An Iron Curtain on the Eastern Mediterranean: Will the US Isolate Turkey?

A new cold war was not a development Ankara wished for, nor did Ankara wish for one to begin in the Mediterranean, but if there must be one Turkey will define its own role: the stabilizer of balances. Ankara will build the necessary capabilities for this on its own. And in this process whoever loses Ankara politically will start this struggle on the Mediterranean front with a great handicap no matter how much noise they may make.

An Iron Curtain on the Eastern Mediterranean Will the US
US President Donald Trump is seen during his meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (not seen), at Lotte Hotel in New York, United States on September 21, 2017. World leaders gathered in New York for the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly. Anadolu Agency

Shortly after the statement from U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo that "the Mediterranean is a strategic front for Washington," Democratic Party New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez and Republican Party Florida Senator Marco Rubio introduced a new bill named "Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019" to the U.S. Senate. The bill is considered a bipartisan legislation due to being introduced by both Democratic and Republican representatives.

Looking at the content of the bill reminds one of the phrase, "nothing new on the Western front." This legislation is a part of the steps that have been taken until today to ensure the creation of a new front that prioritizes the security of Israel within the framework of a new Cold War that has been initiated in the Eastern Mediterranean by the U.S. The most important point that raises attention here is that with this bill, Washington encourages the Greek Cypriot Administration of Southern Cyprus (GCASC), Greece and Israel to cooperate more heavily in the fields of energy and military. While the only consideration for Turkey is the suggestion that F-35s should not be delivered if Turkey goes through with the purchase of S-400s. Upon a closer examination, the important headings included in the Menendez-Rubio bill can be summarized as follows:

The bill suggests lifting the prohibition of arms sales to GCASC that has been in place since 1987. The reasoning for this suggestion is that the existing Turkish forces in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) already carry weapons of U.S. origin and due to this reason, GCASC had to buy weapons from Russia. The rationality behind this reasoning can be questioned, or one can wonder the size of the weapons market in GCASC for Russia since seemingly it is prompting the U.S. to approach the situation with a perspective that is very biased towards the GCASC. Beyond all these ironic questions, Menendez and Rubio suggest that the U.S. provides two million dollars to GCASC for military education and training.

As it is known, the U.S. since 1987 has prohibited arms sales to the Greek Cypriot Administration in order to not impede on the unification efforts ongoing in the island. Since the existing talks overseen by the UN have not concluded, when the U.S. accepts this bill, the talks between the two populations in Cyprus will face a new and serious obstacle. Thus, aside from the stance of Ankara on the issue, which should not be hard to predict, the reactions to the bill that will be displayed by the international community and the United Kingdom, which is another guarantor in the island, are exceedingly important. This situation will show the sincerity of all parties on the subject of a solution in Cyprus. But after the Annan referendum, one might question the necessity of more tests of sincerity.

The Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019 reminds a well-known phrase: "nothing new on the Western front."

Another matter in the bill that is a cause of concern for Turkey is that the U.S. continues its attitude of ignoring Turkey's and TRNC's all maritime jurisdiction areas in the Mediterranean, and in referring to the natural gas reserves around the island supports the seismic surveys and drilling activities that GCASC has until now conducted through international hydrocarbon companies in the so-called exclusive economic zone (EEZ) declared by the GCASC. The proposal also highlights the importance of the East-Med Natural Gas Pipeline Project that is planned to be passed through Turkey's territorial waters without permission from Ankara. It also encourages Greece on the subject of the Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB) project, which is planned to be built between Greece and Bulgaria with the purpose of transferring Eastern Mediterranean natural gas to Europe through the Balkans.

In short, the bill proposes the creation of a new Eastern Mediterranean energy center in the region by the U.S. It is a fact that this center relies on the trilateral cooperation between Israel, Greece and GCASC, which have been declared as Washington's essential allies in the Eastern Mediterranean within the context of energy and security. Another article in the bill proposes that the U.S. provides Greece with 3 million dollars of assistance through the trilateral axis of Israel-Greece-GCASC. The same bill does not refrain from expressing that the U.S. could immediately sanction Turkey within the framework of CAASTA due to Ankara's purchase of S-400s.

The Menendez-Rubio bill does not only target Turkey's and TRNC's legitimate rights in the Eastern Mediterranean but also targets Russia.

