The strategic and energy-rich region beginning in the eastern Mediterranean and stretching 600 miles east into Central Asia straddles three continents, from Libya to Azerbaijan. The region is undergoing changes as large as those that Dickens described between London and revolutionary Paris. Huge energy deposits have been discovered at the same time that political upheavals roil the area. In this cauldron, the United States faces serious challenges and opportunities.
Politics and alliances in the eastern Mediterranean are shifting, and the region’s security framework is splintering. The region is now divided as much within the Muslim world as between it and the non-Muslim states.
A new order is emerging as a result of three major events: the redrawing of the region’s hydrocarbon map, with the discovery of substantial hydrocarbon deposits in the Cypriot and Israeli exclusive economic zones; Turkey’s adoption of a hostile neo-Ottoman ideology to guide it in the 21st century; and the “Arab Spring.” At the mid-point of this political shift, Greece and Cyprus — coordinating with Israel — have remained the principal states in the region that are friendly to the West. When volatility and fear are on the rise, predictability becomes especially prized.
The roles of Greece and Cyprus in the West’s political and security framework offer U.S. policy makers an arc of stability in the eastern Mediterranean, and bring the EU to within 45 minutes of Israel’s borders. Port usage, naval facilities, and strategic airbases that Cyprus and Greece have long extended to the United States permit a U.S. Sixth Fleet — if the U.S. should decide to return that once-powerful naval force to even a fraction of its former strength — to safeguard the region’s sea lines of communication. The region’s increasing volatility has elevated the strategic roles of Greece and Cyprus, and offers an incentive for American statesmen to promote a new order that establishes stronger relations with both countries and bolsters their regional standing.
Yet the eastern Mediterranean is witnessing new political, military, and energy centers of gravity just as the U.S. administration wants to “pivot” to Asia.
While China and India will require U.S. attention for at least the remainder of this century, the United States cannot abandon its influence in the eastern Mediterranean without risking NATO’s southern flank and the alliance itself if Iran becomes a nuclear power (leaving Israel to fend for itself), and without further underlining the appearance of a great power in strategic retreat.
The U.S.’s interest and involvement in the Mediterranean dates to the Jefferson administration. The United States has sought a stable region since the U.S. Navy battled the Barbary pirates in the early 19th century to keep them from preying on American commercial interests from their ports in North Africa. The ascendance of radical Islam as the region’s most dynamic political force, and the deepening connections of the radicals with the “Arab Spring,” is a great threat to U.S. interests — as the recent closure of 19 U.S. embassies from North Africa to the Middle East and as far south as Madagascar demonstrates. Islamist and authoritarian regimes have emerged after the demise of the region’s ancien régime. The regional drift toward authoritarian Islamism is a reminder of the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s warning about a clash of civilizations, and suggests a struggle as long and dangerous as the one that occupied Europe’s attention throughout the centuries-long reign of imperial Ottoman rule.
The Ottomans’ successor, modern-day Turkey, has abandoned the Kemalist enterprise and is governed by an increasingly repressive, hostile, and Islamist regime. Turkey’s economic growth has encouraged Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to hew to his ideology, casting aside modern-day Turkey’s westward-looking and secular character that succeeded the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In its place, Mr. Erdogan has reoriented Turkey towards the East, emphasizing Sunni Muslim solidarity and hostility towards the U.S.’s non-Muslim allies in the region. Erdogan’s policy looks to reestablish the hegemony that his Ottoman predecessors achieved. There are many examples of this policy, such as the Turkish navy’s recent interference with the efforts of Israel and Cyprus to consolidate efforts to extract hydrocarbons from the sea beds within their exclusive economic zones; Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s March promise to “again tie Sarajevo to Damascus, Benghazi to … Batumi” (on Georgia’s Black Sea coast); and the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies’ observation that “in March 2012, the Turkish government introduced a five-year strategic plan to make the country’s armaments industry one of the world’s ten largest by 2016.”
A combination of Islamist rule, a neo-Ottoman, ideology and Turkey’s attempt to return as the region’s hegemon opposes the U.S. goal of a democratic and peaceful region. It threatens America’s allies — Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and new EU member Bulgaria, which has complained of Turkey’s control over both supplies and prices of the natural gas it transits to the EU.
Current Turkish policy runs counter to the traditional goal of U.S. grand strategy that seeks to prevent hegemony on the Eurasian landmass. America fought two world wars and one cold war to prevent the rise of a hegemon on the European continent. Because the U.S. retains its interest in a balance of powers on the continent, Greece and Cyprus have become far more important to U.S. foreign and security policy. Both states have a strong interest in regional energy security, as does Israel, whose navy in April of this year asked for a $760 million budget increase to help defend the newfound hydrocarbon deposits in Israel’s territorial waters. Israel’s naval capabilities complement its superior air force; together, they have a regional impact.
Increased Israeli naval strength demonstrates seriousness about taking a larger role in the annual tripartite naval exercise “Noble Dina,” in which U.S., Israeli, and Greek forces have participated since 2011. The exercise is designed to rehearse the defense of offshore drilling platforms, to promote the level of operational coordination between the three navies, and to improve the participants’ ability to deter regional conflict. The U.S. leadership of this exercise is positive — U.S. policy is starting to acknowledge the Eastern Mediterranean’s growing importance. Furthermore, under the leadership of the current Cypriot regime, U.S.-Cyprus relations are the closest they have ever been. The United States has supported Cyprus’s right to explore and utilize energy resources in its own exclusive economic zone, and Cyprus seeks to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace.
