Alarm, anxiety in Athens over Mideast crisis

As a member of some of the world’s power centers, Greece is aware of the serious limitations on the ability of the international community to intervene decisively to solve major problems such as the current crisis in Lebanon. After other serious crises in the Middle East and the Balkans, the European Union is, once again, virtually absent. And the United Nations Security Council has proved unable to respond to the demands of civilians in major regional crises. Athens seems to be deeply concerned about both economic and other consequences for our broader neighborhood of the ongoing and deepening crisis in the Middle East and about potential parallel sources of tension. Athens views as one of the latter the rekindling of expansionist appetites in Turkey, whose civil and military leadership is planning to act against the Kurds in northern Iraq, precisely what the Israelis are doing to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. With Afghanistan and Iraq in their present states, dramatic developments under way in the Middle East and the possible involvement of Iran and Syria, a military engagement by Greece’s neighbor would be like a spark in a massive gas tank. From the first statements made by government officials and from discussions with them, it emerges that Athens’s interest focused first on how to get Greeks out of the danger zone, if they wanted to leave and it was necessary to move them to safer places. Soon there were demands from Greeks and it became necessary to get civilians out of the line of fire. By embarking on a large-scale emergency humanitarian aid operation, Greece drew the attention of many countries and organizations. The UN, the European Commission, large countries such as the US, and smaller ones in Europe and elsewhere who had citizens in Lebanon requested Greek transport to help evacuate them. Contact and agreements made either directly with the Greek government or with private individuals who possessed means of transport (mainly ships) created a humanitarian diplomacy framework with Greece at the center. The international community also acknowledges the very positive stance of Cyprus, the state and its people, in accepting those who were evacuated from Lebanon. This is of political significance because it shows what role Greece can play in supporting peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. It is worth noting, for the symbolism, that exactly one year ago, in July 2005, when Greece held the presidency of the UN Security Council, the organization held a special meeting on the role of the council in humanitarian crises: «Of course, the responsibility and obligation to provide protection to civilians continues to belong to the states concerned,» said Petros Molyviatis, then Greek foreign minister, as acting president of the Security Council on July 12. «However, in case of human rights violations and atrocities, the international community has a responsibility toward the victims of such violence. Effective and timely handling of humanitarian crises by the Security Council is of vital importance. The people we represent and international public opinion will not accept anything less than success.» At a special Security Council meeting a few days ago, Greece voted in favor of a resolution that would, among other things, demand an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon. The resolution was not passed because the US vetoed it. Since then, Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has repeated the call for an end to the violence in the Middle East. Calling for an immediate ceasefire, he said: «We condemn violence of any kind – there is not good or bad violence; we condemn it outright and categorically. Our rule and our objective is the speedy defusion of this dangerous crisis and a return to peace to the benefit of all the people in the region.» Athens has supported those views at the EU, with Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis expressing disappointment that the EU’s message to the parties involved about ending the crisis was not as clear as the circumstances demanded.