The Menendez-Rubio bill does not only target Turkey's and TRNC's legitimate rights in the Eastern Mediterranean but also targets Russia. The purpose is the creation of a new and reinforced U.S. Mediterranean Strategy that will detect and report all attempts and activities against the interests of the U.S. in the Mediterranean that might be conducted by Russia or other potential actors, and the presentation of this strategy to the congress. If this bill is accepted, and Greece together with the GCASC agree to play the role bestowed on them by this proposal, the iron curtain of our time will descend on the Mediterranean.

The U.S. strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean

Russia, taking advantage of the power vacuum created in Syria by the Obama administration, began its military intervention in Syria in 2015 following a request from the Damascus regime. It soon became clear that the preservation of the Damascus regime was not the only purpose of Russia in Syria, and Kremlin had strengthened the military presence of the Russian military in the Eastern Mediterranean via new area denial capabilities (A2/AD). The U.S. also soon determined that Russian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean could pose a threat to the energy and security belt Washington intended to create in the region. Moscow brought the balances against the U.S. interests in the region into equilibrium through two main foundations by playing its cards right and at the same time avoiding excessive actions that may prompt the U.S. to increase its presence in the region: The first of these has been the Astana cooperation process between Iran, Turkey and Russia concerning Syria. And the second is the continuation of good relationships with countries such as Egypt and Israel that lie in the new Washington-supported Mediterranean belt.

Turkey is being pressured into abandoning its military and trade cooperation with Moscow through economic and military threats and via a psychological war.

Facing this new strategy focused on the Eastern Mediterranean developed by Moscow, Washington brought a series of military measures into action to avoid the erosion of U.S. hegemony in the Mediterranean. Through strengthening the sixth fleet, the U.S. increased the presence of its navy in the Mediterranean and led military exercises in the region via NATO. It also supported GCASC and Greece to conduct a series of commercial and military actions infringing on Turkey's and TRNC's legitimate rights in the Mediterranean. Ultimately the U.S. conducts its strategy of pressuring Russia, which it recognizes as a rival in the Mediterranean basin, through a plan which prioritizes pressuring countries in the region that cooperate with Moscow. As it is known, pressure is being applied on Iran through direct sanctions and by taking away the benefits of the 2015 nuclear agreement (if there were any) from Tehran. Turkey on the other hand is being pressured into abandoning its military and trade cooperation with Moscow through economic and military threats and via a psychological war conducted through supporting other countries and actors in the region.

The storm raging over the S-400s

But there are other reasons behind the pressure applied on Iran and Turkey by the U.S. that in the end have to do with the rivalry between Washington and Moscow. Iran is being pressured because its asymmetric power is a cause of concern for Israel and because of the obviousness of its powerless state. And if Turkey defends its territory with an air defense system such as the S-400, meaning that by becoming capable of defending its seas and airspace from potential attacks, the country will become powerful enough to prevent all developments infringing on the rights of Turkey and TRNC in the region. This in turn means that the cost-increasing effects of Turkey's capabilities are the weak point of the United States' three-legged anti-Russia new cold war strategy that relies on the Gulf-Europe-Eastern Mediterranean (Greece-Egypt-Libya-GCASC-Israel) trilateral cooperation. In short, Washington is applying pressure on Ankara due to the power the latter has and can have, and to prevent the geo-strategic weakness of its strategy from becoming evident.

Ankara has been providing the necessary responses to the technical reasons brought forward by the U.S. to stop the purchase of S-400's for a long time. Within this context, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu has expressed many times that Turkey is not obtaining the S-400 air defense systems against its allies in NATO, but the purpose of Ankara is to address the country's existing deficiencies in the matter of air defense, and that the concerns of NATO are being taken into account. Ankara has already brought forward many solution proposals within this framework. For example, one alternative suggests that Turkey deploy the S-400 missile defense systems only for the protection of Ankara and Istanbul, and deploy F-35s in the south, addressing Washington's concerns of Russian systems gathering information on the F-35s. And in fact, this allegation of data gathering by the U.S. has already been refuted by Turkey.

The truth is that if Turkey does go through with the purchase of the S-400's and deploys the missile defense systems in its territory, Turkey  will obtain an advantageous position with regards to the power balance in the Eastern Mediterranean.

