The autumn cold is here, but the Eastern Mediterranean remains hot. Negotiations to end forty years of Turkish occupation in the northern third of Cyprus ended abruptly in late October. The Cypriot president suspended talks after a Turkish survey vessel entered the Exclusive Economic Zone of Cyprus. Cyprus has been in discussions to partner with Israel, Greece, and Egypt to explore and export its gas reserves and the deepening partnership among these countries has sparked concern in Turkey.
Such developments reflect the potential for a profound realignment in the region and, most significantly, signal a substantive challenge for American foreign policy which confronts a dilemma as various American partners find themselves on different sides of key issues. In the short term, the United States finds itself in a position where it will have to assertively define where it if it wishes to continue to exercise influence in this important region.
Turkey lies at the center of the brewing storm. Bilateral ties between Israel and Turkey have been under stress since January 2009 when Prime Minister Erdoğan vocally criticized Shimon Peres and Israeli policies towards Palestinians at the Davos Conference. The rift was exacerbated as a result of the Gaza flotilla incident in May 2010 and remains unhealed.
Erdoğan openly supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and has been less than flattering towards the government of General Abdel el-Sisi. For its part, the new Egyptian government has engaged in trilateral meetings with Greek and Cypriot leaders, recently announcing a bilateral cooperation with Cyprus on gas exploration and export—a clear challenge to Turkey.
Meanwhile Russia is working to maintain its influence in the region, supporting Assad in Syria and pursuing arms deals with Egypt. Also, improving ties with Turkey is important for Russia as it aims to bring Turkey into its sphere. In spite of disagreements over Syria and Ukraine, Russia and Turkey are cooperating on the Blue Stream Pipeline, which directly connects Russian gas to Turkey under the Black Sea. On November 22, while Vice President Biden visited with Prime Minister Davutoğlou in Istanbul at the Atlantic Summit on Energy and Economics, President Erdoğan met with President Putin in St. Petersburg. Every party involved is hedging its bets and trying to find the best possible deal.
From an American perspective, the best possible deal is one in which the Cold War alliances are re-invigorated and expanded to include Cyprus and Egypt. This solves the Cyprus problem and allows Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt to cooperate on gas exploration and exploitation. Economic integration would smooth over political divisions among those countries and their gas supplies would make Europe less dependent on imported energy from Russia.
But such a scenario is too rosy to be realistic. Under the current conditions, gas reserves seem to be an incentive for competition rather than compromise or cooperation. Past logic and partnerships are proving unstable. For the US, continuing a vague syncretic approach to reconciling the various actors without deeper engagement in the region is problematic.
To overcome these hurdles, American foreign policy must provide clear direction and substantive engagement. As the stakes increase, the space for compromise shrinks and America will soon confront an uneasy choice to either support a Greek-Cypriot-Israeli block in opposition to Turkey or to fall back on Turkey as its primary partner in the region at the expense of its relations with Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and perhaps even with Israel.
Committing to the Greek-Cyprus-Israel bloc is possible. Greece is a member of NATO and American-Israeli ties are notoriously close. Making the arrangement work would require additional American efforts to bring Egypt along, prying it away from Russia and smoothing over any lingering ill-feeling around both the revolution that dislodged Hosni Mubarak from power and the unease over the ouster of Mohammad Morsi by General el-Sisi. It would also require a tightening of Cypriot-American relations—an arena where the pull of Turkey on the United States and the legacies of the 1974 invasion have been traditional stumbling blocks.
Re-committing to Turkey is not without difficulties. In spite of their longstanding NATO alliance, the United States and Turkey have appeared on divergent paths on a number of key issues including: conflict with ISIS, Turkey’s occupation of Cyprus, unrest in Egypt, and the Israel-Palestine dispute. The American State Department has even expressed muted criticism of the authoritarian tendencies of Erdoğan and the ruling AK Party.
However, longstanding ties, Turkey’s geography and size, its growing economic and established military power all speak in favor of a continued partnership. Turkey is deeply embedded in regional security arrangements making any recalibration costly and problematic. As Vice President Biden concluded his recent Istanbul trip, the White House announced $135 million in humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees in Turkey. For his part, President Erdoğan emphasized that relations between Turkey and America would continue to strengthen. While some fence mending is taking place, significant efforts remain required to harmonize American and Turkish foreign policy beyond the immediate problems of Syria and ISIS.
American policymakers must recognize the scale of the broader differences that exist if they want to re-invigorate their partnership with Turkey. At the same time, they must recognize that the divisions between Turkey and the other actors in the region are deeper than the issue of gas. Those divisions are highlighted, not created, by gas finds; they can be aggravated, not solved by pipeline politics.
The Eastern Mediterranean holds enormous potential in numerous areas of interest from energy to security and economic cooperation but only if the United States embraces the tough choices to shape it.
Novo’s opinions are his own and do not reflect the official policy or attitude of the United States Government or the Department of Defense.