The Biden administration faces a daunting array of challenges, many of them pressing: the corona crisis and its attendant economic emergency; deep and divisive disagreements on social policy, migration, race and identity politics; reversing Trump’s course on climate change; the competition with China; tensions with Putin; and Iran’s drive towards a nuclear bomb—an almost overwhelming list. Less urgent concerns may stay low down on the list.
Still, it is in the interest of Israel, and of her partners in the regional alignment (alongside Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, with France keenly involved too) to alert the administration, and Congress, to the need to chart a new and coherent course for U.S. policy towards the eastern Mediterranean. Otherwise, the tensions that have threatened the region in recent months might erupt, in a manner damaging to basic American interests. (Two NATO members coming to blows would be a major setback for the alliance and for the West).
This is partially the result of a problematic record, in recent years, of incoherence in U.S. policy towards Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman agenda. Occasional bursts of criticism and expressions of support for Greece and Cyprus (including the resumption of symbolic arms supplies to the latter) have been interspersed with acts signaling sympathy, at the highest level, for Erdoğan and his moves (for example, in northern Syria) and for his style of governance. In the crucial struggle for Libya, until recent weeks the United States had done little to affect the outcome. All this needs to change.
What happened? And what is at stake?
The key issues and the timeline need to be restated. Since the conquest and subjugation of the formerly Kurdish ‘Afrin region of northwest Syria in early 2018, Turkey—under Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian rule—has embarked on a course of expanded military presence and intervention. The neo-Ottoman, hegemonistic nature of Erdoğan’s policies has become unabashedly overt. This has caused growing alarm not only in countries directly challenged—Greece and Cyprus, Israel and Egypt—but further afield, in the Gulf and in France (while others in Europe have taken a more conciliatory or even friendly attitude towards Ankara).
Tensions have become more acute since the humiliating failure of Erdoğan’s party, the AKP, in the municipal elections (notably in Istanbul) in the summer of 2019. This has only served to bolster his alliance with the ultra-nationalist MHP, enhancing the dangerous combination of the Islamist longing for the caliphate and ultra-nationalist yearnings for a lost empire. In practice, Erdoğan undertook several actions:
1. In October 2019, apparently with a nod from President Donald Trump, Turkish troops embarked on the conquest of significant Syrian territory extending east from ‘Afrin, already under full Turkish occupation, to the Euphrates, and then again in a large area further east, all the way to Iraq. Turkish and Russian patrols share control of the strip south of the Syrian-Turkish border. This greatly curtailed but has not (yet?) destroyed, the Kurdish state-within-a-state in northeastern Syria (called Rojava by the Kurds). (Trump later qualified his stance by telling Erdoğan, in his own inimitable style, “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool.”)
2. In Iraq itself, Turkish forces have regularly operated for years across the border in active pursuit of PKK elements in the areas ruled by the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government). This pattern persists now, in conjunction with the Turkish incursion in Syria.
3. In November 2019, in Ankara, Erdoğan signed two memoranda of understanding with Prime Minister Fa’iz Sarraj—head of the “Government of National Accord” in Libya. The latter, at the time, was in control only of limited areas in the country’s northwest, and under siege in Tripoli itself by “Libyan National Army” troops loyal to the self-styled Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
One of the MoUs arranged for Turkish military intervention in the war, in support of the GNA. The other set in motion a broader regional crisis by agreeing on a map delineating Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the eastern Mediterranean in a manner that gives Turkey a common border with Libya (in line with the Turkish Mavi Vatan, or “Blue Homeland” concept, which ignores the EEZ rights of Greek islands such as Rhodes, Carpathos and Crete). If enforced, this would deny Israel, Egypt and Cyprus access by pipeline or cable to Greece and European energy markets. At the symbolic level, this represents an overt bid to assert neo-Ottoman hegemony.
4. By May 2020, the introduction of Turkish forces (including Bayraktar drones and air defense units) and proxies (mainly Syrian Islamist militias) brought about a dramatic reversal of military fortunes in Libya. Haftar’s over-extended forces withdrew, al-Wattiyah Air Base fell to the GNA militias and the siege of Tripoli was lifted. As the GNA offensive gained ground and threatened to push eastwards, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt made his own countermove. He drew a red line, warning that advance beyond the Jufra-Sirte line in central Libya would lead to Egyptian military intervention (a threat backed by a significant concentration of armored forces near the Libyan border). This act indeed produced a fragile stalemate and an opportunity for diplomatic efforts that led to the creation of a new governmental structure.
5. Consequently, on Aug. 6, Egyptian Foreign Minister Samih Shukri and his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias signed in Cairo an agreement delineating a “counter-map,” asserting Greek EEZ rights and the existence of an EEZ border between Egypt and Greece. Significantly, the UAE expressed full support for this map within a day; Israel did so on Aug. 12. One day later came the announcement in Washington of the planned signing of the “Abraham Accords,” indicating the role of the new regional alignment in the Mediterranean, as well as in the Arabian Gulf facing Iran.
6. This alignment is openly backed by France. The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, established in January 2019 and transformed into a proper regional organization a year later, includes Italy, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Cyprus, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, with France scheduled to join in 2021. The UAE, the United States and the European Union are permanent observers. The French have also conducted military exercises with Greece, and hosted el-Sisi for a significant state visit.
