COMMENT

Greece on the frontline

By Nikos Konstandaras

The international intervention in Libya?s civil war has put Greece on the front line of developments in our region. Our geographic position alone is enough to give us a leading role, but Greece has to play an active role as well; it must take serious decisions and act very carefully on the diplomatic front so as to avoid the traps and reap the benefits from this involvement. The stakes are very high and they concern our geostrategic importance and our diplomatic capital in all our international relations.

In recent wars involving our allies, Greece was able to fulfill its obligations as a partner either with a minimal and unobtrusive presence (as in Kosovo and Afghanistan) or simply through allowing the use of its facilities (as in the case of Iraq) without really taking a stand. In Libya?s case, though, it is obliged to stand firmly with its European partners and the United States against an old friend of Greece?s ruling party, Muammar Gadhafi. Crete is just 300 kilometers from Libya at their closest point, and the Souda Bay naval and air facilities on the island are an important staging point for all kinds of activity in Libya. NATO facilities at Aktio and Larissa will also play a crucial role in enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya.

But it is not just geography that drives events in this case. France and Britain, two important European Union partners, went out on a limb in recent weeks, pressing the United States to agree to a military intervention that would stop the Libyan government forces? advance against the rebels. French President Nicolas Sarkozy even went so far as to recognize the rebels? government on March 10. As the rebels retreated and seemed sure to lose, France was at a diplomatic impasse. At this point, it would be impossible for Athens to draw back from supporting its strongest EU ally in the ongoing negotiations on a way out of Greece?s economic crisis.

The road toward military intervention began a week ago, when the Arab League threw its weight behind calls for the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. Gadhafi?s military victory seemed assured -- and it was also clear that this would result in a prolonged period of instability, as the Libyan leader?s use of military force against his own people had stripped him of all legitimacy. Indicative of his intentions was the declaration he made on Thursday, when he warned the rebels in their stronghold at Benghazi that ?tonight we will enter to strike against the traitors. We will show no mercy.? A few hours later, after a change of heart by the United States, the UN Security Council imposed a no-fly zone over Libya. Tripoli?s immediate reaction was to threaten ?air and maritime transport in the Mediterranean as well as civilian and military facilities.? Fortunately for Crete, in an agreement that it signed with the international community in 2003, Libya had committed itself to destroying all of its missiles whose range would enable them to reach the island.

The most hopeful scenario would be for the international intervention to lead quickly to a political solution -- perhaps with the resignation of Gadhafi in exchange for amnesty, as the rebels have offered. Greece could mediate in such a negotiation because of its close ties with Gadhafi in the past -- ties which were confirmed in recent weeks with Greece?s prominent role in the emergency evacuation of tens of thousands of foreign workers and in achieving the release of three Dutch soldiers who had been captured by Libyan forces. Turkey also has been playing an active role, but its stand against NATO military action when Athens was offering facilities and airpower could marginalize it in the weeks ahead.

It is clear that Greece has an important role to play as a pole of stability and as a NATO beachhead from the Maghreb to Israel. The USA is aware of this, and perhaps this is why it has supported Greece so firmly in its negotiations with the IMF and our EU partners. Let us hope that at the EU summit this week our partners will acknowledge the fact that Greece is an invaluable partner on many fronts beyond that of the economy, and that they will understand that helping Greece recover is an investment in the future of this very important and very unstable part of the world.

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