Op-Ed: A Southern Strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean
Non-Muslim countries in the region, Cyprus, Israel, Syria, and Egypt, are seeking out greater ties with Russia to safeguard their national interests.
The Old Testament tells mankind that at the beginning of times all was “tohu wabohu,” chaos and tumult. When examining the present day shifting geopolitics in the eastern Mediterranean, the Old Testament’s holy words seem to presage the continuous turmoil and conflict that would beset the eastern Mediterranean for the next three thousand years.
The region has witnessed relative calm only once in its long and violent history. Under wise statecraft, the U.S. designed the Truman Doctrine at the onset of the Cold War to orient both Greece and Turkey within the U.S.’s sphere of influence for the duration of hostilities with the Soviet Union. Through economic incentives, and arms sales, to Greece and Turkey, the U.S. contained the Soviet Fleet. Consequently, these strategic moves paid great dividends by diminishing Moscow’s projected naval capacity into either the east or western Mediterranean Sea at maximum output, thus expediting its eventual demise.
The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a new era for the eastern Mediterranean. One not of the utopia of the ‘end of history’ some analysts predicted, but an epoch where the bi polar framework ceases to exist, robust energy findings have been found, old and new powers seek to carve out their own sphere of influence, and the rise of non state actors such as warring jihadist groups vying to establish their version of sharia law in fragile states along sectarian fault lines, has dominated the political landscape in the eastern Mediterranean.
Under these circumstances, politics and alliances are shifting to reflect these changes. The military relationship between the U.S., Israel, and Greece has now become the most important lever the U.S. possesses in its arsenal in the complex game of power politics in the eastern Mediterranean.
Old stalwart allies of the Cold War that helped to maintain a semblance of stability in the eastern Mediterranean such as Turkey have turned their back on the west. Turkey’s policies have also enflamed the situation on the ground in the region and have invited an insidious reality to enter. The United States’ longstanding policy of accommodating Turkey’s rise was based on the principle that Turkey would emerge as a “moderate Islamist” state that would successfully entwine both Islam and democracy under the banner of moderate governance, become a model to other predominantly Muslim states, while maintaining strategic relations with Israel.
The rise of the AKP, and its diverging ambitions and profound ideological cleavages, fractured this foundation upon which U.S. policy rested in the eastern Mediterranean since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The AKP’s foreign policies have deviated from the U.S.’s since its inception, and have negatively affected stalwart allies and U.S. interests in the region by inviting radical groups to operate freely and create a vacuum large enough for the return of Russia as a great power unseen since the end of the Cold War.
As the U.S. was designing ground war plans for the Iraq War, the U.S. made a request to Turkey to allow American forces to traverse Turkish territory to invade Iraq from a northern route. Consequently, the American 4th Infantry Division was denied access to Turkish territory, which resulted in the abandonment of a land attack from the north and increased casualties and wear on U.S. hardware. Turkey’s logic behind the decision was that the $26 billion offered by the U.S. to allow a northern attack was not enough. Turkey would only accept $32 billion to allow the U.S. to access its territory.
Since the fray in relations between the U.S. and AKP, Turkey has shown a proclivity to support rogue leaders, and jihadist forces, while lambasting Israel, a key pillar of stability that U.S. policy depended on. While condemning Israel, and removing the Turkish ambassador from Tel Aviv, for Israel’s defense against the hostile attempt by Turkish Islamists to break the blockade on Hamas-led Gaza in 2010, Erdogan initially opposed the NATO intervention in Libya, by describing the idea as “absurd.” It was only after France and Britain’s initial attacks on Libyan air defenses that Turkey belatedly backed NATO’s plans to create a no-fly zone.
The “Arab Spring” has presented the United States with a new paradox; it had drifted closer with Turkey in order to promote democracy and security in the region, but Turkey acted against those very interests. The ill-advised imprimatur of the U.S. to Turkey to stabilize the eastern Mediterranean as the U.S. sought to “pivot” to Asia has enflamed tensions on the ground, and has invited Moscow to reemerge as a regional power for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Turkey did not believe that the anti-Semitic, radical Islamist, and master violator of religious rights, the Muslim Brotherhood, had to alter its values to remain in power in the Arab world’s most populated and influential state. For Turkey shared the Muslim Brotherhood’s values and interests in the emergence of a political arch of unity from Ankara to Cairo under the banner of Sunni-Islamism, where religious minorities were perceived as threats, and Islamism would become an ideology that united the predominantly Sunni countries against the western ideals of reason, liberalism, and democracy.
On September 13, 2011, in Cairo, among an enthralled crowd waving both Turkish and Egyptian flags, Erdogan noted that a “Turkish-Egyptian alliance would form a force of 150 million people strong. We are substantially surrounding the Mediterranean.” The incipient blossoming relationship began to bear fruit when members of the Muslim Brotherhood called for the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, and exclusive economic zone agreement between Egypt and Cyprus, to be abrogated. If ratified, these changes in Egyptian policy would have in effect placed a halt on Cyprus’ newly found oil and natural gas production, and destabilized Israel’s immediate frontiers.
