Costas Isychos, the former Deputy Defence Minister of Greece, discusses the Syriza Government’s policy of expanding NATO’s military might
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting from Korinthos, Greece. The Real News has returned to Greece for the fourth time in three years to continue the coverage of the economic crisis, and more particularly, this year we’re examining suggestions that Greece has begun to emerge from this crisis. Today, we’re fortunate to be joined by Costas Isychos. Costas was a member of the Greek Parliament in 2014 for the Syriza government. He also served in the government of Alexis Tsipras in 2015 as Deputy Defense Minister. However, after the Tsipras government disregarded the results of a historic referendum on austerity in July 2015, Costas, along with other members of the left platform of Syriza, left to form a new Popular Unity Party. Thank you very much for joining us today. COSTOS ISYCHOS: It’s my pleasure. DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, I’d like to begin because of your brief portfolio in the defense ministry with the question of NATO and in particular, Greece today, I think by any rational measure, can only be considered to be bankrupt. It has a crushing level of debt that I don’t think any serious economist believes will ever be paid off. And yet it’s spending in the range of 2.4% of its GDP on the military. That I understand, is the second highest level as a percentage of GDP spending, the second highest level within NATO. Do you think that there’s any remote justification for this level of defense spending by a country that is effectively bankrupt? COSTOS ISYCHOS: There is justification as far as the Euro transatlantic interests are concerned. I believe the United States has great interest that Greece keeps up a very high budget for military spending but not only for that. Because of the geopolitical situation in Turkey and the Middle East but I point out Turkey mostly, there is a shift of great interest of the United States for Greece upgrading its geopolitical position, and also in transferring some strategic military ideas and practices within Greece for the United States and for NATO. So, what is really contradictory is that I just finished this first remark on your question is the real contradiction, as far as we’re concerned in Popular Unity is that a so-called left wing government becomes today one of the greatest supporters of NATO ideas and North American ideas, of expanding its military might in the Island of Crete, which is the eye towards North Africa, the Middle East, and even to Eurasia, and of course to the Balkans and Eastern Europe. And not only the Island of Crete and the military base of Souda but also Andravida, which is to host military drones, not only for spying but also for attacking targets. DIMITRI LASCARIS: This would be drones operated by the American military? COSTOS ISYCHOS: Of course. Of course. DIMITRI LASCARIS: So these would be operated from Greek soil. COSTOS ISYCHOS: That’s correct. That’s correct. DIMITRI LASCARIS: Is this already in effect, or is this something that’s being talked about? COSTOS ISYCHOS: No. We have in effect the military base of Souda, where Souda played a vital part in the attack on Libya recently with the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi and the reconstruction within quotes, I would say even the destruction of the Libyan state into war zones, where war lords play a very negative role, not only for Libya, for the whole of North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Souda has been tested as a ground for expanding military missions, aggressive military missions in Libya, in Tunisia, in Egypt, in the Middle East, in Israel, in Palestine and Northern Kurdistan. And its electronic eye and ear are on these areas, from the Atlantic to Eurasia. So, we are in a phase where we have practical standards which are being developed and enhancing even more this military might in the near future. And this has been approved, not only by the Greek government but by the Greek political system, where we have the two major parties both Nea Dimokratia, a New Democracy and Syriza combining their efforts to see who is going to be more pro-American in order to gain more support for their policies in the internal domestic sphere. DIMITRI LASCARIS: Let’s come back if we may, to the notion of Turkey posing a threat to Greece. During this trip, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss these same issues with members of the governing Syriza party and they also referred to the threat posed by Turkey. But if that is the case, if Turkey is such a threat to Greece, that the second highest level of military spending in NATO would be justified despite Greece’s essential bankruptcy, why bother even being a member of NATO? I mean, one would think that at a minimum, membership in NATO would protect one from threats posed by other NATO members. COSTOS ISYCHOS: We already have a historical experience, when we had the invasion of Cyprus by Turkey in 1974, in July and August at that time. So, you have the confrontation of two NATO member states, Greece and Turkey, and NATO did not apply its articles, where you have to intervene in order to stop the situation. So, I think we are at a brink where Turkey, I wouldn’t say it’s an immediate military threat to Greece. Turkey is an immediate strategic threat to the United States and NATO interests in the region. That does not mean that I agree with Turkish policy, both