The Cypriot government’s desire to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace and begin the process of becoming a NATO member should be welcomed. Promoting Cyprus’ NATO accession will reinforce the alliance’s security. Cyprus’ entry into NATO would extend the alliance’s borders into the eastern Mediterranean, diminish Russian leverage over Cyprus’ defense sector, and decrease the possibility that Russia could gain a strategic foothold in the region. Overturning the U.S.’s antiquated ban on exporting weapons to Cyprus will encourage U.S.-Cypriot military-to-military interoperability, and this in turn will lessen Cyprus’s reliance on Russia as its guardian against such threats as may come from Turkey. Ankara is indeed likely to oppose the accession of Cyprus to the Partnership for Peace, as it has frequently countered Nicosia’s accession to such other international organizations as the OECD and IEA.
As a member of the European Union and Partnership for Peace, Cyprus would flourish and likely become a hub for stability in the secure Eastern Mediterranean that U.S. policy seeks. Increasing Cypriot security would also help safeguard the massive hydrocarbon deposits in which U.S. companies have a direct stake. Recent Greek-Israeli air force drills within the Cypriot exclusive economic zone and their use of the strategic airbase at Paphos on Cyprus show how the three might coordinate to secure the resources in the future.
The EU currently depends upon three major energy corridors to supply its growing natural gas demands. In 2012, Norway, Russia, and North Africa supplied two-thirds of the EU’s natural gas consumption. The risk associated with the many jihadist groups striving for influence in the Hobbesian state-of-war left by deposed leaders in North Africa is creating an increasingly uncertain future for the security of recently discovered energy resources as well as those that might be found in the future. The last three years have seen dozens of attacks on oil and gas facilities by jihadists in Algeria, Libya, and Egypt. These have disrupted supplies to both the EU and Israel.
In 2011, U.S. based Noble Energy discovered seven trillion cubic feet (TCF) of natural gas in Cyprus’ Block 12. One hundred-seventy-five miles to Cyprus’ east, Israel has found an even larger deposit: 31 TCF of natural gas. Cyprus believes it holds up to 60 (TCF) of natural gas in its 12 blocks, which, if proven, would make Cyprus the EU’s second largest energy source after Norway. Cyprus has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with U.S.-based Noble Energy to begin the construction of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility on its southern coast at Vassilikos. The unprecedented joint development projects between Israel and Cyprus to develop their resources and consolidate them will transform the two states into major regional energy exporters, and improve their already strong relations.
The Israeli ambassador to Athens, Arie Mekel, has emphasized regional energy cooperation: “We’ve told the Greek government on the highest level that we would be happy to make Greece a hub for this gas that will continue to Europe; it can be brought here by pipeline or by liquefying it and bringing it by tanker; we also want Cyprus to be involved in this because they also found gas and we believe that these three countries, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus, if we work together and use our power like in the area of natural gas, we could become together a regional power that will be able to stand up to other regional powers.” Greece’s position at the crossroads of three continents and as an EU member makes it the primary transit state for both the Israeli and Cypriot natural gas when it comes online later this decade. Export options include a proposed “East-Med pipeline,” re-gassification terminals on an island near the Salamis Naval Base, and, in the future, re-gassification terminals at the northern port of Kavala to supply both Western Europe and the Balkans.
Recent Turkish naval incursions in and around Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone, threats to use military force to prevent further drilling, and its 40,000 troops occupying the north of the island constitute a direct threat to these ventures and U.S. interests. Setting “red lines” with Turkey enforced by a greater U.S. naval presence in the area would assure stable commerce, and more effective diplomacy were any state to interfere with the development of the joint hydrocarbon projects of Cyprus and Israel. Bolstering the U.S. presence at Souda Bay, Crete, as well as additional military-to-military naval and air exercises with the Greek and Israeli militaries, would contribute enormously to the uninterrupted export of the area’s large hydrocarbon deposits as well as its general security.
John Maynard Keynes once said: “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” The U.S. will find it difficult to influence events in the region’s future if it continues to view Ankara as the ally it surely was during the Cold War. In 1910, Winston Churchill declared that the inevitability of war between Britain and Germany was “all nonsense.” In July 1911, the German gunboat Panther docked at the Moroccan port of Agadir, and transformed his view of Germany. The Agadir crisis erased any of Churchill’s doubts that Germany was a threat. Turkey’s naval incursions in the eastern Mediterranean and over-flights of Greek airspace in the Aegean and as far south as Rhodes should also be regarded as warning signals. If history is a guide, the International Institute of Strategic Studies report on the large expansion of Turkey’s armaments industry noted above is no less a cause for concern.
The U.S. will advance its compelling interest in greater European energy independence, Middle Eastern stability, and NATO’s future as an effective alliance by re-examining its old idea of Turkey, and reinforcing its alliances with Greece, Cyprus, and Israel. The alternative — the passivity of “leading from behind” — offers nothing but weakness and additional evidence that we are slowly withdrawing from the world.