NICOSIA, CYPRUS — AN arms race in the Aegean, where Greece and Turkey were last week on the brink of war over a tiny, uninhabited island, has strengthened Washington's determination to improve relations between the NATO rivals that have been feuding for centuries.
International arms suppliers claim to have sent Turkey 1,605 tanks and Greece 1,410 tanks in a three-year period, ending in 1994. Between them, according to arms experts, they have imported three times as many tanks as the British Army could field in the event of war. Only Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf have seen a greater influx of arms.
''These two countries will be a thorn in the side of the European Union, their fellow NATO allies, and the surrounding countries for years,'' says an EU diplomat in Athens.
But any US initiative to improve relations between Athens and Ankara will have to wait until tempers have cooled in the wake of the island dispute. The United States on Monday canceled an urgent mission to both countries after Greek accusations that Washington had taken Turkey's side in defusing the crisis for forcing a humiliating Greek back-off. The mission was to be led this weekend by Richard Holbrooke, the often-badgering assistant secretary of state who brokered the Bosnia peace accord.
Unwelcome in Greece, Mr. Holbrooke would have faced a different problem in Turkey. ''Who would he talk to?'' says a NATO diplomat in Ankara. The country has been rudderless since December's inconclusive general elections in which the Islamist Welfare Party won most seats but was unable to coax other parties to join it in a coalition. Rival right-wing parties have also been unable to settle their differences and form a government that would be welcomed by the powerful Turkish military, the business community - and the West - which is anxious that Turkey remain secular.
To the outside world, last week's island dispute looked farcical: two NATO allies on the brink of war over a tiny scrap of land in the Aegean Sea previously fought over only by seagulls and grazing goats. But to NATO commanders, it demonstrated just how swiftly and unexpectedly the fault line on their southern flank can crack open.
It began as jingoistic flag-hoisting, first by the mayor of a neighboring Greek island and then by Turkish television journalists. Within days the prank had escalated into a full-scale international crisis, with rival warships circling the island like sharks and both sides landing troops. Only the personal intervention of President Clinton averted a war.
''This was not a bluff,'' insisted Holbrooke, who engineered the compromise that saw both sides lower their flags and withdraw from the island known as Imia to the Greeks and Kardak to the Turks. Turkey claimed a victory, and many Greeks accepted it as a defeat by their larger and more powerful neighbor. Their new premier, Costas Simitis, had boasted just hours before the blue-and-white Greek flag was lowered that it never would be.
''It is useful for the American pimps, supporters, and financiers of the ... repulsive Turkish state to know our feelings after the postponement of this war: We feel humiliated, we feel ashamed, and we feel defeated again,'' said an editorial in yesterday's Simerini, a Greek Cypriot daily.
In reality, the uninhabited island is symptomatic of a host of long-simmering disputes between Greece and Turkey that could flare up in similar fashion at any time.
The Ottoman connection
Centuries of animosity between Greece and Turkey date back to the 400-year-long occupation of Greece by the Turkish Ottoman Empire that ended only 175 years ago in a popular uprising. But the tension today rests mainly on modern-day disputes, centering on the Aegean Sea and Cyprus. In the Aegean, where the two countries nearly went to war over mineral rights in 1987, there are unresolved disputes over territorial waters, airspace, and Greek islands close to the Turkish coast that Ankara complains are heavily fortified.
Until last week's Aegean crisis, Holbrooke had intended to make Nicosia, the world's last divided capital, his first stop after Washington announced 1996 as the year of a ''big push'' on Cyprus. He insisted the island's cold war between Greece and Turkey needs to be dealt with:
''If these little rocks [in the Aegean] nearly exploded, think of a serious island with serious people and a Berlin-type wall running down the middle of it,'' Holbrooke said.
Cyprus has been divided along ethnic and religious lines since 1974 when Turkey invaded, ostensibly to protect the Turkish Cypriots - often a persecuted minority - after a coup inspired by the colonels then ruling in Athens who attempted to overthrow the internationally recognized government of President Archbishop Makarios.
The invasion left 37 percent of the island in the hands of the Turkish Cypriots, who make up only 18 percent of the island's population, while 35,000 Turkish troops enforce the division.
UN plan stalls over details
Greek and Turkish Cypriots have long accepted UN proposals to reunite under a bi-zonal federation, but the exact nature of that federation and issues like sovereignty, territory, security guarantees, and the return of refugees have bedeviled negotiations for years.
United Nations officials who had relied on Washington's superpower muscle to give weight to their plans to reunite the island were disappointed that Holbrooke's mission was canceled. ''There's the perception he can do things, and his promise to come here raised a lot of expectations,'' says a senior UN official here who declined to be named. ''I don't see how Greco-Turkish relations can improve without a settlement here.''
Cynics on both sides of the UN-patrolled buffer zone that runs the entire length of the island had insisted from the start that the American initiative was far from whole-hearted.
Mr. Clinton, they maintained, was going through the motions to placate the noisy Greek lobby during an election year and would do nothing to upset Turkey, seen as Washington's regional watchdog. ''An awful lot depends on how far the US can, or is willing to, influence the Turks to play,'' agreed a European diplomat in Nicosia.
For frustrated UN officials tired of their Sisyphean role in Cyprus, Greece and Turkey sometimes seem like rivals that are destined for each other, a view often shared by Greeks and Turks in less tense times. ''The Greek does not love me and just sees me as an enemy,'' wrote the well-known Turkish author Ozdemir Kalpakcioglu. ''But I see Greeks as the enemy and love them as such.''