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Will U.S. Choose the Right Side in the Eastern Mediterranean?

Seth Cropsey

As politics and alliances in the eastern Mediterranean shift, the region’s security framework is splintering. There are virtually no U.S. naval forces in the region and America is not playing its traditional stabilizing role.

Islamism is on the rise from Ankara to Algiers. A sectarian civil war is metastasizing across the Syrian border with over 90,000 dead, and Turkish, Russian, Chinese and Iranian naval forces are increasingly active. Large changes in the region’s economy are also underway as the Eastern Mediterranean’s hydrocarbon map has been redrawn. The 38 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas discovered thus far in the Israeli and Cypriot exclusive economic zones by U.S.-based firm Noble Energy is a substantial finding: The EU imported a total of 11.6 tcf of natural gas in 2011 and these newer findings represent the only hydrocarbon reserves under control of pro-Western states in the region. Under wise statecraft the find is also the basis of a developing three-way strategic relationship between Greece, Israel and Cyprus, as each state aims to take advantage of their shared economic and security interests. This triangle offers the U.S. an opportunity to bolster its waning influence in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

U.S. strategy in the region was for years based on common interests among America, Israel and Turkey. Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 2002 ascension as Turkish prime minister put strains into the strategy. It shattered when Turkish Islamists tried forcefully to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, aimed at preventing more weapons from reaching Islamist terrorists. Erdogan’s policy deliberately ended good relations between Ankara and Jerusalem. This was not an isolated incident. It was the result of a profound change in the Turkish government’s direction under an Islamist ruler who as of this writing has blamed “foreigners” for the growing protests that demonstrate Turkish citizens’ dissatisfaction with an increasingly repressive regime. It was the strategy of a politician who has emerged from what was once a secular state to use the Gaza incident as part of a broad Islamist enterprise to reorient Turkey toward the East and return the nation to the vision of its past Ottoman imperial rulers. Turkey has now imprisoned more journalists than any country in the world; it has become a dialogue partner of the Shanghai Cooperation Council, a bloc dominated by Russia and China. Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, has replaced secular media, courts and civil society with the party’s fundamentalist loyalists. One in five generals of the Turkish army — once the guardians of the Turkish state — is now behind bars. As the AKP tightens its hold in Turkey, Ataturk’s adage, “peace at home, peace in the world,” is being replaced by the AKP’s, “Islamism at home, pan-Islamism in the world.” The shift toward fundamentalism risks isolating Turkey even more, and promises growing instability for the entire region.

But just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does geopolitics. Israel, Greece and Cyprus have drawn closer in an unprecedented political, military and energy relationship. Turkey downgraded its relations with Israel and is supporting the terrorist organization, Hamas. Turkey has increased trade and military ties with other Sunni states, and is backing Al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups fighting in Syria. Ankara has also threatened to use naval force to interfere with U.S.-based Noble Energy’s operations for gas transshipment from the region. Such attempts are a throwback to the sultans whose imperial reach extended into the Balkans, central Europe and the North African littoral.

The virtual coalition of Sunni states against the Assad regime in Syria points to the rise of religious rivalry as the glue of new alliance structures. Increased trade and investment between Turkey and the Sunni Arab states, as well as joint naval military exercises between Egypt and Turkey, are strengthening relationships rooted in Islamist politics. With Egypt’s fiscal affairs crumbling and Turkey acting as a creditor of the Arab world’s old leader, Turkish influence is likely to tilt the balance of power toward the Sunni bloc. The new order comes with an even darker side. In 2012 the leader of the Palestinian terrorist organization, Hamas, told Prime Minister Erdogan what the sultans longed to hear: “You are not only a Turkish leader. You are, now, also a leader of the world of Islam.”

The region’s drift toward fundamentalism creates an incentive for America to move closer to Israel, Cyprus and Greece. The U.S. has been interested in a stable Mediterranean since the early 19th century wars against the Barbary pirates who, as Ottoman puppets, preyed on American and European shipping. Turkey’s growing political aspirations and economic clout are recapitulating its old dreams of regional influence that directly oppose NATO’s interest in a calm south and southeastern flank. The U.S. and Turkey have become rival powers in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. President Obama does not recognize this: His visit to Turkey took place less than four months after his first inauguration in 2009, and underlines the esteem in which he holds Erdogan. This esteem is misplaced. Turkey’s return to an imperial and fundamentalist policy supported tacitly by the U.S. is changing the region’s strategic balance, as it creates dilemmas that will outlive the current U.S. administration.

