FRESH AIR

Turkey’s provocative actions in the Mediterranean spark a reaction

Nov 9, 2020 | Oved Lobel

6th Israel-Cyprus-Greece trilateral in Jerusalem, March 2019 (Right to Left: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades; Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu; former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras)
6th Israel-Cyprus-Greece trilateral in Jerusalem, March 2019 (Right to Left: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades; Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu; former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras)

An overlapping series of alliances and partnerships in the eastern Mediterranean are beginning to coalesce in response to Turkey’s provocative activities in the region. The building blocks for this countervailing coalition have been developing for quite some time outside of major headlines, but the process has dramatically sped up since 2019 in response to Turkey’s growing military power and assertiveness against Western energy and security interests.

Israel is both playing a significant part in this new coalition as well as building important new regional ties as a result.

The United States, which has been strongly backing the formation of energy and security ties between regional states, has been rhetorically circumspect and even denied any of the moves are aimed at Turkey. Yet the outcome all the same appears to be a long-term, US-backed coalition to contain Turkey economically and militarily. At the centre of this coalition are Cyprus and Greece and their relationships with the US, Israel, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as with European powers, particularly France.

Beginning in November 2014, a Cyprus-Greece-Egypt trilateral group was established to deal with political, economic and security issues of mutual concern in the region, including Turkey’s refusal to recognise Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and the intractable dispute between the unrecognised, Turkish-occupied Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and Cyprus itself. Their joint statement called “on Turkey to cease all seismic survey operations underway within the maritime zones of Cyprus and refrain from similar activity in the future.” Six years later, Turkey has not only continued such activities but significantly escalated. Cyprus just hosted the 8th trilateral summit with Egypt and Greece in late October  – covering much the same issues, but with a more pressing agenda given Turkey’s dramatic intervention in the war in Libya against Egyptian-backed warlord Khalifa Haftar. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is slated to visit Greece from November 11-12.

Libya has also given impetus for deepening ties between the UAE, France, Greece and Cyprus. The UAE hosted the first Greece-Cyprus-UAE trilateral gathering in Abu Dhabi in November 2019. Since at least 2017, the UAE has been participating in military drills alongside Israel and the US in Greece, and recently deployed several F-16 fighter jets to Greece for bilateral exercises. The UAE has been fighting its own cold war with Turkey since the Arab Spring in 2011 across the Middle East and North Africa, trying to re-establish or create new client states run by military autocrats and crush Turkish-backed Islamists and regional democratisation.

France, which has backed the UAE and Egypt in Libya and has been locked into an ever-escalating war of words with Turkey, has also pledged to dispatch warships to Greece over Turkey’s continued refusal to acknowledge the EEZs of Cyprus and the Greek islands off Turkey’s coast. A multilateral exercise involving Italy, France, Cyprus and Greece was held in late August.

But the most long-standing and important strategic relationship is between Cyprus, Greece and Israel. In bilateral and trilateral formats, this energy and security partnership has grown significantly since 2017. The first trilateral meeting between the three countries took place in November 2017, at which stage military cooperation deepened dramatically.  Cyprus hosted a trilateral meeting with Israel and Greece earlier this year, and the three countries signed an agreement on deepening even further tripartite military cooperation a month ago. In July, the Greek parliament ratified a further defence agreement with Israel.

Bringing all of these elements together is the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), established officially in Cairo in January 2020. The culmination of major gas discoveries within the EEZs of Israel, Cyprus and Egypt over the past decade and consequent energy partnerships, the EMGF is meant to serve as a regional forum for energy discussions and policy coordination among all the regional states, except Turkey.  

France has applied to join as a full member, with the US participating as a permanent observer. The ultimate plan is to build a pipeline from Israel to Cyprus to transport gas to Europe, although the economic viability of this EastMed pipeline is uncertain.   

To undermine the EMGF coalition, Turkey signed a blatantly illegal deal with its proxy in Libya, delimiting Turkish and Libyan EEZs that nullify those of Cyprus and Greece. Greece and Egypt responded in kind, signing their own maritime deal that cancelled out the Turkey-Libya EEZ agreement. Egypt also announced a second explicitly anti-Turkey coalition consisting of France, Greece, the UAE, Cyprus and Egypt.  

The most important element of all of these partnerships is the strong US backing they have received, and the deepening US political and military support for all the countries involved. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was present in Israel for the Israel-Cyprus-Greece trilateral discussing the EastMed pipeline in early 2019, where he said, “As we cooperate on these important energy issues, I know we’ll improve our security and prosperity even more broadly between our four nations.”

In December 2019, the US Congress passed the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019, described as “a comprehensive recalibration of American diplomatic, military, and economic policy towards the Eastern Mediterranean and a strong and prosperous alliance between the United States, Greece, Israel, and Cyprus.”

Among other provisions to encourage energy and security cooperation, the bill lifts the US arms embargo on Cyprus, in place since the 1970s, and authorises new substantial security assistance to both Cyprus and Greece. It also authorises “the establishment of a United States-Eastern Mediterranean Energy Centre to facilitate energy cooperation between the US, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus.”

The US immediately set about implementing some provisions of the bill. In July, the US invited Cyprus to participate in the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, and in September the US waived the embargo for shipment of non-lethal defence equipment and services to Cyprus. Also in September, Pompeo signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the establishment of the Cyprus Centre for Land, Open-seas, and Port Security (CYCLOPS).

In Greece, Pompeo announced, “We, the Americans, look to Greece as a true pillar for stability and prosperity in the Eastern Mediterranean, and we are incredibly proud to support its leadership.  Our security cooperation has grown tremendously – indeed, by leaps and bounds.”

Based on an upgraded Mutual Defence Cooperation Agreement with the US ratified by Greece in January, the US will be building three new military facilities in Greece as well as expanding its base at Souda Bay, which will become the permanent home of the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams, the newest expeditionary sea base in the US Navy. This move, Pompeo said, was “symbolic of a defence partnership that will continue to expand and to grow.” This shift towards Greece becoming the dominant US regional defence partner began in late 2018, when talks were first broached on new facilities and base expansion.

Finally, the US is reportedly preparing to sell both the UAE and Greece the advanced F-35. Some of the Greek F-35s will reportedly be those initially intended for Turkey before it was expelled from the F-35 program over its purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system. Another consequence of Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 is an unofficial but comprehensive US arms embargo on Turkey, with the threat of severe sanctions still in the air. Unlike President Donald Trump, Joe Biden has been personally hawkish towards Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and a Biden administration would be likely to step up efforts to penalise Turkey.

All of these separate but related partnerships and alliances are now organically connecting, particularly since the US-brokered Abraham Accords officially normalised relations between the UAE and Israel. Whether this will work to constrain Turkish ambition and behaviour remains to be seen, but it’s clear that there has been a pronounced regional realignment with substantial US backing, and large-scale Israeli participation, laying a solid foundation for the containment of Turkey.

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