Playing with fire

Playing with fire

The emerging crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean over Turkey’s drilling activities in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) raise the prospect of an open Greco-Turkish conflict to a level higher than anytime since the Imia crisis. Despite a very different international context – American relations with Greece and Cyprus are improving, relations with Turkey are deteriorating – the US government doesn’t appear able to prevent the crisis. It may even be making things worse.

At this year’s Conference of the International Coordinating Committee “Justice for Cyprus” (better known as the PSEKA Conference) two weeks ago, Yuri Kim, the director of the State Department’s Office of Southern European Affairs, declared that “it behooves us [the United States] to take extraordinary measures to prevent conflict between Greece and Turkey.”

Kim’s admonition seems self-evident. It is also consistent with the State Department’s expression of concern over Turkey’s drilling and Ambassador in Athens Geoffrey Pyatt’s regular warnings about the risk of a crisis-inducing accident due to Turkish violations of Greek airspace.

As important as it is for the US to prevent an inter-NATO conflict, as much as it behooves the State Department to prevent war between Greece and Turkey, all these words have not yet been matched by “extraordinary measures.”

Instead, Foggy Bottom appears to be betting that improved relations with Greece and Cyprus and the desire by both to curry favor with Washington will lead to tolerance of these Turkish provocations – thus buying Washington time to figure out US-Turkey relations. This an unreasonable expectation, and if the US is expecting this crisis to just go away or for Greece and Cyprus to bend over backward to accommodate Turkey, that’s a bad bet.

At the beginning of the decade, few, if any, would have anticipated Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians working on any form of regional cooperation and integration. But they were all in Cairo this winter, establishing the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum.

The most significant black sheep in the Eastern Mediterranean family – Turkey – was not part of the initial forum. In fact, Turkey hasn’t been part of any of the encouraging diplomacy centered on recent natural gas finds in the last decade. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has tried over and over to force its way into the equation, to little effect thus far.

The US State Department may have unintentionally encouraged Turkey’s intransigence for years. During the Obama administration, the Bureau of Energy Resources consistently derided natural gas delivery options that bypassed Turkey as technically or commercially unfeasible. American diplomats gave every indication they could that they wanted, or at least were hoping for, Turkey to be part of the energy equation in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Erdogan interpreted this signaling from the State Department as permission to engage in gunboat diplomacy. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland minimized the Barbaros incident when discussing the issue with Greek-American leaders a few years back, justifying the lack of a more resolute US response by claiming that Ankara was merely trying to ruffle Greek feathers.

The repeated refrain “They have established channels to handle that” from State Department spokespeople asked about Turkish violations of Greek airspace and territorial waters is inching ever closer to living up to Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu’s famous words: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

And choosing the side of the oppressor is not what will prevent an intra-NATO conflict. Turkey is doing more than ruffling Greek feathers right now, and between the issuance of casus belli, the constant navigational text messages (NAVTEX) and notices to airmen (NOTAMs), daily airspace violations and the present drilling crisis, Turkey is trying to redefine Greece’s legal rights and perhaps its very sovereignty.

Maybe no one engaged in policy in Southeast Europe or the Eastern Mediterranean was involved with or has closely studied the Imia crisis, but we reached the brink of an intra-NATO conflict with much less at stake than today. Yet the US does not even have to take the “extraordinary measures” that Kim contemplated. Some more blunt rhetoric would suffice.

Neither Greece nor Cyprus will casually court conflict with Turkey, but the more Ankara hears Washington minimize its provocations as feather ruffling or put caveats on its support of Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone or Greece’s territorial airspace and waters, the more it will be encouraged to test limits.

In the case at hand, the State Department should drop its admonitions about Cyprus’ resources being shared in the context of an overall settlement and merely restate its recognition of and support for Cyprus’ EEZ. Turkey’s actions are an attempt to forcibly restart reunification negotiations and put energy resources on the negotiating table for the first time. America’s present rhetoric only encourages Turkey to stick with this strategy.

To be fair to the State Department, it’s possible Turkey may ignore blunter rhetoric, just as it has in the case of the S-400s purchase. But American companies won’t. Turkey cannot proceed with drilling without the help of energy companies like Weatherford and Oceaneering. But over the last two months, the State Department claims to have been discouraging these companies from helping Turkey while at the same time trying to make sure there are no consequences for them if they do. Once again, this only encourages Turkey’s actions.

We are fast approaching a line that Greece cannot allow Turkey to cross. Ordinary measures can suffice to keep us short of such a line but if the US cannot even change certain pusillanimous rhetoric when addressing Turkish actions that threaten regional peace and stability, it is courting the very Greco-Turkish conflict it wishes to avoid.

Endy Zemenides is executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.

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