The Eastern Mediterranean, like the Middle East, is a tough neighborhood. The current standoff over natural gas rights among Greece, Turkey, and their respective allies is only the latest example.
Greece and Turkey are locked in a dispute over fossil-fuel exploration rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, both off the coast of Cyprus and elsewhere. Since the discovery not long ago of undersea gas and oil reserves in the area, the stakes have grown high. Greece and the European Union claim that Turkey is drilling illegally in the region, while Turkey asserts its rights. Each side has claimed an Exclusive Economic Zone.
Greece and Turkey have a long history of conflict. A sketch here cannot do justice to the long history of suffering and to the claims and counter-claims on both sides. Although there has been substantial progress in recent decades in building up goodwill on both sides of the Aegean, there have also been numerous military confrontations and a few near-misses. No wonder the current dispute over fossil-fuel rights is so contentious.
The matter led to tense negotiations and even more tense deployment of military resources this summer, both on the sea and in the air. In recent years, Turkey has built up an impressive navy, but Greece is no slouch at sea, and it has important allies in France and Israel as well as Egypt and the UAE.
Greece and Turkey have both sent warships into the Eastern Mediterranean, and France has sent ships as well in support of Greece. All three countries are NATO allies, while France and Greece are both members of the European Union. Turkey has the most powerful military in NATO, aside from the United States, while France is the EU’s biggest military power.
The United States has three choices in the region. It can intervene militarily, it can intervene diplomatically, or it can withdraw. Withdrawal would be unwise because what happens in the Eastern Mediterranean doesn’t stay in the Eastern Mediterranean. This strategic region impacts the power of both American friends and competitors: NATO, the European Union, Israel, the Arab states, Russia, Iran, and now China. Few Americans, however, would favor a significant American military involvement in the region. That leaves diplomacy, and diplomacy requires allies.
The United States must support its friends and allies in the region; as it happens, they include both Greece and Turkey. To be sure, the U.S. has had its ups and downs with each country over the years. Tensions with Greece have arisen over U.S. support for the military junta that ruled Greece 1967–1974, and over the Cyprus crisis of 1974. Tensions with Turkey include such issues as U.S. support for the Kurds in Syria and Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system.
Current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been a lightning rod of controversy. He is no friend of democracy, but Turkey still has significant democratic political forces. Nor will Erdoğan last forever. With historic ties dating back to American support for the Greek War of Independence in 1821, Greece’s importance to the U.S. might seem obvious to the American public. Turkey’s population, strategic location, regional ties, and economic and military power, however, all offer significant resources to the U.S. Nor do American and Turkish interests always diverge. In the tragic conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, for example, both sides have reason to support Azerbaijan as a counterweight to Iran and to Russia. Finally, for all its flaws, Turkey is infinitely more appealing as an American ally under current circumstances than is Iran with its revolutionary regime.
Erdoğan’s threatened use of force in the Eastern Mediterranean is part of a larger program of expanding Turkish power both on land and at sea. His foreign policy, often dubbed neo-Ottomanist, has seen Turkish intervention in such places as Libya, Syria, Iraq, Gaza and Jerusalem, Azerbaijan, and the Persian Gulf. He has wielded the threat of Turkey’s ability to open and close the spigot of refugees and other immigrants to the EU.
When it comes to natural gas rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, the West must pursue a policy of compromise based on law and diplomacy. On the one hand, it should not give in to Erdoğan’s thuggish behavior nor be cowed by his use of force. That’s why the military support given to Greece is so important. On the other hand, the involvement of Erdoğan does not invalidate Turkey’s grievances. As a country with a long seacoast on the Mediterranean, Turkey has a reasonable claim to share that sea’s natural gas. Almost all Turks, regardless of political party, hold that position. Nor are Erdoğan’s other foreign policies without support at home, even among his political opponents. Given such recent developments as the growth of the Turkish economy and the withdrawal of the bulk of America’s military presence in the region, under both Presidents Obama and Trump, it’s not surprising that Turkey seeks to expand its power abroad.
The United States, working with its European allies, should work for a compromise solution. No claim to complete control of the area by either side would be a fair outcome. There are legal precedents for adjudicating maritime borders that would allow an equitable distribution of maritime rights between Greece and Turkey. Achieving this end will require close transatlantic cooperation, bringing together Washington and Brussels. It will also take determination, not excluding sanctions and other economic pressure. The road will probably not be easy. But to return to our starting point: The Eastern Mediterranean is a tough neighborhood.
BARRY STRAUSS is the Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies, Cornell University and the Corliss Page Dean Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a military historian with a focus on ancient Greece and Rome. His books have been translated into fifteen languages. His latest book, Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine, has been hailed as a “superb summation of four centuries of Roman history, a masterpiece of compression,” (The Wall Street Journal). His Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece—and Western Civilization was named one of the best books of 2004 by the Washington Post. His Masters of Command: Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar and the Genius of Leadership was named one of the best books of 2012 by Bloomberg. In AY 2019-20 he was Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. In recognition of his scholarship, he was named an Honorary Citizen of Salamis, Greece.
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