domestically where left wing people and activists and trade union a trade municipal politicians are in jail today, thousands of them. But I do say that Mr. Erdoğan is following an extreme nationalist policy, combining it with a soft-type touch of Jihadism, converting Turkish society into an Islamic state, you would say. And this is used as an excuse by Greece in order to tell the Greek people a story where if we do become a major NATO spender, we will be protected more and more by the United States and NATO which is a lie, of course because NATO will never have a priority in protecting Greece, but protecting its own interests in the region. This is the first lesson we learned in 1974 with the Cyprus crisis. DIMITRI LASCARIS: You arguably learned well before that, for example, when Papadopoulos was enthusiastically supported by… COSTOS ISYCHOS: The military dictatorship, yes. DIMITRI LASCARIS: …Spiro Agnew, the Vice President at the time, referred to him as the greatest thing to happen to Greece since… COSTOS ISYCHOS: Yes, and also we must point out that Greece is becoming a sort of like a sales agent for the NATO idea and the Euro transatlantic idea to countries like Serbia, where every time we do have bilateral talks with these countries on the level of government to government, Mr. Tsipras and other high level officials of the government, always point out to these countries that your interest is into becoming full members of the European Union and NATO, and so on, while you were safeguard your respectable integrity and so on. So, this is a very sad chapter of left wing politics in Greece where we have not only a transformation, but I would even say a mutation of left-wing ideas into NATO and transatlantic ideas and neoliberal practices which go hand in hand, and military spending, of course, occupies a very important space within that context. DIMITRI LASCARIS: I want to try to flesh that idea a little bit more out with you by reference to another country that you mentioned, the State of Israel. In January of this year, an article authored by someone named George Tzogopoulos of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy was published in the Jerusalem Post. In that article, Mr. Tzogopoulos argued that Israel has become a strategic ally of Greece, and he referred to a series of joint military exercises between the military forces of Greece and Israel. He states that bilateral cooperation in the zone between Israel and Crete has allowed Israeli pilots to engage in bombing drills and the aerial refueling needed to cover a distance equal to that separating the country from Iran’s Natanz Nuclear Enrichment facility. He’s essentially suggesting that cooperation with the Greek government is allowing Israel to prepare for a possible attack on Iran. As we know, and when I say, “As we know,” I’m referring here to the western governments themselves, Israel is a serial human rights violator. There’s virtual unanimity on the international stage that the settlements violate the fourth Geneva Convention. Richard Falk, a leading international law scholar, who happens to be of Jewish origin, meticulously documented the imposition of apartheid regime on the Palestinian people. Can the values of a purported radical leftist party, possibly be reconciled with military cooperation with an apartheid regime, as a serial abuser of human rights? COSTOS ISYCHOS: Well, I take your point as a very important point. I’ll try to go back a little bit further, reminding our viewers that Greece and Israel have begun a very close relationship within the bilateral sphere, not only in military and defense issues, but also in other issues like tourism, economy, investment and so on, science, and new sciences and new technology and so on. This was initiated mostly by the George Papandreou government, when Greece entered the phase of the big economic, and social and political crisis … DIMITRI LASCARIS: This was the leader of the socialist party. COSTOS ISYCHOS: This was the leader of the socialist Greek party and he was a very fervent admirer of Israeli policies in the region, and he enhanced these bilateral agreements. When Syriza came into government, we had pre-electoral agenda and I’m speaking as a former Syriza leader. I had the luck of hosting the international department. I was the chairman for that. So, I do have a very clear idea at that time, and I’m talking about 1999 to 2015. It’s like 16 years. Within that agenda, we had a very clear idea that we had to support not only the Palestinian issue but we did believe that solving the Palestinian issue would be a focal and key point in trying to enhance normal relations in the Arab world with Israel, with the peace-loving forces within Israel, and not only the left wing forces but the peace-loving forces. I must remind the viewers that we do have a very strong anti-war movement within Israel. I have great friends there and I keep in touch with them constantly. They were very much surprised when the Syriza government, after its capitulation in July of 2015, August, 2015, after turning a no into a yes in that critical referendum, which I’m sure you have mentioned before, not only did we keep those military agreements but we increased them to 49 agreements at this time. You just mentioned the exchange of pilots, training, simulation of Israeli attacks in Iran in the Greek northern mountains of Epirus. The use of all military airports by Israeli air force today, and of course the excuse that is put to the Greek people is that we have