Keep the NATO flag in Greece

In this new age of international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, according to a senior NATO official, «Turkey has replaced Germany as the keystone state for European security. NATO’s Mediterranean countries, headed by Greece, follow Turkey as the new ‘frontline’ states.» The paradigm shift in the alliance’s strategic thinking reveals a new vitality and purpose within NATO, as the realities of emergent and potentially catastrophic threats move the defense debate from deterrence to proactive security measures. Historically, the alliance has had key roles in many notable successes: winning the Cold War against communism, transforming former Warsaw Pact nations into modern, democratic states, and restoring order out of the ethnic chaos that characterized the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. In addition, NATO proved its worth as a forum for Greece and Turkey to avoid conflict and to work more closely together despite their severe differences over the core problems of Cyprus and the Aegean. Fundamental to this was the 1999 reorganization of the NATO Command Structure permitting the establishment of a NATO headquarters in Greece. This reorganization constituted Greece’s final step on its rocky road toward full reintegration into NATO’s military structure, a journey begun in 1980, when it ended its withdrawal from the structure that began in 1974 over the Cyprus crisis. For the first time since that crisis, Greek and Turkish military personnel are working side by side in Izmir, Turkey, and in Larissa, Greece. The status of an uninhabited Aegean islet almost propelled Turkey and Greece into a full-scale war as recently as 1996. To date, Turkey and Greece have still not solved their core problems, so the potential for conflict still exists. Trust is fundamental to promoting genuine peace in the eastern Mediterranean, but it takes time and it takes working together. This is one of the critical, unstated values of having NATO headquarters in the region. However, to better utilize resources and adapt them to an ever-changing security environment, NATO undertook a re-evaluation of its command structure in summer 2002 and the Military Committee produced a statement of Minimum Military Requirements (MMR) that was accepted by the North Atlantic Council at the alliance’s Prague summit in November 2002. Regarding the Southern Region, the MMR calls for the possible elimination of all but one of the four Joint Sub-Regional Commands (JSRCs). Presently, JSRC headquarters exist in Spain, Italy, Greece, and Turkey. The establishment of the NATO headquarters in Greece required almost a decade of hard work and compromise. It is the most decisive confidence-building measure adopted by Greece and Turkey since the 1974 Cyprus crisis. What took so long to build should not be declared redundant, and it should not be dismantled without careful thought on the part of the alliance in general – and Greece and Turkey in particular. Promoting trust between Greeks and Turks is not just a military task. When the alliance committee recommended closing three JSRCs, it did not sufficiently focus on the serious political and diplomatic problems facing the two NATO allies in the eastern Mediterranean. In many ways, NATO is first and foremost a political alliance, and the leadership needs to take a long-term view of this issue. A NATO flag in Greece, either at the JSRC in Larissa or at a new headquarters in Thessaloniki, provides the basis for Turkish military personnel and civilians to live in Greece, work with their Greek counterparts, learn about Greek culture, and teach Greeks about their own culture. NATO, more than any other institution, is successfully building valued trust between Greece and Turkey, which has already led to greater stability, prosperity, and peace in the region. The military rationale for maintaining a NATO headquarters in Greece is self-evident. From a geostrategic standpoint, it is the optimum place from which to coordinate alliance efforts in the Balkans. As the alliance expands eastward, a Greece-based NATO headquarters will be an ideal place to integrate military personnel from Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia into alliance operations. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania will certainly seek membership in the alliance in the years ahead. To help ensure that Europe is never again divided, as it was for a brutal half-century, a NATO headquarters in Greece has a significant role to play, at relatively marginal cost. And since future NATO out-of-area operations will likely gravitate toward regions adjacent to the eastern Mediterranean, especially the Middle East, North Africa, and southwestern Asia, Greece and Turkey will bear a greater responsibility than ever before to cooperate in defense of alliance interests. Maintaining a JSRC in Greece should not be done at the expense of the JSRC in Izmir, which holds the same political importance in building trust between Greeks and Turks as does a NATO headquarters in Larissa or Thessaloniki. Since the threat against Turkey from countries such as Syria, Iran, and Iraq is greater than it is against any of the other three countries presently hosting JSRCs, the NATO flag must also be retained in Izmir. Imagine how devastating a full-scale conflagration in the eastern Mediterranean would be not only for NATO allies Greece and Turkey, but even more so for the broader interests of NATO, the European Union, and the international community. Greek-Turkish rapprochement, especially in the defense and security areas, is absolutely essential for avoiding conflict in the region, and NATO is a critical catalyst in this regard. The maintenance of the NATO headquarters already in place in Greece would be smart alliance policy. This is the worst time for NATO to diminish its influential role in the eastern Mediterranean region. The alliance has too much at stake to turn its back on this unique success story. Contrary to the recommendation of the Military Committee, the NATO flag belongs in Greece, as well as in Turkey. *Col. Stephen R. Norton (US Army, Ret.) is the senior policy adviser at the Western Policy Center in Washington, DC, and a former military attaché in Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus. Lt. Col. Harry Dinella (US Army, Ret.) is an adjunct professor of international relations at George Mason University and a former NATO liaison officer to the Greek General Staff. They contributed this comment to Kathimerini.

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