The October 21-22 NATO summit focused on fighting Russia in the Black Sea and the Baltic states, but issues within the alliance remain unanswered. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s antagonistic behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean has become a growing problem for NATO and US allies by fostering instability, threatening economic and energy development, and increasing potential of armed conflict.
On October 23, Erdogan threatened to expel 10 ambassadors, including from the United States and NATO countries, but reversed his decision two days later. Washington urgently needs to remedy this deterioration in allied stability by creating a bureaucratic and transactional strategy towards Ankara. The United States should exert political and economic pressure on Turkey through NATO and expand bilateral security cooperation with Greece.
Greece and Turkey have long disputed the extent of their maritime borders. At the height of their tensions in August 2020, the two countries’ warships collided in what Athens called an accident but Ankara claimed it was a provocation. Discoveries of natural gas off Cyprus, Israel and Egypt are critical to economic growth in the Eastern Mediterranean and European energy security, but also irritate regional tensions.
Ankara claims a vast exclusive economic zone that violates the Greek and Cypriot borders, and only Libya recognizes Turkey’s interpretation of its territorial rights. To protect its claims in the EEZ, the Turkish navy has repeatedly harassed non-Turkish ships looking for natural gas in Greek and Cypriot waters. Yet Turkey has not limited its harassment to Greece and Cyprus. France and Italy have also criticized Turkey for preventing access to Cypriot waters, then sending their drilling ships to search for natural gas. France even suspended its participation in NATO operations in the Mediterranean in 2020 after the Turkish navy harassed one of its ships.
The Biden administration should continue to send clear signals to Turkey through NATO channels that it cannot use force or harassment to gain territorial concessions – and that it will face political consequences and economic if it continues these actions. Mutual defense cooperation is the basis of NATO, which proved invaluable during the Cold War, in Allied engagements after 9/11 against terrorism and against Russia’s actions against Ukraine in the sea. Baltic and the Black Sea. The United States must strengthen its position in NATO and conduct good faith negotiations between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus to resolve their border disputes and gas drilling rights.
NATO as a whole will benefit from cooperative defense against Russia and from the economic growth and stability that natural gas discoveries bring. Ongoing territorial conflicts in the eastern Mediterranean are preventing energy development and fueling Russian plans to destabilize the alliance and Europe.
In addition, America should strengthen its security relationship with Greece. In this regard, the United States and Greece renewed their long-standing mutual defense cooperation agreement on October 14 for a further five-year term. The Biden administration is expected to leverage the MDCA to expand US military capabilities in Greece and work with the Hellenic armed forces to improve their integration with US systems.
According to US Secretary of State Tony Blinken, the new MDCA “allows our forces in Greece to train and operate from additional sites.” The U.S. European Command may also expand the scope and frequency of rotational deployments to underutilized Greek military installations at Alexandroupolis, Larissa, and Stefanovikeio.
Additionally, Congress can signal its support for Greece by providing additional funds under the 2022 National Defense Authorization Tax Law to expand the US base at Souda Bay, which is currently operating at full capacity. This port on the Greek island of Crete offers the best port in the eastern Mediterranean for mooring large American ships; and it allows deployments on the Bosphorus and the Black Sea, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Strait of Sicily and the Atlantic Ocean.
Congressional hearings could explore how the expansion of the US military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean can strengthen its deterrence position and achieve a wide range of missions, from combating terrorism to improving defense in Europe, to the Middle -East and Africa.
As Washington improves relations with Athens, President Biden is also expected to rebalance US diplomacy with Ankara. A joint effort alongside NATO and America’s Mediterranean partners could signal an opportunity for Erdogan to improve relations with Turkey if he changes his aggressive stance. In return for de-escalation, Turkey would likely be open to energy development talks or cooperation against Russia in the Black Sea, the Caucasus and the Middle East.
Until NATO persuades Turkey to reform its foreign policy, the president should immediately appoint a special envoy to the Eastern Mediterranean to focus on transnational conflicts in the region.
The United States should support stability in the Eastern Mediterranean by strengthening its role in NATO, stepping up cooperation with Greece and other partners, and putting pressure on Turkey if necessary. Strong American leadership and military capabilities in the Eastern Mediterranean are essential to orient the region towards stability.
Retired Vice Admiral Herman Shelanski served as Inspector General of the United States Navy and participated in the 2019 Jewish Institute for National Security of America Generals and Admirals Program. Ari Cicurel is a senior policy analyst at JINSA.