As Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu had presided over a widely acclaimed “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy. This foreign policy was a fraud from the outset, though, relying on an overly generous definition of “zero” and a selective definition of “neighbor.” Turkey used this declared policy as cover to pursue regional hegemony in a less overtly threatening manner.
Fewer actors in the region were fooled than policymakers in Washington. As Turkey increasingly asserted itself in the Eastern Mediterranean – seemingly with the Barack Obama administration’s early blessing – balancing coalitions started to form. Partnerships that initially formed over energy cooperation started to transform into something far deeper.
Fast-forward to 2019 and the inauguration of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum in Cairo. At the beginning of this decade, few – if any – would have predicted that Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinians would be working to lay the groundwork for a true political and economic region. At that forum, the death knell may have been sounded for Turkey’s bid for regional hegemony.
For years, energy diplomacy in the Eastern Mediterranean has given rise to hopes that the region could develop something akin to the European Coal and Steel Community. The establishment of the forum in Cairo is an indicator that these hopes are slowly being transformed into reality.
Yet Turkey’s absence, and its inability to cooperate with the other members of the forum, cannot be minimized. Whether it abandons the West or not, Turkey is not moving out of the Eastern Mediterranean. For institutions like the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum to realize the promise of early European institutions Turkey needs to play a positive role, akin to the role played by Germany in the 1950s.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, however, is instead acting like World War I-era Germany (at best) and is sometimes reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Ankara’s latest provocation in the Eastern Mediterranean – taking steps to begin illegally drilling in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Republic of Cyprus – is a case in point.
Given that the other regional actors were coming together – without pause at Turkey’s exclusion – it was only a matter of time before Erdogan lashed out. Despite clamoring for more aggressive responses, including a show of force, Greece and Cyprus are handling this as well as can be expected.
The diplomatic initiatives Athens and Nicosia have undertaken – step by step, highlighting the moral and legal high ground that Cyprus holds on this issue – are not only working out to the advantage of Greece and Cyprus, but are showing policymakers in Washington that Greece and Cyprus are indeed ready for the “prime time” role that the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019 envisions for them.
“The way Greece and Cyprus have handled this had garnered goodwill in Washington,” says Steven Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) think-tank. Cook has argued that Greece and Cyprus must “compartmentalize concern on Turkey and focus on a broader agenda” when dealing with the US. Such an approach will give Athens and Nicosia greater sway over American policymakers, he adds, and “will benefit them when it comes to issues they have with Turkey as well.”
This dynamic is playing out during this crisis. Consider the Barbaros incident at the tail end of the Obama administration. The State Department refrained from a clear statement of condemnation of Turkish actions, trying to calm community leaders by arguing that this move was solely meant to “tweak” and that “yelling” about the incident would only make us feel better “for two minutes”. Today, the State Department could not be clearer: “Turkey’s announced intentions to begin offshore drilling operation in an area claimed by Cyprus as its exclusive economic zone is highly provocative and risks raising tensions in the region. We urge Turkish authorities to halt these operations.”
The European Union’s condemnation of Turkish actions was even stronger. Israel, the UK and Russia have all spoken up in support of Cyprus. But perhaps the most important support in this case came from Egypt.
Cook, one of the US’s foremost experts on Egypt, sees special significance in Cairo’s role. “Egypt sees itself as an Eastern Mediterranean power and will not accept Turkey setting the rules,” he says.
“Clearly the rivalry between Egypt and Turkey helped make Egypt’s support [for Cyprus’ EEZ] unequivocal, but Egypt also gets a lot out of the diplomatic relationship with Greece and Cyprus. If you add this role [as one of the facilitators of East Med cooperation] to its role as mediator in Gaza, Egypt is improving its credibility [in US circles] as a force for regional stability,” he adds.
I have argued in these pages that for Greece to understand the United States, it cannot limit itself to the Acela corridor (Washington-New York-Boston). Similarly, for Greece to realize its potential leadership role in the Eastern Mediterranean, its leaders and its Greek-American advocates have to realize that the region is more than Greece-Cyprus-Israel. Indeed, even Israel prioritizes its Hellenic partners because of the go-between role they can play with Arab and EU partners.
The Eastern Mediterranean is taking shape, and Turkey is becoming increasingly isolated as a force of instability. Greece, Cyprus, the US, the EU, Egypt and Israel have all made it clear that there is room for Turkey at the table, but Turkey has to play by the rules rather than write the rules itself. If this current crisis is overcome via diplomacy and partnerships, a new day may in fact dawn in the Eastern Mediterranean – a day that may one day even change Turkish policies.
Endy Zemenides is executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.