U.S.-backed East Med alliance may bypass Turkey

The United States is fostering efforts by Greece, Cyprus and Israel to form an eastern Mediterranean security alliance as Washington’s NATO ally Turkey flirts with Russia and Iran, and confronts U.S. policy in Syria.

Alongside security agreements, the United States is looking to set up an energy corridor to transfer newly discovered gas reserves in the region to Europe, undermining Russia’s dominance as energy supplier to the European market and curtailing Iranian ambitions to use Syria as a gateway to the Mediterranean.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month called the region “an important strategic frontier” and said Washington was working to strengthen relations with “democratic allies there, like Greece and Cyprus and Israel”.

Pompeo and his Greek counterpart held the inaugural meeting of the U.S.-Greece Strategic Dialogue in Washington last month and the second meeting is expected to take place in Athens in February.

The Strategic Dialogue, the U.S. State Department said, builds on a year of intensive engagement and U.S. and Greek commitment to deepen cooperation in defence and security, counter-terrorism, trade and energy.

“The United States lauded Greece’s leadership and vision in promoting regional stability and cooperation, in particular, Athens’ initiatives in the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans to facilitate common regional economic and security benefits,” the State Department said.

“The two governments noted the need to improve Europe’s energy security and diversification,” the statement said, pointing to a number of energy infrastructure projects, including the proposed Eastern Med pipeline connecting Israel, Cyprus and Crete with mainland Greece, and from there to Italy.

The leaders of the three countries have been holding a string of meetings to advance the pipeline project and deepen cooperation. The alliance is to be further strengthened at a meeting of the three countries with Pompeo in Crete in March.

Adding Egypt, which has discovered huge gas deposits adjacent to the territorial waters of the other three, into the equation, and perhaps Jordan, could strengthen U.S. strategic interests in the eastern Mediterranean where Russian and Iranian influence has grown since they intervened in the Syrian civil war.

Western diplomats refer to this project as a “mini-NATO” pact, that may also one day bring in Saudi Arabia, which could help legitimise it in the eyes of the Arab world.

The fledgling alliance could come at the expense of Turkey, which has an historic rivalry with Greece, poor relations with Israel and does not even recognise the Republic of Cyprus. Turkey is alone in recognising a breakaway Turkish Cypriot administration in northern Cyprus and keeps some 30,000 troops there.

Turkey has attempted to block exploration for hydrocarbons off the coast of Cyprus, saying Turkish Cypriots have a right to a say in the work and a share in any revenue. But the Greek Cypriots have said an agreement over the island, divided since Turkish troops invaded in 1974, must come first.

In the last two years, Turkey has at times appeared to pivot towards Russia and Iran as it seeks to get its way in disputes with the United States. Ankara’s ties with Washington have experienced a rocky ride in the last year over a number of issues, most recently Turkish plans to mount a cross-border operation into Syria against the United States’ Kurdish allies in the fight against Islamic State.

U.S. President Donald Trump this month vowed to “devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds". Washington and Ankara have now said they have agreed to set up a buffer zone in Syria along the border with Turkey, but neither side has offered any details.

The U.S. security agreement with Greece offers the U.S. military access to Greek bases when needed. Meanwhile, Cyprus is ready to sign agreements with the United States over the use of its military facilities. Such moves would allow the United States to retain its capability to project power in the Middle East, even if Ankara carries out its threat to stop U.S. forces from using the Incirlik base in southern Turkey.

Cementing the putative alliance though is the East Med pipeline connecting Israel, Cyprus and Greece to western European markets. The original plan had been to route the gas through Turkey, but the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations made Israel look to the more expensive option of a pipeline to Greece.

There are still economic factors to be considered before the construction of the East Med pipeline can go ahead, not least whether enough gas is discovered off Cyprus to feed into the network to make it economically viable.

But many diplomats in Athens and Brussels believe Turkey is already out of the game and has chosen the wrong side.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.