NATO's vulnerable flank

OVER three decades after President Truman vowed to save Western society by keeping communism out of Greece and Turkey, long-simmering disputes between those ancient enemies - and NATO allies - threaten to heat up and rupture NATO's southern flank from within.

The Mediterranean has not been calm lately. Earlier this month, when stray shells from Turkish gunboats on exercises in the northern Aegean landed near Greek ships in the area, the Greek government recalled its ambassador from Ankara, placed its armed forces on alert, and filed formal protests with the United States and other NATO governments. Although this squall subsided quickly, ongoing squabbles over territorial and drilling rights show no signs of settling. The division of Cyprus is deepening. Since the Turkish community on northern Cyprus declared that territory an independent state last November, relations between Athens and Ankara have been strained to the breaking point.

UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, is now laying the groundwork for new negotiations on the Cyprus situation. But the prognosis for real progress is not good. Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash and his patrons in Ankara - who subsidize over 50 percent of the Turkish-Cypriot budget - have participated in eight rounds of UN-sponsored discussions since 1975. Their deeds , however, tell a truer tale. Some ten years after the war that tore Cyprus apart, over 20,000 Turkish troops continue to occupy the island. Fifty thousand colonists from mainland Turkey have been lured to Cyprus by the promise of land that was taken from Greek-Cypriots during the war. And Denktash secured Ankara's approval for his illegal secession, which not coincidentally occurred only hours after President Reagan signed a foreign-aid bill that channeled nearly $1 billion in aid to Turkey. Today, Turkey stands alone in its recognition of the ''Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.''

Clearly, ''constructive engagement'' is not persuading Turkey to help unify Cyprus. Since a US aid embargo was lifted in 1978, we have sent close to $3.5 billion to Turkey, making that country our third-largest aid recipient after Israel and Egypt. This year President Reagan effectively ignored his own condemnation of the Turkish-Cypriot ''state'' by proposing to increase military aid again. And administration officials have estimated that future assistance could top $1 billion a year into the next decade - more than the much-publicized Kissinger commission requested for our warring and poverty-stricken neighbors in Central America. Despite this increasingly generous US aid program, Turkey is working hard to partition Cyprus permanently and consolidate its control over the northern third of that island.

If Congress rubber-stamps this year's request before there is progress at the bargaining table, we will be sending Turkey a message: US aid will flow even if Ankara ignores American law and stonewalls a solution on Cyprus. We will be telling Greece that the congressionally mandated 7-to-10 ratio in Greece-Turkey aid levels, which underpins the 1983 defense agreement signed by the US and Greece, is a dead letter. And the Republic of Cyprus could not help but think that we have put their concerns behind the back burner. Following a pattern, America will be sacrificing respect for human rights and the rule of law on the altar of anti-Soviet ideology.

The US has an undeniable interest in maintaining good relations with Turkey, and we should encourage that country's nascent democracy. But we must not let unquestioning support for Turkey undermine our broader interests in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Our recent tilt to Turkey is fueling a rising tide of anti-Americanism in Greece and Cyprus - a development that could cause grave problems in the not-too-distant future. Ironically, assistance provided to Turkey under the guise of the Truman doctrine could be propelling a drift to the East in Cyprus and Greece.

We cannot afford to foster this trend. Greece and Cyprus are vital bridges linking the US and the Atlantic to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Last year, the US signed a five-year base agreement with Greece, and Cyprus has consistently been our most dependable friend in the region. When both Greece and Turkey refused to let US planes serving our Marines in Lebanon land in their countries, Cyprus stepped in and granted full access to its facilities. The government of Cyprus also allows U-2 overflights of the Middle East and the Soviet Union to originate on its territory and maintains US radars used to monitor Soviet missile tests. With the increasing possibility of US military intervention in the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic services uniquely provided by Cyprus will continue to be of vital concern. Moreover, Cyprus is the only nation in the region to exchange ambassadors with Israel. Contrast that to Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal's recent call for an Islamic strategy against Israel.

The conflict on Cyprus must be resolved. If not, we will face heightened hostility in Greece and Cyprus and the frightening prospect of two NATO allies, both armed with American weapons, engaged in a bloody, sectarian battle. But this administration is unwilling to pressure Turkey for a settlement. It's up to Congress to condition Turkish aid on demonstrable support for a peaceful solution on Cyprus.

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