Dimitar Bechev
Jun 29 2018

U.S. is hedging options in the Eastern Mediterranean

The two-in-one presidiential and parliamentary elections in Turkey might usher in a turnaround in domestic affairs but in foreign policy it is, really, more of the same.

Ankara will be driving a hard bargain vis-à-vis its old allies in the NATO alliance while currying favor with Russia and potentially other adversaries of the West. Erdoğan wants to have his cake and eat it -- seeing through the deal with the Russians with regard to the S-400 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) while persuading his critics in the United States that Turkey won’t be compromising NATO’s defenses and therefore should be allowed to purchase advanced F-35s from Lockheed Martin.

Turks dismiss fears that the U.S.-made fighter jets could become vulnerable to the S-400s as a result. It will be Turkish technical personnel, not Russians, assembling and operating the SAMs. Turkey will be developing its own software and therefore limiting the danger of leaks of sensitive data Russia’s way. Russian S-400s have already intercepted Israeli F-35s in Syria’s airspace and presumably Moscow already has some of the technical information anyhow.

The trouble is that Washington does not seem to be buying the Turkish arguments. The U.S. Congress is clearly hostile to the sale of the F-35s. It adds to a list of grudges against Ankara, notably the imprisonment of the North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson who is now on trial for alleged links to the Fethullah Gulen movement, blamed by Turkey fororchestrating the failed coup in July 2016. The recent Twitter spat between Representative Adam Schiff (D-California) and Ibrahim Kalin, Erdoğan’s spokesman who is now rumored as a potential foreign minister in the new Turkish cabinet, does not bode well for what’s to come.

But ignoring Capitol Hill and working with the executive branch instead is turning out to be a headache as well. Though the latest meeting between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saw progress on the Syrian town of Manbij. The State Department is unimpressed by Turkey. In a hearing before the U.S. Senate on 26 June, Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell threatened sanctions with regard to the delivery of F-35s, should Turkey not drop the missile deal with Russia. Ankara could face punishment under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), signed into law in August last year. Mitchell bemoaned the arrest of Brunson along with an estimated two dozen U.S. citizens and called on Erdoğan to lift the state of emergency in Turkey, in place since the coup attempt.

Turkey could be served some of its own medicine, with the United States playing it off with other allies. Mitchell hinted that Washington would be interested in deepening ties with Greece, whose own relations with Turkey have worsened dramatically in 2018 because of mounting military tensions in the Aegean. In his words, “we are cultivating Greece as an anchor of stability in the Mediterranean and Western Balkans and working to systematically strengthen security and energy cooperation with Cyprus.” Mitchell also noted that “a long-term strategy to bolster the U.S. presence in the Eastern Mediterranean” was in the works.

These words do not come out of thin air. There is something of a honeymoon between Greece and the United States going on of late. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who famously described Donald Trump as evil during the 2016 presidential campaign, had a productive meeting at the White House in October last year. The administration has held Greece as an example of a NATO member fulfilling its pledge to spend money on defense, even in times of austerity. In April this year, the government in Athens committed to upgrading 50 percent of its 150-strong fleet of F-16s. The $1.45 billion investment aims to match the overhaul of the Turkish airforce thanks to the potential delivery of the F-35s.

Though led by a leftist prime minister once labeled as Moscow’s Trojan Horse, Greece has now reinvented itself as a forepost of the West. Foreign policy experts such as Professor Aristotle Tziampiris at the University of Pireus even speak of a “new Greek Euro-Atlanticism”. A concrete example is the landmark deal signed with the Republic of Macedonia on June 17 to end the long-standing name dispute of Greece’s neighbour. After Prime Minister Zoran Zaev agreed to change the name of the country to North Macedonia (still to be confirmed by a referendum in September), Greece turned overnight from a blocker to Skopje’s most passionate advocate in the EU and NATO. (North) Macedonia is about to receive an invitation to join the Atlantic alliance at a summit in July. EU foreign ministers already gave the green light to accession negotiations in 2019, if several key reforms are implemented. In summary, in these turbulent times, Greece has succeeded in positioning itself, once again, as a constructive player in the Western community, rather than a troublemaker or a liability.

As far as the Eastern Mediterranean is concerned, Greece and Cyprus have forged much closer diplomatic and security ties with Israel and even Egypt. From joint projects to develop hydrocarbon resources to defense cooperation, the bloc is becoming a reality. As the U.S. and Turkey become alienated, the Greece-Cyprus-Israel alliance might become more popular in Washington.

But, as in the past, Greece is not in a position to replace Turkey as a partner for the Unites States. America needs Erdoğan in Syria and the wider Middle East. Turkey’s sheer size, strategic location and military might remain unmatched. At the Senate hearing, Mitchell highlighted cooperation between intelligence services and praised America’s “ally and partner.” Trump called Erdoğan the same day to congratulate him on his electoral success.

Greece, on the other hand, has still not recovered from the severe fiscal crisis that took such a heavy toll on its economy. The survival of Tsipras’ shaky government coalition is also in question. Betting on Athens doesn’t make much sense. But diversifying options beyond a growingly unpredictable Turkey does. U.S. policy makers could be heading in that direction.