7. On the other hand, Erdoğan’s Turkey looks upon the alignment as a hostile conspiracy. (This, despite the repeated assertion by EMGF participants that this is not an exclusionary cabal, and that the Forum is open to other like-minded nations.) This has led to a series of provocative Turkish acts, particularly in the form of seismic surveying by research vessels (such as the Oruc Rais) in waters claimed by Ankara under the “Blue Homeland” map.
Tensions rose in the Aegean and over the Greek island of Kastelorizo, threatening to slide into hostilities. But European pressures helped reduce tensions and brought about comprehensive talks between Turkey and Greece. Whether these can lead to a “Zone of Possible Agreement” remains to be seen. To this list of tensions, one could add the Turkish successful intervention in support of Azerbaijan in the recent war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.
What is at stake amid these local confrontations is the ultimate question of Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions. Symbolic acts, such as the re-dedication of the Aghia Sophia as a mosque; and inflammatory language, such as the calls for the “liberation” of al-Aqsa, add to the sense of alarm in Jerusalem. Recent Turkish overtures have done little, so far, to allay the concerns of Israel, Egypt and Greece, given that Ankara continues to harbor Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood subversives and to endorse Islamist causes.
The American role
As noted by an Israel journalist, U.S. policy—or the lack thereof—has played a problematic role in enabling Erdoğan’s conduct. True, in the waning months of the Trump administration Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did offer sharp criticism of Turkish regional policy, and the United States castigated the shelter and support Turkey extends to Hamas terrorists. But for years, Washington adopted positions that amounted to appeasement of the AKP government at the expense of U.S. allies such as the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. In Libya, too, the American position towards the GNA and the Turkish intervention was far too vague. Most significantly, there has been no authoritative American endorsement of the Greek-Egyptian map.
All this needs to change, and indeed can change under the Biden administration, as it settles down to sort out priorities and policies. Some of the appointments to the ranks below Cabinet level indicate the prospect of a departure from past policies. Key players in the administration, who have been involved in various ways in the fight against the Islamic State since 2014, have formed an unfavorable opinion of Erdoğan’s role and the duplicity of the Turkish authorities. Even in the battle of Kobani, which played a crucial role in reversing the tide of ISIS expansion, Turkey did as little as possible—despite pressure from the U.S.-led coalition—to enable the Kurds to survive and prevail. There are now people in positions of responsibility in Washington who have not forgotten this.
This does not mandate a swing to the other, extreme end of the spectrum. Clearly, Turkey is a major regional player and will remain so. (Nor will it leave NATO of its own free will, and there is no procedure for removing a member of the alliance). The United States does not want to push Ankara all the way to full reliance on Russia and a working alignment with Iran (or even in the direction, already hinted at by Erdoğan, of seeking nuclear weapons). Even for Israel, let alone the United States, diplomatic engagement with Ankara is important.
But the “rules of the road” for such an engagement need to be equally clear. Talk about “liberating al-Aqsa” and the sheltering of active Hamas operatives must cease. Following the Qatari-Saudi understanding, and the parallel Egyptian effort to reach out to the GNA and stabilize the status quo, Turkey will need to assure the Biden administration that it will promptly renounce past patterns of propaganda against Egypt and support of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region.
Two-faced practices by the MIT (the “Turkish CIA,” under Hakan Fidan) in terms of facilitating the movement of Islamist radicals must come to an end. The same is true for the deployment of Syrian and other militias as Turkish proxies in Libya and elsewhere.
At the strategic level, and as a major demonstrable departure from Trump’s ambiguous policy, the United States should make it clear that the Turkish-Libyan EEZ delineation map should be taken off the table, in favor of an open-ended negotiation with Greece and Egypt aimed at a practical compromise serving the interests of all (including Israel).
What Israel should seek to do (in close cooperation with Greece and Cyprus and in consultation with Egypt’s leadership) is to draw the administration’s attention to these perspectives and to suggest a practical, open-minded way for Turkey to change course. It should be the purpose of such a policy to enable Ankara to change course, and thus take its proper place in a U.S.-led regional alignment. U.S. allies in the Gulf can be of help in offering positive incentives for this kind of transition.
At the same time, with their unique capacity to mobilize kin or “diaspora” communities, Israel and Greece can play a crucial role in encouraging key members of Congress to clarify what Turkey would be required to do; and what the relevant rewards would be if it does so (in terms of economic opportunities, and perhaps international help in dealing with a large refugee population). A creative solution for the S-400 problem is also needed. Since Congress is unlikely to defray the costs of packing up these missile systems and sending them back to Russia, perhaps some regional player (such as the Saudis or the UAE) may wish to do so, if and when Ankara proves that it is no longer playing a subversive role in regional affairs.
At the same time, Erdoğan should also be made aware of the consequences if he insists on pursuing his present policies. Biden does not need to utilize Trump’s crude threats. The Turkish economy is fragile, and Erdoğan’s popularity rests upon his ability to deliver economic growth. Turkey is not Iran, which has long been impoverished and cut off from world trade. As a member of the G-20, Turkey’s economic future depends on its place in the global economy. Defying the United States and the international community by pursuing its regional ambitions (let alone, as some suspect, embarking on a quest for military nuclear capabilities) could and should have an unambiguous price tag attached to it.
IDF Col. (res) Dr. Lerman is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies. Lerman was deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. He held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for more than 20 years and teaches in the Middle East Studies program at Shalem College in Jerusalem.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.