In recent years the Houston-based oil company, Noble Energy has discovered about 42 trillion cubic feet of natural gas off the coasts of Cyprus and Israel a volume which could easily double with new exploration. Greeces waters could hold as much as 165 tcf. The European Unions total consumption last year was only 15.67 tcf! Under the deep waters of the Eastern Mediterranean lies an economic boon that could lower global energy prices, reduce our allies dependence on Russia and provide funds for fiscally strained Greece and Cyprus.
But those seas roil with the de-secularization of Turkey and the fall of stable, although authoritarian, regimes in Egypt and Syria. In response, Israel, Greece and Cyprus are drawing together to protect their off-shore hydrocarbon reserves in a relationship of necessity nourished by shared political values. Aside from conducting naval exercises with Israel and Greece, U.S. policy hasnt reflected this new democratic triangle of Jerusalem, Nicosia and Athens.
Instead, American foreign policy carries on blithely. Since the end of Trumans first term, the U.S. has loaned or granted $12.5 billion to Turkey, plus $14 billion in military assistance. President Barack Obama welcomed Prime Minister Erdogan to the White House in March. They discussed commercial ties, mutual security and Syria. The administration offered a press release singling out the strong partnership and friendship rooted in common values between the U.S. and Turkey. American defense companies continue to sell equipment to Turkey such as tactical aircraft, surveillance planes and helicopters. Turkey is partnering with the U.S. on the Joint Strike Fighter program and plans to purchase 100 of the new planes.
This would make sense if Turkey were still a dependable NATO ally, valued for its location at an important chokepoint connecting the Soviet-held Black Sea with the Mediterranean. But cordial relations with Ankara are no longer appropriate. Erdogan, an Islamist, is transforming Turkey into a state characterized by repression, single-party rule and human rights abuse. The State Departments 2012 human rights report notes that the Turkey has imprisoned or charged scores of journalists, students, street demonstrators, writers and political figures under anti-terror laws. Surely these are not the common values Obama touted.
But if the Obama administration is unwilling to strengthen the hand of Turks who want to see their country return to westward-looking, moderate governance, they can at least assist the friendly outposts of democracy in the region. The U.S. maintains an anachronistic weapons embargo against Cyprus, a legacy of the conflict that divided Greek and Turkish Cypriots four decades ago. Other embargoed states include Iran, North Korea, Syria, China and the terrorist group, Hezbollah. Cyprus place in this rogues gallery is questionable as a member of the European Union, a flourishing democracy with a multi-party system, a fully functioning national legislature and an independent judiciary.
At a minimum the U.S. should allow sale of patrol boats to protect the Cypriot natural gas facility from attack by sea: the Syrian and Lebanese coasts are fewer than a hundred miles to the east. A dozen patrol craft could do nothing against a Turkish navy which boasts over 100 combat vessels.
Finally, the U.S. should strengthen its Sixth Fleet, the Mediterranean Fleet. It presently has few vessels: a command ship based in Italy, and a few ballistic missile destroyers based in Spain.
The Sixth Fleet is nowhere near the strength that is needed to support our friends in the region if the Syrian civil war starts to spill across borders, if Egypt faces similar domestic unrest or in the event of an Israeli strike against Irans nuclear weapons facilities. Reinvigorating the Sixth Fleet with a single carrier battle group and an amphibious task force would help deter conflict as its presence would have encouraged terrorists to think twice about attacking Americas ambassador in Libya last year.
A Sixth Fleet with muscle would also go a long way toward re-asserting U.S. commitment in a region where Russia, China and Iran have been increasing their naval presence. U.S. policy may wish to re-balance toward Asia, but as NATOs southern flank grows in strategic importance and the Eastern Mediterranean grows in economic importance, Americas status will suffer immeasurably by showing the world that we can only protect our vital interests one at a time