SIM Report: Southern Europe, Issue 6

EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN: EU countries in region anticipate more US engagement once new president assumes power

As the Joe Biden presidency promises to reinvigorate relations with US allies, EU countries in the Eastern Mediterranean are hoping for a shift in US policy towards Turkey. A recent escalation in tensions between Greece, Cyprus and Turkey threatens to significantly deteriorate the security environment in the region.  

During former President Barack Obama’s 2009-2017 presidency, the US maintained what it determined was a pragmatic approach towards Turkey, viewing it as an indispensable ally. This view is unlikely to radically change once Biden becomes president, and like Obama, the former vice-president will probably continue to rely on Turkey as an anchor for US interests in the region. However, the US-Turkey relationship will unquestionably be tense in the first few months of Biden’s tenure as the president-elect has described Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as an ‘autocrat’ and previously implied that Turkey helped fuel the rise of ISIS by allowing foreign fighters to enter Syria. Indeed, it is telling that the Turkish government was the last NATO ally to publicly acknowledge Biden’s victory.

The current state of the US-Turkey relationship will significantly elevate the stakes of Biden’s Eastern Mediterranean policy. On 14 December, the US sanctioned Ismail Demir, the president of Turkey’s Defence Industries Directorate and three other Turkish officials over the purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defence system. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said that Washington ‘will not tolerate significant transactions with Russia’s defence sector’. The sanctions, made under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), include a ban on US export licenses and asset freezes in US jurisdictions. While expected, the sanctions against a fellow NATO ally are unprecedented and form part of a publicly tough but in practice measured US response. Washington argues that by purchasing the S-400 system, which is incompatible with NATO equipment, Turkey may undermine the collective security mandate in the NATO charter. Indeed, the sanctions targeting Turkey’s weapons procurement sector are designed to send a signal to Turkey that if it continues to take actions that undermine US security interests, Washington will continue to add pressure on Ankara. The US holds multiple tools, including sanctioning other senior officials and state-linked firms, it can use if Ankara does not return the S-400 missile system. Turkey’s foreign ministry condemned the decision, saying it would ‘not refrain from taking measures that it deems to be necessary to ensure national security.’

In many ways, political calculations in Athens and Ankara will depend on the initial steps Biden takes as president.  Greece and Cyprus welcomed Biden’s victory, who is perceived favourably in the Greek-American community. Biden could be inclined to pull the Greece-Turkey row into the NATO framework in the hopes that the alliance can act as a neutral arbiter and may help bring a peaceful resolution to the long-standing Aegean Sea dispute. A fuller picture of US policy in the region will likely become clearer in the medium-term as domestic priorities such as tackling the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic will supersede other issues.

President Donald Trump enjoyed a close working relationship with Erdoğan, with Greece arguing Washington was largely absent in the dispute and pulled back from a firm stance that might antagonise Ankara. The Trump-Erdoğan relationship likely played an important dynamic in avoiding punitive measures over the S-400 system thus far.

For Athens, this year was marked by intense provocations from Turkey, accompanied by hardened rhetoric from Turkish government officials. On 13 December, the Turkish navy issued three navigational (Navtex) warnings calling for the demilitarisation of the Greek islands of Chios, Halki, Lemnos, Samos, Samothraki and Tilos. In a related development, the Oruc Reis research vessel left the port of Antalya on 14 December heading south-west in an area within Turkey’s territorial waters. Meanwhile, on 12 December, Greek police said that two nationals were arrested on espionage charges for allegedly supplying naval information to Turkey from the island of Rhodes. In particular, the men are accused of photographing and recording warships and military installations before transmitting the information to Turkey.

The Navtex will be seen as yet another dangerous Turkish provocation from Greek officials, prolonging an already tense situation in the Aegean Sea. News that spies providing sensitive information to Turkey will further add to a climate of intense suspicion. Lack of diplomatic dialogue and bilateral engagement to defuse tensions means that both countries will likely continue with heightened military posture and readiness. Greece has said it would not initiate formal talks with Turkey as long as Ankara repeated threats to violate its maritime boundaries. On 11 December, EU leaders agreed to impose sanctions on an unspecified number of Turkish officials and entities involved in the offshore drilling off the coast of Cyprus. Greece and Cyprus had called for tougher action, including trade tariffs or an arms embargo, but a collective decision will be elusive until the new Joe Biden administration begins its term in January. Turkish state-owned oil firm TPAO and officials at MTA, which is formally part of the energy ministry and owns the Oruc Reis, could be included on the list of sanctions.

Ultimately, a Biden presidency will increase the potential for co-ordinated US-EU action and a more coherent policy towards Turkey. As a result, a more active US and emboldened EU will act as a strong incentive for Erdoğan to act more prudently in the Eastern Mediterranean and show a clear intention to defusing tensions through dialogue.

WANT TO READ MORE ANALYSIS IN THIS LATEST SIM EDITION...

MONTENEGRO: Fragile new coalition ends long-time rule of DPS
BULGARIA & NORTH MACEDONIA: EU membership talk veto imperils efforts to grow the bloc’s influence in the Balkans