By Dr. Christos Kyrou
On September the 12th 1827 a boy named Giuseppe boarded the Cortese
for his first voyage from Nice to the Black Sea. While sailing through the Aegean the ship was attacked and looted by Greek pirates who took everything they could carry with them, including young Giuseppe’s shoes. The pirates spared the lives of the crew and passengers and young Giuseppe was left literally naked at the island of Cythera to continue his adventurous life, later to become the legend named Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Under the U.S. Radar Screen
Since the entrance of Greece in the European Union in 1981 the policy of the US has gradually been transformed into dealing with the country still as part of the NATO alliance yet with much greater discretion, more as part of the EU than of Greece itself. Considering the nebulous past in the US – Greece relations after the end of the Greek civil war, this was a rather welcomed development for both parties. The security and strategic dimension of Greece in the region for the US is that Greece presents a stabilizing factor in the region including the Balkans, and the Libyan Sea south of Crete, the later providing a minor leaping stone for an air-bridge form the Atlantic or Germany to North Africa and the Middle East. As long as the two Aegean adversaries, Greece and Turkey, manage to avoid a full scale engagement against each other security in the region has so far been taken for granted.
The deteriorating economy in Greece of the last decade has set the country on a course of social, economic and potentially military disintegration. Even though the military forces and law enforcement institutions, stressed by an uncontrollable flow of immigration, remains in relatively good shape ready to assert itself, what will happen if the situation deteriorates further? How would that affect regional security and why should the US be following Greece closer? What actions should it take to avoid the worst case scenario?
Piracy in the Aegean, an old American Headache…
The times of Garibaldi were troubled times, for Greece was just rising out of a disintegrating Ottoman Empire and four centuries of servitude. Piracy was common in the Aegean and a single trip from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea was a risky and potentially perilous affair. Garibaldi was attacked later by pirates of the Aegean up to three times in one single trip but survived by resisting successfully. Even though his support for the Greek revolution for independence remained unscathed the picture painted by his adventures send us a bleak message about how Greece as a failed state might fare in regards to regional security in our own days. Would that drive the U.S. into new adventures in the Aegean Sea?
One doesn’t have to look too far as piracy in the Aegean Sea is already part of the US Naval history. Due to the decline of the Geek Navy, at the time when Garibaldi was captured, in the same waters, by orders of President Monroe the U.S. Navy was already engaged in a costly antipiracy operation lasting from 1825 to 1828 trying to restore order committing hundreds of sailors and dozens of ships alone and in coalition with British and French warships.
Why the Aegean Sea matters?
When it comes to how important stability in the Aegean is, technically speaking, not much has changed since the 1800s. Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine still depend heavily on cargo ships crossing the Aegean Sea and then the Bosporus for commerce and tourism industry. Major port cities along the cost of the Black Sea including Constan?a, Giresun, Hopa, Istanbul, Kerch, Mangalia, Novorossiysk, Odessa, Ordu, Poti, Rize, Samsun, Sevastopol, Sochi, Sukhumi, Trabzon, Varna, Yalta and Zonguldak are themselves important commercial and resource providers to many more countries and cities connecting to the peninsula close or far. Any disturbance in the Aegean Sea would mean very serious trouble for far more many people than those in Greece alone. This is a worst case scenario - assuming Greece turning into a European version of Somalia - but it is a scenario tested in the past and in the absence of options, and if Greece fails to return to stability and remains on the course of social and economic disintegration, just as any other legal or illegal alternative, piracy might become again an attractive option.
Besides Garibaldi, the list of legendary captives by Aegean pirates includes Diogenes the Cynic around 310 B.C., and no other than Julius Caesar in 75 B.C. In the broader context of history piracy appears to be a cyclical phenomenon in the region. The Aegean is a Sea peppered with thousands of Islands which in a case of a crippled Greek military it will be impossible to control if Greeks or even non Greek elements decide to prey on commercial or touristic ships. Inevitably such eventuality would draw other powers in the region.
Turkey, which is already engaged in a ghost war with Greece over territorial rights in the Aegean, will pay the price directly by suffering a potential blockage of the route from the Mediterranean to the Bosporus with a serious damage to its commercial transportation and tourism industry as a consequence. In the absence of a capable Greek Navy and a potent Hellenic Air Force, Turkey will most likely both assert its territorial claims in the Sea and if necessary pursue a war against pirates far and beyond in order to deprive pirates of safe heavens.
Russia and other countries form the Black Sea may follow suit with piracy creating an explosive situation resembling the complexities of the pre-WWI realities more so than what we might expect in the 21st century.
A Breeding Ground for International Crime and Terror?
In the case of a failed state, Greece will become the ideal geopolitical bridge between the Middle East, Africa, and Europe for every criminal and terrorist entity possible. The disruption of commerce and tourism will most likely be followed by the establishment of safe territories for terrorist organizations having a vast array of choices of destinations after training and preparing for attacks in Western Europe, the Balkans, Turkey, and the Caucasus. Greece may become a new theater in the war against terror with the Greeks squeezed in between a life on the edge of legality and a criminal regime Mexico-style using the country for narco-trafficking, human trafficking and illegal weapons trade. The geographical position of Greece makes it an ideal point of departure towards a variety of destinations for all sorts of terrifying scenarios from smuggling drugs to WMD and so on. If the state fails to control its own territory there will be plenty of entities eager to fill in the vacuum.
Shifts on the Sphere of Influence
Traditionally Greece has played a consistent role as a member of the western alliance. Its NATO and the European Union membership are only recent forms of formalization of such tradition. If however Greece becomes isolated by its western strategic allies, and cornered by the worst of a post-euro zone situation, plunged into poverty and starvation, then as discussions already suggest, it will pursue alternative alliances, most likely with Russia, its Eastern Orthodox kin. Such eventuality will allow Russia a step hold in the Aegean Sea, a strategic dream and aspiration of centuries of Russian leaders since the arrival of the Rus’ in the outskirts of Byzantine Constantinople, June 18, 860. With an increasing presence of Russia in Central and Latin America today (return to Cuba and dockings in Venezuela), and a potential opening of the Barents, Kara, Laptev and Eastern Siberia Seas due to climate change, this might be the beginning of a new multi regional role of Russia as an emerging Naval power. Discussions for alternative to Russia alliances include China which has indicated an interest. Such eventuality will bring China permanently in the Aegean and consequently also in Northern Africa and the Middle East.
The list of possibilities does not end here but this is only a concept analysis, a first glimpse of why the US should be looking towards Greece closer than it has during the last twenty years. It is imperative that security in the Aegean Sea is maintained for if it fails it will become a landslide towards circumstances very hard to reverse. The role of the U.S. can no more remain that of a distant observer neither should it remain idle till military response becomes necessary when the worst scenarios are manifested. The US has to look closer and reach out for stronger ties with Greece immediately. Having learned from mistakes of the past, the U.S. under the leadership of President Barak Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton and in consistency to what emerges as a new conciliatory foreign policy can work together with the new emerging Greek political forces – including if not especially so with the Left - in guaranteeing a long lasting security in the Aegean Sea and the broader region.
* On Garibaldi: J. Ridley Garibaldi, Phoenix Press, London, 1974
** On US Naval Operations in the Aegean Against Piracy : J. Wombwell The Long War Against Piracy: Historical Trends, www.MilitaryBookshop.co.uk, 2010.
Christos Kyrou, Ph.D. is Research Director at the Center for International Relations
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