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Addressing Turkish Aggression in the Eastern Mediterranean

Just as China has taken advantage of the West’s internal COVID-related turmoil to advance its positions in the South China Sea, Turkey is making alarming moves that threaten to combine Eastern Mediterranean energy competition and Libya’s growing proxy war into one major conflict.

Without long-overdue leadership from Washington, Turkey’s aggression will deepen threats to US national security.

Since the Arab upheavals beginning in 2011, Turkey and Qatar’s support for the transnational, extremist Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere triggered rising tensions with a conservative, pro-status quo Arab bloc led by US partners like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and – after 2013 – Egypt.

Energy Competition

A new complicating factor arose at the same time this regional rivalry was hardening, namely massive offshore natural gas discoveries by Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt.

Unlike these maritime neighbors, Turkey never accepted the Law of the Sea Convention that gives countries – including islands like Cyprus – the right to an exclusive economic zone for energy exploration. Super-imposed on this is Turkey’s non-recognition of Cyprus’ government. And in recent years, Turkey began exploring natural gas in waters almost everyone else believes are Cypriot.

In response, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt became increasingly keen to cooperate on exploring and exporting their own offshore gas reserves. In 2019, they jointly created the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum – with Turkey notably excluded.

Shortly thereafter Turkey intervened in Libya, effectively making it the nexus of the growing regional competition over energy resources and Ankara’s rivalry with the conservative Arab bloc.

Turkey’s Destabilizing New Maritime Claims

Turkey and Qatar’s military support for the Tripoli-based, Islamist-leaning government of Fayez al-Sarraj helped it stave off defeat by the Benghazi-based Libyan National Army, which the UAE, Egypt, and France have supported for years before Turkey’s arrival.

In exchange for its invaluable military aid, Turkey compelled the Sarraj government to agree to divide much of the Eastern Mediterranean into Libyan and Turkish Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) – entirely ignoring legitimate Greek claims on waters surrounding islands like Crete and Rhodes.

The deal also intentionally blocks the proposed route for a major US-backed pipeline to deliver Israeli and Cypriot gas to Europe via Greece.

As if to make good on its destabilizing new maritime claims, Turkey in 2020 ramped up its aggressive energy exploration in waters that everyone else considers to belong to Cyprus.

This prompted a joint denunciation in May 2020 by foreign ministers not only from the Eastern Mediterranean – Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt – but also from France and the UAE.

France’s involvement can be ascribed largely to French oil majors’ interest in the Eastern Mediterranean’s large untapped gas reserves, especially around Cyprus. But the UAE’s interest lies mainly in Libya, and Turkey’s growing regional assertiveness illustrates how the conflict there no longer can be separated from growing controversies in the region – political and energy-related.

In effectively merging its rivalry with the conservative Arab bloc – now playing out on the ground in Libya – with the Eastern Mediterranean gas rivalry offshore, Turkey is making both conflicts harder to resolve.

Challenges to the US

This poses a distinct challenge to the United States. Washington has moved hesitatingly to check Turkish ambitions by endorsing cooperation among Greece, Cyprus, and Israel. In Egypt, the Trump administration, like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, supports President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

But America’s Libya policy, to the extent there is one, is incoherent. Technically, the United States supports the Sarraj government, and the State and Defense departments seem primarily concerned with Russia’s mounting role in Libya.

Last year, however, Washington equivocally endorsed Khalifa Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli. When that offensive failed, the White House’s enthusiasm waned, too, handing the lead back to the State Department, which pursues a more pro-Turkey policy there and in Syria.

US policy disarray threatens to make America irrelevant to the benefit of Russia and Turkey in an increasingly important region.

Best would be for the United States to focus on consistently checking Turkish aggression and the spread of the Muslim Brotherhood, both of which threaten stability, moderation, and energy security in the Eastern Mediterranean from Libya to Egypt and from Syria to Qatar.

A more robust US force posture in the region, including increased rotational deployments and possibly permanent basing in Greece, would be a crucial and concrete step in this direction.

Combined with more coherent and properly directed American diplomacy, this can reassure US allies and provide leverage that might ultimately induce Turkey to return to the Western fold.

Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official, is President and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). Svante Cornell, Director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy, is a Policy Advisor at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense & Strategy.

Originally published in The Defense Post