also use of the Israeli airports for the Greek air force, but my question is, “What the heck is the Greek air force going to do in Tel-Aviv? Who are our enemies there?” So, you see that the presentation of this dogma, this increase of military pact between Israel and Greece is surprisingly and shocking to all peace-loving Greeks today, who have in their hearts the question of a free Palestine, living side-by-side, of course, with Israel under completely different conditions. So, we do not only have a bowing to a yes, always a yes to NATO but also the upgrading of Israel as a great military and energy ally. Let us remind our viewers that the future pipeline of gas, Israeli gas in the exclusive area zone of Israel, which disregards, of course, the Gaza strip which also has an exclusive zone of petroleum-based riches there, is of course, not recognized by Israel. So, you have this pipeline going through Cyprus, continuing to the south of Crete and then going into southern Europe via the Balkans, the Ionian Sea, Italy and so forth. You do have today, as the Israeli systemic media points out, that the second greatest ally of Israel today, after the United States, is this Greek government which calls itself left-wing government. DIMITRI LASCARIS: The last thing I’d like to talk to you about, is Alexis Tsipras’ recent visit with Donald Trump. That was quite an eye-opener for a lot of people, particularly on the left. I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. I mean, obviously the criticism that you’re hearing articulated is that Trump is probably the most racist, misogynistic, belligerent, reckless president we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Why would Alexis Tsipras go to Washington and speak about the purported shared values of the Trump administration and the Greek government? As I said, I want to play devil’s advocate a little bit, Greece is in an extraordinarily weak position. Whatever its faults may be, the United States remains the most powerful country on earth. One might say that Alexis Tsipras was acting in the national interest by, shall we say, being diplomatic with President Trump. How would you react or respond to that? COSTOS ISYCHOS: I find your question excellent. I really think it’s an excellent question because we have to go deeper into how Mr. Tsipras and other Syriza leaders today see as an encroachment and as a closer bilateral relation with the United States today. Tsipras and also other leaders of Syriza believe that coming closer with the United States, not only the military field but in other areas as investment and so on will create a divisions of interests between Germany and the United States regarding Greece. In my opinion, this is a myth. I find more mythological reality in the War of Troy than this, and I’ll tell you why. Because Germany and the United States, of course, they have their own differences but they will not divide and go against each other on Greece. This is something that will not happen because Greece has given out to German economic interests and Greece has given out with this government, to American military interests. So, there is a division of interests. There is a state of friendship or common interest, let’s say, between the United States and Germany and falsely, Tsipras and the Greek government today believe that if we do come into a closer military relationship with the United States, then it will be easier for us to negotiate with Germans. The question of the debts and the economic crisis, and coming out of the crisis, and so on. This will not happen. This is, as I said, a mythological approach, but something has to be sold to the Greek people. And the Greek people today are trying to be introduced, and they’re trying to be persuaded by this government that forget the era where Syriza presented a dilemma. Within the context of exploitation and neocolonialism, can we come forth as a government, as a nation, as a people, in a peaceful context and try to follow a plan B or another road, an alternative road to this destruction of Greece and the Greek people? Or do we just conform ourselves within the treaties of the new memorandum, the third memorandum, and the fourth, and the fifth and so on? And within that memorandum, the dilemma is today that is presented to the Greek people by Mr. Tsipras are following. Who can handle best, misery and poverty? Me or Mr. Mitsotakis from the right wing? And the answer to that dilemma to most Greeks who fall into that pseudo-dilemma is of course that Mr. Tsipras has more sensitivity to the Greek worker, or the Greek unemployed young woman and man, who are emigrating today by the thousands. 225,000 young Greeks have left this country in the last four years, going to Canada, to United States, to Australia, to Europe, to African countries and so on. So, I think that we have to challenge this dilemma, and try to convince the Greek people that the real dilemma today is if we can survive as a society, if we can survive as a working class, as students, as youth, as women, within the context of neocolonialism when you have an economic memorandum and a geopolitical memorandum with the American military and NATO. That is the dilemma for me. DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, thank you very much for joining us. COSTOS ISYCHOS: Thank you. DIMITRI LASCARIS: It’s my pleasure, and we’ll continue to watch the story with great interest. This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News, reporting from Korinthos, Greece.