April 25, 2003 -- Regional conflicts immediately adjacent to the eastern Mediterranean, from Iraq to the Balkans, offer opportunities to forge an enduring peace between Greece and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean -- now evolving into a front-line theater of collective Western security -- but the active involvement of both the Greek and Turkish militaries will be required.

Although haunted by past political excesses, including coups, the Greek and Turkish militaries view themselves as the pre-eminent guardians of that which defines the geographic, historical, and psychological make-up of their nation-states. Greek military lineage includes Alexander the Great and the Christian Byzantine Empire. The Turkish military associates itself with the Islamic Ottoman Empire and is the ultimate guarantor of the secular state established by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern-day Turkey.

Historical relationships influence perceptions far more in the eastern Mediterranean than most Americans realize. Greeks and Turks, even while serving side-by-side in NATO for over 50 years, have had different perceptions of Moscow. Greece saw the Soviet Union as less of a security threat than did Turkey, which has directly challenged Greece on a range of sovereignty and ethnic issues. Turkey bordered the Soviet Union and was home to U.S. nuclear missiles. It still mistrusts Russia, both the primary strategic adversary of the Ottoman Empire and the protector of Orthodox Christianity for several hundred years.

The current Greek-Turkish détente, born in the aftermath of the 1996 near-war over Imia-Kardak, the February 1999 Ocalan fiasco, and the deadly earthquakes in both Turkey and Greece later that year, focuses mostly on periodic ministerial staff talks, tourism, low-level trade and joint ventures, energy connections, environmental protection, and cultural links.

Despite improved cooperation on a broad range of issues, there is still no channel for direct communication between the Hellenic National Defense General Staff and the Turkish General Staff. In fact, three years ago, the Western Policy Center and the National Defense University initiated the only serious and continuing dialogue concerning core security issues that divide Greece and Turkey, a process sustained in Ankara last year and continuing in Athens in October 2003.

Centuries of conflict, occupation, wrenching population exchanges, and nationalist fury in Cyprus involving the two countries have ingrained a strong mutual distrust. Both Greece and Turkey continue to fortify their mutual borders. Turkey questions the ownership of Greek islands in the Aegean. In the air over the Aegean, pilots and planes are sometimes lost as the two air forces press their own national definitions of sovereignty. Both navies watch for vessels of the other country suspected of searching for oil on the disputed continental shelf of the Aegean, instead of conducting joint patrols to stem the flow of illegal immigration and organized crime.

As the two militaries continue to protect and promote nationalist positions over disputed air, sea, seabed, and territorial delineations, they also continue to resist cooperation with each other in the Aegean and in Cyprus, which could lower tensions and reduce the potential for conflict. Their focus should be on the future, rather than a preoccupation with the past.

Outside of the Aegean and Cyprus, it is a different story. Since NATO's Operation Allied Force and the defeat of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic's Serb forces, Greek and Turkish forces have served admirably in adjacent sectors in Kosovo. The instability in the region did not, as many critics feared, lead to another Balkan war among the Greeks, Turks, Bulgarians, Serbs, and others. Instead, it resulted in closer ties among them, even in the security field.

The similarity of national Greek and Turkish positions on the Iraq war provides a foundation for cooperative efforts to ensure that, in the post-victory phase, Iraq becomes a stable, prosperous, and democratic country. For starters, a welcome sign to the Middle East and to the world would be a joint humanitarian effort in Iraq by the Greek and Turkish defense establishments -- that is, by Christians and Muslims.

The Multinational Peacekeeping Force Southeast Europe, also known as the Southeast European Brigade (SEEBRIG), was formed in September 1998 with a rotating joint headquarters in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. The headquarters will be transferred to Constanza, Romania, in August 2003. The Greeks and the Turks spearheaded the initiative to establish SEEBRIG. The unit's first commander was a Turk, Major General Hilmi Akin Zorlu, who was recently the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. SEEBRIG's second and present commander, Brigadier General Andreas Kouzelis, is a Greek. The deployment of SEEBRIG to either Iraq or Afghanistan would be further proof of Greek-Turkish cooperation and leadership.

Joint military planning for "real-world" security problems in the Balkans, Iraq, and elsewhere will lead to greater bilateral trust. Once a modicum of trust is established, these militaries can begin to work on the core issues separating them: Cyprus and the Aegean.

Joint military cooperation and dialogue, if conducted solely for diplomatic purposes, will be hollow and short-lived. Staff talks and exchanges must look to the future and focus first on mutual security interests: transnational threats posed by terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, organized criminal enterprises, and the illicit movement of people and contraband. Working together, the Greek and Turkish militaries can effectively deny terrorist, criminal, and rogue organizations access to the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans.

The cooperative process will also result in finding ways to reduce military tensions without jeopardizing national positions. Both militaries are action-oriented and professional, and they have worked well together in NATO and in recent international operations. It is time to bring that cooperation closer to home.

The Greek and Turkish militaries should be jointly coordinating a wide range of security issues on a regular and frequent basis, including those concerning the Aegean and Cyprus. The positive momentum in improving bilateral relations, dating back almost half a decade, need not sputter because of a military lack of vision.

Legends, ancient history, and stories of massacres passed on from generation to generation all lay the foundation for the enmity between Greece and Turkey. Myths and legends make for exciting bedtime stories for children. In reality, heroes are not descendants of gods or conquerors of ancient foes. They are political, civic, and military leaders who have the courage and vision to break from the past and forge a future of common security, freedom, and prosperity for all Greeks, Turks, and their brethren in and around the eastern Mediterranean. In an era of grave and perilous threats, Western security demands no less.