Countering Erdogan: What Biden Must do for the Sake of Stability

NATO’s summit on Oct. 21-22 focused on countering Russia in the Black Sea and the Baltics, but issues within the alliance remain unaddressed. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s antagonistic behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean has become an increasing problem for NATO and America’s allies by promoting instability, threatening economic and energy development, and increasing the potential for armed conflict.

On Oct. 23, Erdogan threatened to expel 10 ambassadors, including from the United States and NATO nations, but walked back his decision two days later. Washington urgently needs to address this deterioration of stability among allies by creating a bureaucratic and transactional strategy toward Ankara. The United States should apply political and economic pressure on Turkey through NATO, and expand bilateral security cooperation with Greece.

Greece and Turkey have long disputed the extent of their maritime boundaries. At the height of their tensions during August 2020, the two countries’ warships collided, which Athens called an accident but Ankara claimed was a provocation. Natural gas discoveries offshore of Cyprus, Israel and Egypt are critical to the Eastern Mediterranean’s economic growth and European energy security, but also irritate regional tensions.

Ankara claims an expansive exclusive economic zone that violates Greek and Cypriot boundaries, and only Libya recognizes Turkey’s interpretation of its territorial rights. To protect its EEZ claims, the Turkish Navy has repeatedly harassed non-Turkish ships searching for natural gas in Greek and Cypriot waters. Yet, Turkey has not limited its harassment to Greece and Cyprus. France and Italy have also criticized Turkey for preventing access to Cypriot waters and then sending in their drill ships to search for natural gas. France even suspended its participation in NATO’s Mediterranean operations in 2020 after the Turkish Navy harassed one of its ships.

The Biden administration should continue to send clear signals to Turkey through NATO channels that it cannot use force or harassment to extract territorial concessions — and will face political and economic consequences if it continues these actions. Mutual defense cooperation is at NATO’s foundation, which proved valuable during the Cold War, in the post-9/11 allied commitments against terrorism, and against Russia’s moves against Ukraine in the Baltic and Black seas. The United States needs to bolster its standing within NATO and lead good-faith negotiations between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus to resolve their boundary disagreements and gas-drilling rights.

All of NATO will gain from cooperative defense against Russia as well as from economic growth and stability that natural gas findings bring. Ongoing territorial disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean prevent energy development and fuel Russian plans to destabilize the alliance and Europe.

In addition, America should strengthen security relationships with Greece. In this regard, the United States and Greece renewed their long-standing Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement on Oct. 14 for another five years. The Biden administration should leverage the MDCA to expand America’s military capabilities in Greece and work with the Hellenic armed forces to improve their integration with U.S. systems.

According to U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken, the new MDCA “enables our forces in Greece to train and operate from additional locations.” U.S. European Command can also enlarge the scope and frequency of rotational deployments to underused Greek military installations at Alexandroupolis, Larissa and Stefanovikeio.

Additionally, Congress can signal its support for Greece by providing additional funds in the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act to expand U.S. basing at Souda Bay, which currently operates at capacity. This port on the Greek island of Crete provides the best harbor in the Eastern Mediterranean to dock large U.S. ships; and it enables deployments to the Bosporus and Black Sea, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Strait of Sicily, and the Atlantic Ocean.

Congressional hearings could explore how expanding the U.S. military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean can bolster its deterrent posture and achieve a wide range of missions, from counterterrorism to improving defense in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

As Washington improves ties with Athens, President Biden should also rebalance U.S. diplomacy with Ankara. A joint effort alongside America’s NATO and Mediterranean partners could signal an opportunity for Erdogan to improve Turkey’s relations if he alters his aggressive posture. In exchange for de-escalation, Turkey would likely be open to energy-development talks or cooperation against Russia in the Black Sea, the Caucuses and the Middle East.

Until NATO persuades Turkey to reform its foreign policy, the president should immediately appoint a special envoy to the Eastern Mediterranean to focus on the region’s transnational conflicts.

The United States should support stability in the Eastern Mediterranean by strengthening its role in NATO, increasing cooperation with Greece and other partners, and putting pressure on Turkey when necessary. Strong U.S. leadership and military capabilities in the Eastern Mediterranean are crucial to directing the region toward stability.

Retired Vice Adm. Herman Shelanski served as the U.S. Navy’s naval inspector general and was a participant in the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s 2019 Generals and Admirals Program. Ari Cicurel is a senior policy analyst at JINSA.

Originally published by Defense News.

This op-ed was made possible by the generous support of the Gettler Family Foundation and a portion of the research was conducted on the Benjamin Gettler International Policy Trip.