This ideal was short lived. In the summer of 2013, after millions poured into the streets of Egypt calling for the Muslim Brotherhood to be removed, Egypt’s military crushed the party, and has rightfully labeled it a terrorist organization for inciting violence. If Turkey was able to alter the tactics of the Muslim Brotherhood, and truly channel the idea that Islamism and democracy can be intimately entwined, the intervention by the Egyptian military to overthrow the entrenched Muslim Brothers may have never occurred. This event has massive policy implications for Russia’s growing influence in the region.
The Egyptian military’s intervention has resulted in a collapse in U.S.-Egyptian military relations. Russia now has leverage in Egypt unseen since the Soviet Union financed the Aswan Dam in the 1950s once the U.S. reneged on its promise to. Egypt has now sought out more reliable partners such as Russia for both financing and military hardware, including a recent $2 billion military deal between Cairo and Moscow.
With the Turkish public becoming increasingly hostile to the West, the AKP’s domestic corruption scandals, and foreign policy blunders in Syria, Turkey will no longer be the reliable partner it once was. A plurality of Turks consider Turkey’s neighbors in the Middle East as more important to the country’s economic interests (43%) and security interests (42%) than countries of the EU (33%). Turkey is the NATO member with the lowest support for NATO, with only (37%) saying that NATO is essential. The hostile public opinion, and Turkey’s ill-fated attempt to support jihadist groups to overthrow Russia’s ally, Syria, may also be the reason for Turkey seeking to improve relations with Iran as a way to accommodate Russia’s resurgence.
Turkish officials still plan on improving trade deals with Iran. Turkey aims to boost trade with Iran from approximately $15 billion to $30 billion a year by 2015, and plan a high-level prime minister exchange in January 2014. Turkey’s miscalculation of its own influence within Syria, and unwarranted belief that supporting radical Sunni jihadist groups would result in the overthrowing of the Assad regime quickly, has now resulted in over 600,000 Syrian refugees on Turkish territory, myriad jihadist groups operating on Turkish soil, and the non-Islamist, and non-Muslim countries in the region, Cyprus, Israel, Syria, and Egypt, seeking out greater ties with Russia to safeguard their national interests.
As the Obama administration dithered between attacking Syria for its inhumane chemical attack, Russia’s last minute negotiated deal to remove chemical stockpiles from Syria without an attack going forward, has now allowed Russia to achieve its desired objective of becoming essential to all seemingly intractable conflicts in the eastern Mediterranean from Tehran to Cairo. As Russia’s leverage has increased in both Egypt and Syria, Russia has politically outmaneuvered the U.S. once again by sealing an interim agreement for Iran’s nuclear program, paralyzing Israel from even considering an attack on Iran, fearing a fall out from Russia, and its newly formed alliances in Syria and Egypt.
As the U.S.’s willful retraction of influence in the region continues, and the Obama administration lacks a coherent strategy, the architects of U.S. foreign policy will now have to rely even more on the U.S. military relationship with Israel and Greece to project the force necessary to shape events in the region moving forward. The U.S. should leverage its growing and warming military ties with both Israel and Greece to repel Russia’s growing influence in the littoral states. There is increasing cooperation in both defense and security, including intelligence between Washington, Athens and Jerusalem since 2010.
The discovery of massive natural gas and oil deposits within Israel’s and Cyprus’ exclusive economic zones, as well as Greece’s hopes for confirming its own deposits south of its island, Crete, creates a natural nexus for an integrated energy zone between Jerusalem, Nicosia, and Athens that the U.S., under wise statecraft can develop as a foundation for a military pact.
The U.S. should not only encourage the strengthening relationship between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus, but become the principle actor driving the relationship forward. Given that the U.S. already has strong and strategic relations with the three countries, it would behoove U.S. statesmen to seek a greater U.S. principal role that advances and upgrades the tripartite foundation that Greece, Israel, and Cyprus have established.
A start would be to upgrade in both scope and capabilities the annual “Noble Dina” naval exercise the U.S. Sixth Fleet holds with both the Greek and Israeli navies, and join the Israeli and Greek forces in special ops training, and long-distance aerial drills spanning Souda Bay, Crete to Haifa. Discussions with the Cypriot military establishment to host U.S. jets for trilateral air exercises with Greek and Israeli pilots would also show a mantle of force and deterrence.
Politically, a quadrilateral strategic dialogue ministerial which focuses on working groups in security, energy, counter-terrorism, economics, and finance will underscore the sustained quadrilateral relationship in the sectors of importance. The Strategic Dialogue will report on progress achieved over the past year between the countries, and identify opportunities for increased partnership.
Both U.S. allies and foes have shaped their behavior around the expectations that will emerge if the U.S. does not return as a stabilizing presence. Unfortunately for the U.S., for littoral countries such as Syria, and Egypt, it is recognized that the Russian bear is the lesser of the evils between it and the uncontrollable jihadist forces in the region that Turkey unleashed when it comes to safeguarding their own national interests.
Israel and Greece’s robust military relations have redrawn the political map of the region. The U.S. would be wise to shift its policies, and resources, towards improving relations at all levels with its stalwart allies in the region, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus, to contain the newly emergent Russian fleet, and malignant jihadist forces operating around Israel’s borders.
Restoring its preeminent position of military power with its allies would once again send the right message to the world that peace comes through strength, not appeasement.