Greece and the clouds of war

A full-scale war in the Middle East would set off a chain reaction in the broader region of which the outcome is difficult to predict. Greece is no exception to this. Turkey and Cyprus will be affected even more directly by turmoil in the Eastern Mediterranean – and whatever happens to them also has serious consequences for Greece. That is why Athens has to follow developments very closely and must seize the opportunity to play a mediating role as the crisis deepens. It is a cliche but nonetheless true that Greece enjoys an unparalleled (for a Western nation) degree of credibility in the Arab world for the support it has shown the Palestinians in the past. At the same time, relations between Greece and Israel have improved greatly over the years, while Athens also maintains an open channel of communication with Tehran and Damascus. Serendipitously, Greece is currently a member of the UN Security Council. If ever there was a time to step forward as an honest broker, it is now. The forecasts for the region, however, are bleak. Events show that extremists have the upper hand. The overwhelming response of Israel to the attacks on it from Gaza and southern Lebanon (which resulted in the capture of three Israeli soldiers and several deaths) has already led to direct attacks on Lebanon, with scores of civilian deaths, as well as the blockading of that troubled country. Israel has also named Syria and Iran as collaborators in the attacks upon it, prompting Iran’s Israel-baiting president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to warn that any attack on Syria will be taken as an attack on the whole Muslim world. (Syria’s secular regime is being sucked into an embrace with the Islamic extremism that is its greatest threat, but that is a problem that will arise l ater, with all its consequences.) A generalized conflict between Israel (and its supporters) and large parts of the Arab/Muslim world will disturb all sorts of balances in the region and will also have serious consequences on the world economy. The price of fuel, already at record highs, will be completely unpredictable if supplies are further threatened. Iraq is already in chaos. The destabilization of Syria and Lebanon – and perhaps also Iran – will create a totally mercurial situation. A broadening of the conflict will not only affect the protagonists but also their neighbors, who will have to provide refuge to large numbers of people fleeing the fighting while themselves battling the consequences of the disruption of trade and other effects of war. For Cyprus, war carries many dangers. The island is very close to the main parties of the dispute and is, indeed, their first spot of refuge. The situation is complicated further by the presence of British military bases and the large number of Turkish troops who enforce the military occupation of the island’s north. Which brings us to the greatest challenge that Athens and Nicosia may face during the crisis: the effect that a Middle East war may have on Turkey. That country is already riven by division between the Islamist government and the military establishment. On Friday, over half a million Turks took part in a demonstration in Istanbul to condemn Israel and the United States. At the same time, Turkey is a military ally both of the United States and Israel. If the current conflict widens, the divisions in Turkey will widen. Again, no one can guess what this will lead to. And all this comes at a time when the European Union is demanding that Turkey open its harbors and airports to Cypriot ships and planes. In the event of war in the region, it seems highly unlikely that Turkey would make such a decision. It is far more likely that Greece and Cyprus’s EU partners will argue that this is not a good time to press Turkey to meet this part of its EU obligations. In this case, Ankara’s October deadline to meet its commitments with regard to the EU will present yet another challenge to Athens and Nicosia, as they lose yet another diplomatic battle for an end to the Cyprus problem. And this is just one of the consequences that war in the region will have on Greece, Cyprus and Turkey.