US to move giant floating sea base to Greece sparking doubts over Turkish airbase

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reassures Athens of strong defence relations as it faces standoff with Ankara

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits the Greek frigate Salamis at the Naval Support Activity base at Souda, on the Greek island of Crete, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Pompeo visited a U.S. naval base at Souda Bay on the southern Greek island of Crete Tuesday, ahead of a meeting with Greece's prime minister on the second day of his trip to the country. (Aris Messinis/Pool viaAP)
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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Tuesday that the US Navy is moving its giant USS Hershel "Woody" Williams  sea-base ship to the Souda Bay military base in Greece.

Speaking from the base on the Greek island of Crete, Mr Pompeo assured Athens of strong defence relations with the US as Greece faces a stand-off with Turkey.

"Today, I have an announcement that the prime minister foreshadowed, where the USS Hershel "Woody" Williams, the US Navy's newest expeditionary sea base … will call Souda Bay home," he said.

“It’s literally the perfect choice in light of the facility’s strategic location and it’s symbolic of a defence partnership that will continue to expand and to grow."

A senior US official said the move was a long-term investment in US military on the Mediterranean.

“We are leveraging the unique asset that Souda Bay provides: its geographic location in this dynamic Eastern Mediterranean region; outstanding support from our Hellenic Armed Forces hosts; and the ability to quickly deploy into an active theatre," the official said.

He said Souda Bay would be used as "a gas station, replenishment site, a place to swap crews while maintaining the operational effectiveness of our military assets".

He spoke of strategic alliances Greece and Cyprus have formed in the Eastern Mediterranean, including those with the UAE, Egypt and Israel.

Last week, the Chief of Staff of the UAE Armed Forces toured Greece as both sides seek to strengthen co-operation.

Lt Gen Hamad Al Rumaithi met Gen Konstantinos Floros, chief of the Hellenic National Defence general staff.

On Tuesday, Gen Al Rumaithi inspected the site of joint military exercises taking place between the two countries' air forces on Crete.

The official would not say that the US was exploring other options to its presence at Incirlik base in Turkey, almost 950 kilometres from Souda Bay.

“It’s apples and oranges in terms of our operations in Turkey, which are important but stand on their own than what we’re doing here in Greece,” he said.

epa08705459 A handout photo made available by the Greek Prime Minister's press office shows US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking during a press conference at the military facilities of the Souda Naval Base in Chania, Crete Island, Greece, 29 September 2020. Visiting US State Secretary Mike Pompeo will be hosted for two days at Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis' family home in Akrotiri, north of Souda Bay on Crete Island. Pompeo's visit to Greece underlines the renewed strategic relationship between USA and Greece and the geostrategic role of Greece as a factor of stability and security in the wider region.  EPA/DIMITRIS PAPAMITSOS HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
Mike Pompeo's visit to Greece underlines the renewed strategic relationship between USA and Greece and the geostrategic role of Greece as a factor of stability and security in the wider region. EPA

But experts regarded the move as the US expanding its regional presence and reducing its dependency on Incirlik.

“Incirlik doesn’t have any permanent [US] aircraft based there," said Aaron Stein, of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

"It’s a political base in the sense that it’s a physical thing that connects Turkey and the United States.

"It also hosts US nuclear weapons so it won’t ever be closed. Incirlik stores 50 tactical US nuclear weapons under American control.

"Souda Bay already exists, it's a port for aircraft carriers in the East Mediterranean and it has a runway. It just works. I see it as more of the US building more options."

Mr Stein said it was only partly because of the downturn in US-Turkey relations and was not really aimed at Ankara.

This month, Senator Ron Johnson told the Washington Examiner  that the US was looking for alternatives to Incirlik.

“We don't know what's gonna happen to Incirlik," Mr Johnson said. "We hope for the best but we have to plan for the worst.

“We're already looking at Greece as an alternative."

Incirlik air base played a critical part in US flights to strike ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

But after Ankara bought a Russian S-400 missile defence system the S-400, and with its ties to the Palestinian militant group Hamas and pharmaceutical debt to the US, Washington appears to be hedging.

Ryan Bohl, a senior fellow at intelligence company Stratfor, said a presence in Souda Bay might be beneficial for the US Navy.

"It could be a realistic move," Mr Bohl said. "It would still allow the US the operational capabilities it has from Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean without being hamstrung by politics.

“For the US, Incirlik base used to be a potent anti-Soviet operations centre but that's no longer the case.

"The US has kept the base open because it's been useful for its anti-ISIS operations and because Washington has wanted to keep Turkey as close to Nato as possible.”

He said it was unlikely that the US would fully close Incirlik, but expected Turkey to object to a US base in Crete.

“A new US base in Crete could anger Turkey enough that eventually Ankara themselves might consider limiting US presence at Incirlik base,” Mr Bohl said.

The US Defence Department was not immediately available for comment.

Mr Pompeo will also visit Croatia, Italy and the Vatican on his five-day European trip.