ATHENS – The massive American warship, the USS Hershel Woody Williams, has arrived at the Greek island of Crete as tensions escalate between NATO allies Greece and Turkey over energy rights in the eastern Mediterranean.
The ship’s presence comes days after a Turkish frigate, protecting an exploration ship that Ankara sent to the region to hunt for undersea oil and gas, collided with a Greek battleship on August 12, raising the stakes of the brewing maritime crisis.
It also follows France’s deployment of military forces to the region, providing military assistance to Greece in the crisis – an active engagement that the US 6th Fleet says it is avoiding for now.
“We are not taking part in this standoff and the USS Hershel Woody Williams has not been sent to intervene,” Commander Kyle Raines, press attaché for the US Sixth Fleet, told VOA.
He said the ship’s arrival at Souda Bay, in Crete was “scheduled.” Still, should the situation between the two feuding NATO allies deteriorate and decision-makers in Washington decide to act, the ship could intervene.
“USS Hershel Woody Williams is highly flexible and may be used across a broad range of military operations in support of national tasking,” Raines said.
Military experts describe the USS Hershel Woody Williams as a floating base, the second of a new class of massive ships the US Navy is using as fast transport and support centers for military operations.
The 230-meter-long ship, about the size of some skyscrapers, was earlier in Naples, Italy, for a routine logistics stop before it sailed to Crete.
Since the August 12 maritime incident, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to use force against any Greek attempt to block the Turkish exploratory ship, Oruc Reis, and five other battleships guiding its course.
“If this goes on,” he warned recently, “we will retaliate. We shall not leave either the dead or the living of our kin alone.”
The Greek government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been scrambling for weeks to convince its European Union partners to slap sanctions on Turkey. It has also complained to NATO about its maintaining equal distance from the regional antagonists.
What is more, the growing number of warships gathering in the eastern Mediterranean, including, the arrival of a Russian warship, has experts in Greece concerned.
The build-up comes weeks after Erdogan ordered the Oruc Reis to the eastern Mediterranean to survey for gas and oil.
Greece says the seabed off the coast of Crete and other islands in the region are its own to exploit – a claim Turkey has repeatedly refused, saying islands are not entitled to what is known as an exclusive economic zone.
U.S. officials have not given details on how long it will remain in Crete’s Souda Bay.
Cyprus Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulidis says forces from other EU nations and countries in the region are likely to arrive and join the effort.
He says it is something Greek officials are expecting to build up as they try to find a diplomatic solution. He praised the buildup as vivid proof of the West’s resolve to block what he said is Turkey’s growing influence in the region.
Analyst Kostas Ifandis, a professor of military studies and diplomatic relations, doubts the show of force will change things very much.
He says that if the situation gets dicey, we may see other countries like Egypt mobilizing. But from the EU’s standpoint, he says, it is unlikely that this buildup will impact Turkey because its biggest trading partner and closest ally, Germany, is unlikely to join in such a maneuver.
Currently chairing the EU’s rotating presidency, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been trying to convince Athens and Ankara to begin negotiations over the conflicting claims each side has to air and sea rights in the region.
Germany has been reluctant to support stiff sanctions against Turkey, but it has advised the government in Ankara to pull back its survey vessel from the disputed waters.
Turkey has said it will continue to survey the contested region through next week.
But the buildup of vessels, submarines and even combat aircraft in the region, has experts fearing an accident like the Aug. 12 maritime collision could spark a bigger confrontation between Greece and Turkey.