Refining U.S. Strategy in the Mediterranean

Friday, January 10, 2020
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Thesis: China and Russia are increasingly gaining access to and leverage within the Mediterranean Sea region and the United States should refine its strategy to counter these concerning trends.

Background: The Mediterranean Sea connects three continents supporting almost one-fifth of all global shipping and is the nexus where our most important alliance (NATO) meets the volatile Middle East region. Since World War II, the U.S. has enjoyed enormous influence in this region, which has contributed to its preeminence in world affairs and economic vitality. Arguably, however, since the end of the Cold War the U.S. has taken this for granted, reducing its priority and presence in this region of the world. This trend has continued with the Trump administration. In fact, the word “Mediterranean” does not even make an appearance in the Trump administration’s 2017 edition of the National Security Strategy (NSS). As I write this piece in mid-October 2019, China and Russia are increasingly engaged throughout this region, and Turkey, Egypt, and Israel, among others, are flirting with the idea of establishing more formal arrangements with these global competitors. Clearly, it is high time for the United States to review its strategy in the Mediterranean.

Way Forward: The reality is that the Unites States has limited resources and must prioritize them to achieve national goals and objectives. We can’t be everywhere, all the time, and thus a major shift in resources to the Mediterranean is not possible, nor needed. What we should do, however, is refine our strategy, better nesting our existing regional investments with overarching national goals to gain maximum effectiveness. I recommend a renewed focus on alliances to get that done.

In the NSS, the Trump administration places primacy on advancing peace and prosperity for the American people with a grand strategy of principled realism. The NSS cites the rise of global competitors, China and Russia, and outlines ways to counter their advances. Deterrence will be key to this approach and thus a revitalized NATO is paramount.

Turkey’s increasing economic and military ties with China and Russia, which threaten the future of NATO, are very concerning. Revitalizing our relationship with Turkey and reversing these disturbing trends should be our top priority for the region. This will not be an easy task.

Turkey presently is committed to purchasing the Russian S-400 air defense system, which is incompatible with NATO systems and diplomatically unacceptable. We will have to persuade Turkey to abandon that course of action, which likely means we will need to accommodate them on another important issue. An example of this could be expressing more understanding of Turkey’s concerns with its internal security from the threat of the PKK. Turkey has communicated clearly that they see a difference between the PKK and the Syrian Kurds (an ally of ours in the fight against ISIS), and we should hold Turkey to that statement.

We clearly have an interest in stabilizing Syria and preventing it from becoming a safe haven for ISIS. At the same time, the Trump administration also rightly wants to bring an end to our military occupation there. In all these competing priorities and challenges, there may be an opening.

First, we should continue to work with Turkey to ensure northern Syria is stabilized, with Turkish forces playing a key role. Second, we could pursue an Arab force to replace us throughout Syria. That is possible if we continue to encourage and foster stronger relations between Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. Indeed, the fact that these nations are working together at all is one of the most intriguing and potentially productive strategic developments of the Trump administration. If this trend continues and formalizes, that could be the opportunity for us to reposition our forces out of Syria as we are backfilled with an Arab force. Such moves could assuage Turkey and inspire them to forgo formal ties with Russia and China and instead renew and strengthen their commitment to NATO.

Given the recent track record of China following up the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with formidable military presence in places like Sri Lanka, Djibouti, and Pakistan, we should be concerned with Chinese investments in Mediterranean ports, bridges, and other infrastructure projects. This is especially so since the vehicles to implement BRI are state-owned enterprises like COSCO Shipping Ports and China Merchants Port Holdings, giving the Chinese government more power to instantiate their will. Although China is creating international “antibodies” with their heavy-handed tactics, they are not without champions. After all, Chinese investments in the Greek Port of Piraeus have made that entity highly successful and profitable for all stakeholders. Even Israel is getting in on the action with China now building new ports in Haifa and Ashdod.

Russia, too, is making aggressive moves in the Mediterranean region. President Putin’s risky decision to escalate and invest heavily in the troubled and tainted Syrian President Assad was largely driven by his desire to shore up Russian control of the Port of Tartus. Moreover, Putin’s diplomatic maneuvering with Turkey is designed to drive a wedge in NATO and further Russian influence in the Mediterranean region.

Thus, our relationship with Turkey will be key to countering all of these developments. No doubt we presently have a lot of issues and friction with the Turkish government and its leader President Erdogan, but we must keep the larger strategic picture in mind as we move forward. Erdogan has solidified his position in Turkey and will likely be in charge there for years to come. We must find a way to work with him. These diplomatic initiatives to strengthen NATO and support this burgeoning Arab-Israeli relationship would certainly check Chinese and Russian influence in the Mediterranean region.

As far as longer-term strategic moves in the Mediterranean region to counter Iran, if the current diplomatic work between Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Israel materializes into something more meaningful, we could consider formalizing that initiative by entering into an alliance with these countries. In addition to balancing Iran, such an alliance could lead to a new day for Arab-Israeli peace talks, which could ultimately restructure Middle East politics entirely.

Looking further down the road, should we achieve these two major moves, that could set the conditions for something truly transformational—working with Russia and Iran to check growing Chinese global ambitions. Historically, the U.S. has worked with both these of these great nations in the past to the mutual benefit of all. As we march towards mid-century, such an alliance could help thwart Chinese global ambitions and lead to a renaissance for the West.

There are a lot of possibilities going forward, but step one is to recognize what’s going on now and to take action to counter the disturbing trends in the Mediterranean region.