The Naval Base at Souda, Crete: Strategic Asset or Source of Danger for Greece?



The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) at Souda Bay, Greece. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

At a time when tensions between the United States and Iran are escalating dangerously, the strategic importance of Souda Naval Base on Crete is coming under the spotlight once again.

Formally known as ”Naval Support Activity, Souda Bay,” this facility, located on the northwestern shores of the island of Crete is the second-largest naval base in Greece.

However, the base is the largest and most important naval base for NATO and the United States in the entire Eastern Mediterranean region.

Its highly important role is not due solely to its location, at the crossroads between three continents and close to the Middle East, but has to do with its geomorphology as well.

The natural harbor of Souda Bay is the only deepwater harbor in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean Sea which can host and maintain the massive American aircraft carriers.

This has skyrocketed Souda’s importance, as it operates as the epicenter for the American Navy and Air Force for the entire region.

Souda Bay’s naturally-protected harbor was the main reason why this location has been of crucial importance for so many different powers for such a long time.

The Ottomans were the first to use this place as a military base, in the second half of the nineteenth century.

It also played an important role during World War II, as the British Royal Navy and other Allied navies were stationed there, prompting the Italians to attack it in a 1941 raid.

Ever since the beginning of the postwar era and Greece’s entrance into the NATO alliance in the early 1950s, Souda Bay has been operating as one of the most important naval bases for NATO and the US in the region.

The American presence at Souda had been at the heart of political rivalries in Greece throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

A traditional whipping post for the left-wing parties of Greece, and a focus for the anti-American sentiment of Greek society in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, the unpopularity of the American base has placed extreme pressure on many Greek governments regarding how to deal with the facility.

Pressing demands for the closure of the base were constant during those decades. However, no Greek government was ever able to make the momentous decision to shut the base down.

Neither the socialist administration of Andreas Papandreou in the 1980s nor Alexis Tsipras’ leftist government of 2015 moved ahead with a closure of the base. Quite the contrary, in fact, as all the Greek governments of those years eventually even promoted the American presence there by signing additional agreements with Washington.

Following the latest developments in the Middle East, however, and after the assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani by the US Army, Iran has issued threats to all neighboring countries which facilitate American military operations from their territories.

This, of course, includes the base at Souda Bay, where the American presence is already growing after the latest incidents.

Additionally, the Greek Prime Minister’s decision on Tuesday to unequivocally support the Trump administration’s decision to kill this prominent Iranian official, raises questions and fear among some in Greece that the country could now become a target of the theocratic regime in Tehran.

The range of Iran’s ballistic missiles. Credit: https://twitter.com/StatistaCharts

Tehran’s weapons could theoretically target Greece, and particularly the naval base at Souda, if the course of events continues down the road of escalation.

As seen in the map above, Iran’s ballistic missiles could reach large parts of the European Union, from Latvia in the north all the way to Rome, Italy in the south.

Of course, such an attack is highly unlikely, but Greece’s strategic approach to Israel and the US in the last several years has seemingly negated Athens’ traditional role during the late twentieth century as a mediator between the West and the Middle East.

Greece is being seen increasingly in the Arab and the broader Islamic world as a bastion of the West and American interests in the region, rather than as an advocate of dialogue between the East and the West.

Of course, Athens has chosen a course of action which aims to enhance its role in the region, to promote stability, cooperation and peace. However, at a time when tensions are so high, it is vital for Greece to balance between these two worlds, which appear to be in complete opposition to each other.

For this reason, the diplomatic and military language, and actions, of Greece are taking on  even more importance at the dawn of the new decade.