly growing Greece-Cyprus-Egypt relationship; the UAE-Greece relationship.”

Last week, the Chief of Staff of the UAE Armed Forces toured Greece as both sides seek to strengthen co-operation. Lt Gen Hamad Al Rumaithi met Gen Konstantinos Floros, chief of the Hellenic National Defence General Staff, and on Tuesday, inspected the site of joint military exercises taking place between the UAE and Greek air forces on Crete.

The official declined to link the announcement to the US exploring other options to its presence at Incirlik base in Turkey, almost 950 kilometres from Souda Bay.

“It’s apples and oranges in terms of our operations in Turkey, which are important but stand on their own than what we’re doing here in Greece.”

Mike Pompeo's visit to Greece underlines the renewed strategic relationship between USA and Greece and the geostrategic role of Greece as a factor of stability and security in the wider region. EPA

But experts who spoke to The National saw the move being linked to the US expanding its presence and reducing its dependency on Incirlik.

“Incirlik doesn’t have any permanent [US] aircrafts based there. It’s a political base in the sense that it’s a physical thing that connects Turkey and the United States. It also hosts US nuclear weapons so it won’t ever be closed,” Aaron Stein, the director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute said. Incirlik stores 50 tactical US nuclear weapons under American control.

Mr Stein said the Souda Bay presence is in line with finding operational bases for the US. “Souda Bay already exists, it’s a port for aircraft carriers in the East Mediterranean, and it has a runway..it just works. I see it as more of the US building more options,” he said.

In part, it stems from the downturn in US-Turkey relations but it is not really aimed at Ankara, he said.

Earlier this month, Senator Ron Johnson told the Washington Examiner that the US is looking for alternatives to Incirlik. “We don't know what's gonna happen to Incirlik. We hope for the best, but we have to plan for the worst,” he said.

“We're already looking at Greece as an alternative,” Mr Johnson said.

Incirlik air base had played a critical part in US flights to strike ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But with US-Turkey relations facing a strain over Ankara’s purchase of Russian missile defence system the S-400, ties to the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Pharmaceutical debt, Washington appears to be hedging.

Ryan Bohl, a senior fellow at intelligence firm Stratfor, saw a presence in Souda Bay as beneficial for the US Navy.

“It could be a realistic move; it would still allow the US the operational capabilities it has from Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean without being hamstrung by politics,” Mr Bohl said.

“For the US, Incirlik base used to be a potent anti-Soviet operations centre, but that's no longer the case. The US has kept the base open because it's been useful for its anti-ISIS operations and because Washington has wanted to keep Turkey as close to Nato as possible.”

Mr Bohl saw it as unlikely that the US would fully close Incirlik, but expected Turkey to object to a US base in Crete.

“A new US base in Crete could anger Turkey enough that eventually Ankara themselves might consider limiting US presence at Incirlik base.”

The US Defence Department was not immediately available for comment. Mr Pompeo will be visiting Croatia, Italy and the Vatican on his five-day trip.

Updated: September 30, 2020 03:02 AM

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