U.S. ‘counterweight’ needed in the East Med - foreign policy analysts

A joint call for an urgent recalibration of U.S. strategy in the eastern Mediterranean is made by former U.S. ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman and Aykan Erdemir, a former deputy with Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and current director of the Turkey programme at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, in a newly published report on the region.

The two former politicians co-authored the chapter “American Interests in the Eastern Mediterranean” for the think tank’s report “Defending Forward: Securing America by Projecting Military Power Abroad” – published Wednesday and shared in advance with Kathimerini – in which they express strong concerns about Turkey’s interventionist approach and the expansionist policies of Russia and Iran in the region.

“The eastern Mediterranean’s strategic location at the nexus of Africa, Asia and Europe has made the region an epicentre of great power competition for over two millennia. It is no coincidence that U.S. pushback against Soviet expansionism began here in 1947 with the Greek-Turkish aid package as part of the Truman Doctrine,” the two authors state in their chapter.

They argue that the gradual U.S. withdrawal from the region – following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Obama administration’s shift to Asia, and the Trump administration’s erratic moves in Syria – has significantly increased instability in the eastern Mediterranean and undermined U.S. interests.

“The Syrian Civil War has allowed Russia and Iran to expand their footprint in parts of the country controlled by the Assad regime, while the vulnerability of European democracies to the influx of refugees has allowed Russia and Turkey to weaponize population movement as part of their respective asymmetric strategies,” write Edelman and Erdemir. They posit that the eastern Mediterranean is re-emerging as a prime arena for regional and great power competition, just as it did during the Cold War.

The former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and the director of the Turkey programme in the Washington-based think tank distinguish two main axes on which the US must develop a coherent strategic vision for the Eastern Mediterranean.

The first is tackling the now-lengthy list of hostile states and non-state actors in the region which continue to pose a growing threat to the US, its allies and critical partners.

As a second factor, the authors single out Turkey, “once a pro-Western bulwark on NATO’s southeast flank that has become a belligerent challenger following almost 18 years of rule by Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdoğan”, as they describe Greece’s eastern neighbour. “Ankara’s hostile posture not only targets Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Israel, but also imperils U.S. efforts to promote regional energy development that would reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas,” Edelman and Erdemir argue.

A significant section of the chapter is dedicated to the region’s energy resources, as both authors believe that recent developments may have major implications for the freedom of the seas and the regional balance of power. “Turkey’s new interventionism, in particular, raises grave concerns because it has relied on Islamist local proxies and increasingly on surrogate forces recruited from Islamist militias that have been fighting in Syria,” Edelman and Erdemir say.

As part of the solutions to the growing instability, the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and the former CHP MP are calling on Washington to appoint a special envoy for the eastern Mediterranean to work closely with the EastMed Gas Forum and challenge the Turkish government’s disruptive offshore claims.

Edelman and Erdemir also call on the United States to take the lead in regional diplomacy and work hard for a negotiated solution in coordination with the European Union, without ruling out tougher measures from the table. “The United States must also offer bold incentives and disincentives to motivate Ankara to reverse its malicious behaviour in the region – including sanctions,” they conclude.

(A version of this article was originally published by Kathimerini and reproduced by permission.)