American statesmen should be looking ahead to consider how best to create a practical order that reflects the U.S.‘s own interests as well as those we share with Israel, Greece and Cyprus — first among those is security. There is increasing cooperation in both defense and security, including intelligence between Athens and Jerusalem. Greece expects to gain from Israel’s expertise in special forces and tactical air operations, as Israel benefits from Greece’s naval experience as well as its air space available for training. This has positive military consequences. On the Greek island of Crete is based an S-300 surface-to-air missile system. Greek and Israeli joint exercises in the skies above Crete have given Israeli pilots valuable training against a system they may encounter in operations against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The 1400km distance between Israel and the island of Crete is equal to the distance that separates Israel from Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment facility. With over 100 tactical planes and tankers, cooperation between the two nations’ air forces has allowed Israeli pilots to engage in bombing drills and the aerial refueling needed for a distance strike.

Increased military exercises are also building U.S.-Greek-Israeli interoperability. Since 2011 the three nations’ forces have conducted an annual naval exercise called “Noble Dina.” In addition to anti-submarine and air defense exercises, the emphasis has been on maritime interdiction, including special forces and search-and-rescue drills. In 2012 Noble Dina focused on protecting offshore drilling platforms, which will have to be constructed in order to tap the hydrocarbon deposits off the Israeli and Cypriot coasts. The exercise took place between the U.S. naval base at Souda Bay, Crete and the Israeli port of Haifa. Securing drilling platforms is as important as protecting the shipment of energy from wellhead to port.

A very close second area of overlapping interest is energy. Plans for a liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility on Cyprus, with the potential to achieve economies of scale for Israel and Cyprus, have become key to reaching defense agreements among Athens, Nicosia and Jerusalem. A quadrilateral coalition or alliance — the U.S., Israel, Greece and Cyprus — could help ensure the security of hydrocarbon deposits off Israel and Cyprus, and Greece, which will help reduce EU dependence on unreliable producers, like Russia. It would also lessen the EU’s dependence on Turkey, which seeks to become a transshipment point for the gas and oil that has already been discovered. It will mean secure access to the region’s only supply of energy in Western-owned hands. The proposed Trans-Adriatic Pipeline which would channel natural gas from the Caspian Sea to the EU via Greece, and the sheer size of the Cypriot and Israeli energy deposits, will link both Caspian and eastern Mediterranean resources with the global energy market. This will add significantly to the world’s energy supply as it helps reduce the risk associated with current dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

A quadrilateral relationship — U.S., Greece, Israel and Cyprus — based on economic and security interests would help defend NATO’s southeastern flank, offset the increasing presence of Russian, Chinese, Iranian naval forces in the region and deter the Turkish fleet as Turkey abandons the Kemalist enterprise in favor of Islamist fundamentalism. U.S. leadership of a high-level strategic dialogue that brings the four countries together annually to discuss regional developments would help bring common goals closer. Upgrading in size and scope the annual special forces training, naval maritime interdiction exercises, intelligence sharing and joint counter-terrorism training would also improve security; so would effective action to ensure unhindered access to the strategic airbase of Paphos on Cyprus for U.S., Greek and Israeli air forces. All these measures will help secure the sea lines of communication and provide a powerful deterrent against hostile state and non-state actors.

The Cold War standoff between U.S. and Soviet forces was a peaceful aberration in the eastern Mediterranean’s violent history whose beginnings are the subject of the West’s first piece of great literature, the Iliad. History paralleled the violence of the epic poem in the form of Persia’s repeated invasions of Greece, the Peloponnesian Wars, the Ottoman imperial stretch which was halted briefly at the battle of Lepanto and at the gates of Vienna to name but a very few. The region has always been a cauldron of violence. The U.S. has a stake in the future of the Mediterranean’s stability, security and the success of popular governance. We can help secure this future by acknowledging the political and military changes that are continuing in the region and adapting to them. The U.S. has no interest in enmity with Turkey, but we have a very large interest in supporting our Turkish friends who still envision a moderate secular state, and demonstrating to those who seek a return to the Ottoman Empire’s ambitions what the disadvantages of such policy are. A clear-eyed view of Mr. Erdogan’s regime and the creation of ever-stronger relations with Israel, Greece and Cyprus would be a good start.

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