Greece between Russia and the United States: The Syria-bound flights
by Dimitris Rapidis and Paul Williamson (September 8, 2015)
A truly hard and complex decision was made by the interim government in Athens which essentially has no full authorization to deal with such delicate political and strategic decisions. Nevertheless, the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded negatively to US request. This decision will go without repercussions for the Greek side, but it is meaningful of how both the US and Russia are planning to employ their influence on the surrounding and neighboring countries, as well to the biggest reception and first transit states for refugees, like Greece.
The request from Washington is subject to many readings. The first is that it instantly reacted to the fast involvement of Russia in Syria without considering that while Greece is member-state of NATO and abides by its rules, it is also the first gate for refugees in Europe. Washington could directly refer to Kremlin without involving Athens, therefore preserving the already fragile situation in the Aegean and the country overall.
The second is that Russia was already informed on the intention of Washington to stop such an involvement of Kremlin in Syria. But President Putin decided to go so as he had and still has a solid justification on the grounds of contributing to the humanitarian cause of the refugee crisis. At the same time, the United States are aware of the prepared footing of Russia into Syria, considering it as a direct threat to the American interests in the region. For the US side, it goes without saying that leaving President Putin assisting refugees, means that the latter would get further involved on the side of Assad, therefore opening doors for closer Russian involvement in post-war Syria.
The third reading is that the US instead of dealing with Russia directly on a statement war, they preferred to bring in Greece and force the interim government take a decision which otherwise could be handled after EU involvement. In other words, Washington took advantage of political transition in Greece onwards national elections in order to "lock" a midterm goal: to damage any rapprochement made by the side of the previous government with regards to the energy deals and the prospective Greek Stream. In this context, it is still clear why President Obama, while having received official invitation by former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to visit (already since January 2015) he has decided not to do so until nowadays. For the record, it is the first time that a Greek PM during his mandate, has not met with his counterpart from the US.
The fourth reading is that Washington fears these Russian aid flights are an excuse for Kremlin to transport weaponry and provide military assistance to Assad. Strategic decision for President Putin remains the support of Assad as the ultimate leader that can guarantee transition of power. In this respect, and given the complexity of the war in Syria and the presence of ISIS in the region, a clear military involvement of Russia would be negatively perceived by NATO and the UN. Even if both organisations have not offered a viable solution for a final ceasefire.
Our assessment is that after the rigorous EU sanction policy, with US backing, against Russia, the crisis in Ukraine, and the troubling story of ruble in regional markets, Kremlin aims to get strategically involved in the Middle East and demonstrate its leverage. In this endless chessboard, geographical proximity might play a decisive role, given also the introvert shift of US policy in the region. The Obama administration is clear on keeping energy and priorities domestically. But the next administration, especially under a hawkish Republican leader, would lower limits or constrain Russian involvement in the region. Therefore, the sooner the better for Kremlin.
Dimitris Rapidis is Director at Bridging Europe. Paul Williamson is Consultant and Research Contributor for Bridging Europe.
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