As it will be remembered, Cavusoglu has already shared with the public the information that the F-35 flights conducted over Syria by Israel and the U.S. were not affected by the S-300 and S-400 systems deployed in Syria. Another proposal brought forward by Ankara suggests the creation of a joint research committee to address Washington's worries concerning the S-400 systems. Similarly, Ankara informed Washington that the software to be used by the missile defense systems were to be developed by Turks. The truth is that if Turkey does go through with the purchase of the S-400's and deploys the missile defense systems in its territory, the A2/AD area denial capabilities of Ankara will increase by orders of magnitude, leading to Turkey obtaining an advantageous position with regards to TRNC and the power balances in the Mediterranean. As it has been expressed in the German magazine Stern, as a result of the deployment of S-400's on Turkish territory, the approval of Ankara will become a necessity for any activities conducted in the Eastern Mediterranean. And this is precisely the weak point of the United States' Mediterranean strategy.

The US risking Turkey?

Washington has long dreamed of a belt that extends from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, and from there to Greece and Southern Europe. The support given to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, U.S. recognition of the annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria by Israel, the negative developments in Libya, the unconditional support given to the East-Med cooperation, expression of wishes towards the inclusion of GCASC in NATO, and lastly the introduction of the bill named "Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019" proposing to lift the prohibition of arms sales to GCASC to the U.S. Senate by U.S. senators Rubio and Menendez. All these recent developments indicate that the rivalry between the U.S. and Russia has reached a very serious dimension. The problem is that the U.S. is aware of the weaknesses of this belt, which it has worked loudly to build and support. While it trusts Israel fully, Egypt and Greece are not only comparatively weak actors but also very eager to develop their relationships with Russia economically. Lebanon and Libya are not fully won, and Qatar never forgot the embargo of the "glowing orb." GCASC is not an actor that carries much weight militarily, and the only area it particularly shines in is raising tensions.

Just like the Rubio-Menendez proposals, the new doctrines of Trump may lead to Turkey behaving in the exact opposite of the desired manner due to their exclusionary nature. The U.S. has now put on its intimidating face and is acting as if it maintains a strategy lacking any weaknesses. But this mask failed to fully scare even Egypt. Egypt has already declared that it will not be a part of the "Arab NATO" that is of U.S. design. Greece, which is a member of the Mediterranean Natural Gas Forum, has already expressed that the position of Turkey in the Mediterranean cannot be ignored, albeit in a muted manner. In the end, Greece has other economic opportunities beyond East-Med which only stands to benefit Israel, and most of them go through Turkey.

Washington sees only Moscow when it looks at the Eastern Mediterranean and suffers from a strategic blindness.

When considered rationally, Turkey, which has a perfect geographical position, should not be ignored to ensure that the Mediterranean Gas Forum, which aims for European energy cooperation and security in the Mediterranean, can successfully be brought into life. The fact that the most advantageous paths for alternative natural gas pipelines going from the Mediterranean to Europe pass through Turkey cannot be denied. But the calculations of the U.S. regarding the geopolitics of the Mediterranean occur entirely in the political dimension, and due to this reason Washington only sees Moscow when it looks at the Eastern Mediterranean and suffers from a strategic blindness concerning any other matter.

For peace and stability in the Mediterranean, the knot in the Ankara-Washington relationship must be resolved, at least to some degree. The method with which this knot will be undone will undoubtedly affect not only U.S.-Turkey relationships but also relationships on the strategic level in the entire Eastern Mediterranean region and even beyond. Ultimately, the decision to solve this knot whether by postponing the purchase of the S-400s or going through with the purchase will be made by Ankara. And while this decision will be made by Ankara, Washington will also have to decide on whether it's willing to risk losing Turkey or not, because the ones that are willing to descend the iron curtain on the Mediterranean are not only determining their allies and rivals but are also attempting to set the rules of the game. And after bringing the region into disarray and hurting regional actors economically, they distribute a few million dollars via divisive proposals. Turkey will not allow this new iron curtain to descend on itself, and will not be a part of the belt of weakness created by the U.S.

A new cold war was not a development Ankara wished for, nor did Ankara wish for one to begin in the Mediterranean, but if there must be one Turkey will define its own role: the stabilizer of balances. Ankara will build the necessary capabilities for this on its own. And in this process whoever loses Ankara politically will start this struggle on the Mediterranean front with a great handicap no matter how much noise they may make.