If Greece is worried about Turkey, why did it send Patriots to defend Saudi Arabia?

If Greece is worried about Turkey, why did it send Patriots to defend Saudi Arabia?

Despite both being members of NATO, Greece is unlikely to ever feel comfortable with Turkey as its neighbor. Centuries of subjugation characterized by countless wars, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and a genocide does that to people.

From Western Thrace to Kastellorizo and the Aegean Sea to Cyprus, Ankara’s differences with Greece are well-documented. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatening to “come suddenly one night,” warning Greeks to “remember Izmir,” and boasting about Turkish Tayfun missiles being able to strike Athens hasn’t made the relationship any easier to manage.

With this and more in mind, it should come as no surprise that Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis rebuffed requests to send one of Greece’s Patriot air defense systems (or Russian-made S-300s) to protect Ukraine from Russia’s ruthless bombing campaigns, which include the use of Iranian drones and North Korean ballistic missiles. 

Defense and deterrence are important to Greece. I spent years writing about the Turkish threat. I understand the importance of maintaining Athens’ defensive posture. Given its performance on the battlefield in Ukraine, it’s also clear how even a single Patriot air defense system reduces the former and strengthens the latter. 

There is nonetheless a difference between rhetoric and reality. The truth is that tensions between Athens and Ankara have died down since last year. Dogfights over the Aegean Sea, like Erdogan threatening to flood Greece with millions of migrants, somehow seem like distant memories. I don’t expect this to change in the near term.

A central component of Turkey’s aggressive policy toward Greece – at least for the better part of the past decade – has been Erdogan’s temper tantrum against the United States. Namely, in response to US policy toward Syria. Now that Turkey got the attention it wanted, in the form of Washington approving the sale of F-16s to Ankara, I expect the calm to prevail until the fighter jets are delivered. 

More important than the things that are outside of Greece’s control, however, are the things that are within it. The Greek government claims to be worried about deterring and defending itself against a potential Turkish invasion. Then why did Athens send one of its Patriot air defense systems (and 120 soldiers to operate it) to Saudi Arabia in 2021 – when tensions between Greece and Turkey were both palpable and rising?

At the time, Riyadh was fighting a brutal war against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. Attacks on Saudi Arabia’s energy infrastructure, which put pressure on the global oil supply, were common. That is no longer the case. The warring parties have since committed to a ceasefire. A United Nations-led peace process has also been launched.

Some may argue that the danger posed by Houthi drones and missiles to Saudi Arabia’s energy infrastructure remains. I disagree. Between Washington’s Operation Prosperity Guardian and the European Union’s Operation Aspides, the Houthis already have their hands full in the Red Sea. The last thing they need is to reopen the front that was closed with the Saudi-led coalition.

Others may claim that the threat posed by Tehran to Riyadh has grown, especially since Iran-backed Hamas perpetrated the October 7 terrorist attack against Israelis. Yet an honest interpretation of the facts suggests otherwise. 

Tehran and Riyadh are normalizing relations. Their respective embassies were reopened in June 2023. Pilgrims from Iran have returned to Mecca for the first time in nearly a decade. Despite many bilateral and multilateral challenges to overcome, the relationship seems more stable than at any point since Iranian protesters ransacked Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad in 2016. 

For whatever reason, whether monetary, political, strategic or otherwise, Greece dispatched a Patriot air defense system and the military personnel required to operate it to defend Saudi Arabia at the height of Greco-Turkish tensions. From the Greek government’s own actions, we can infer that the Turkish casus belli against Greece is not as dangerous and immediate as the threat once posed by the Houthis to Riyadh. 

Both of these cases, in the year 2024, are incomparable to Russia’s illegal and unjustified war of aggression against Ukraine. Put simply, the first (Greece-Turkey) is a threat, the second (Houthis-Saudi Arabia) is a frozen conflict, and the last (Ukraine-Russia) is a hot war that will likely get a lot hotter. Despite parallels between the three, painting them with the same broad brush is intellectually inconsistent and borderline dishonest.

There are, in fact, few lines that Moscow wouldn’t cross. The maternity ward in Mariupol. Orthodox churches in Sumy. The Kakhovka Dam on the Dnipro River. The Trypilska Power Plant in Kyiv. The TV tower in Kharkiv. The list goes on and on. You name the civilian target. The Russian army will hit it. In fact, Russia even came close to killing Prime Minister Mitsotakis last March during his visit to Odesa. 

As it stands, air defense systems are indispensable for saving Ukrainian lives and maintaining Ukraine’s infrastructure. This reduces both the damage caused by Russia, and the cost the West will eventually pay to rebuild the country after the war. Withholding air defense from Kyiv is immoral and unconscionable. Greece can help Ukraine protect its skies. So why not help? 

I am an observer. Not an insider. My intention is, always, to do the right thing. If the Greek government doesn’t want to do the right thing, then it should at least be honest about why it isn’t doing the right thing. Blaming its reluctance to lead on the need to deter or defend itself against the Turkish threat does not cut it this time around.

George Monastiriakos is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa. 

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