Turkey-US Relations on the Eastern Mediterranean Issue

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Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum was officially established last September with the participation of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Greece, the Greek Cypriot Administration of Southern Cyprus and Italy. At the same time, the United States of America was invited to the Forum with the status of “permanent observer” and the Washington administration welcomed this invitation. According to the recent statement made by the Greek Environment and Energy Minister Kostis Hatzidakis, the USA has formalized its request to participate in the EastMed Gas Forum as of January 13, 2021.

Although the Forum was established as a platform aiming to cooperate in the field of energy in the Eastern Mediterranean, the membership is not exclusive to Eastern Mediterranean riparian countries. Therefore, coastal awkward situations can arise like Turkey is not a member despite being one of the countries with the most extensive coastline while Jordan is, without even having a coast to reach the Mediterranean. Looking at the geopolitical environment of the region, it would certainly be understood that this situation is not so strange.

Greece, the Greek Cypriot Administration of Southern Cyprus and Israel have increased their cooperation in the field of energy for the last ten years and carried this cooperation to the political field as well. It has also turned into a de facto alliance. One of the common features of these three countries is the political problems they have with Turkey. Maritime jurisdictions, Cyprus issue, and the disputes with the regional countries lead Turkey to stay out of the Forum and it is creating a concrete form against Turkey increasingly.

The official application of the U.S. as permanent observer represents the latest example of the steps taken against Turkey. At this point, the first thing to be acknowledged is that the application was made while Donald Trump was still serving as president. New President Joe Biden did not change this decision. The attitude of the United States to resolve the problems related to energy in the Eastern Mediterranean is not in favor of Turkey and it would not be realistic to expect it to be changed with the new president. However, it would be more appropriate to evaluate the issue by looking at Biden’s foreign policy agenda in general.

First of all, as in both the Obama era and the Trump era, the main foreign policy problem of the U.S. will be to balance the rise of China and take necessary measures against the problems with Russia. As a matter of fact, Biden started to give the signs of this in the first days of his mission. The difference of Biden from Trump in this regard is to develop a holistic strategy against China and Russia by giving more importance to cooperation with their allies rather than a discourse that blames and even insults them.

This strategy of Biden requires closer cooperation with the allied countries as well as a more harmonious policy between the allies. Thus, a polarization between a NATO ally Turkey on one side and another NATO ally Greece on the other side along with Isreal, the closest ally of the U.S., is not a situation that Biden would prefer. However, it is not clear how this polarization will be eliminated and what strategy Biden will follow yet.

The main agenda for Biden about the relations with Turkey is not Eastern Mediterranean but the S-400s. Not only there is no withdrawing from the sanctions that were administrated during the Trump era, it is likely that these sanctions would continue even more stronger. In other words, the priority of the U.S. in the context of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East in general is to balance Russia.

The issue of Aleksey Navalny has also shown that a tense period awaits us in US-Russia relations. That is why Turkey is expected to abandon S-400s as a reliable ally and act together with the U.S. against Russia. However, the fact that the U.S. maintains its support to PYD/YPG in the northern part of Syria shows the U.S. does not pay attention to the issue that it is not a sincere partner for Turkey.

There is undoubtedly a question of trust between the U.S. and Turkey that is difficult to dismiss. It is necessary to evaluate the U.S. participation in the EastMed Gas Forum in this context. American involvement in the forum is not a problem in itself. If the issue of trust in bilateral relations can be overcome, it could even be leverage for Turkey that the U.S. is in this forum. In the Eastern Mediterranean context, Greece, the Greek Cypriot Administration of Southern Cyprus and France continue to benefit from the conflict and ignore the interests of Turkey completely. If Turkey was to improve relations with the United States and Israel in the meantime, it would divide the front against Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.

At this point, while the official participation of the U.S. in the forum was on the agenda, it would be useful to draw attention to a statement by Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz. Steinitz expressed that he would be happy if Turkey wishes to participate EastMed Gas Forum. Recently, there is news that the normalization between Turkey and Israel could start. It should be reminded that Israel’s cooperation with Greece and the Greek Cypriot side is carried out on a pragmatic basis. Also, it is important to emphasize while the problems that Turkey have with Israel are more political, the issues with Greece and the Greek Cypriot part consist of important sovereignty issues such as maritime jurisdiction.

If Turkey normalized its relations with Israel and to overcome the trust issues with the U.S., there would be a drastic change in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, it is not likely to happen. First reason is the fact that Turkey is expected to be the one solving the issues. The U.S. has to act like a reliable ally and take the necessary steps to gain Turkey’s confidence.  As it is mentioned before, maintaining cooperation with PYD/YPG or keeping the leader of FETÖ while expecting Turkey to give up on S-400s would not be a foreign policy strategy appropriate to alliance law.

It would not be realistic to expect a rapid normalization of relations with Israel. For the last decade, many problems have deepened the disagreements between the two countries and it is possible in the medium and long term, if not impossible for the two countries to reconnect as in the 1990s.

Turkey has expressed its bona fide demands to turn a new page on the relations with both the U.S. and Israel and it still is reiterating them.  The bridges with these countries were never abolished. However, Turkey has to ask what is going to take to turn this new page. Turkey strongly expresses that it has no intention to give up on its fundamental interests.

The expectations of the U.S. for Turkey are to abandon S-400s and keep its distance with Russia. On the other hand, the relations with Russia are of much importance to Turkey as well. In the past, all of the alliances that Turkey had, first with the Great Britain then with Germany during the Ottoman period, and with the U.S. during the Republican era, were a product of a search for security against Russia. However, since the end of the Cold War, not only Russia has not shared any borders with Turkey, but threat perception has also significantly disappeared. Therefore, there were no longer strong motivations that lead to establish an alliance with the United States or any other country against Russia.

Although there are still many problems between the two countries, Russia and Turkey has found their way to conduct a constructive relationship despite these problems and do not want to give it up. That is why; it is not compatible with the present conjuncture that the U.S. wants Turkey to choose between Russia and itself. Turkey wants to follow a balanced foreign policy rather than establishing a rigid and permanent alliance neither with Russia nor with the U.S.  The U.S. should not answer the question of how Turkey got close to Russia by only looking at the Turkey’s action but should be looking into its own foreign policy for an answer and revise its expectations from Turkey. This would create a healthier ground for the U.S.-Turkey relations. This solid ground would also lead Turkey to develop more effective and solution-oriented strategies in Eastern Mediterranean.

Doç. Dr. Emre OZAN
Doç. Dr. Emre OZAN
He completed his undergraduate education at Istanbul University, Faculty of Political Sciences, Department of International Relations in 2008. He received his master's degree from Istanbul University, Department of International Relations in 2010 and his PhD degree from Gazi University, Department of International Relations in 2015. He worked as a research assistant at Gazi University between 2011-2015. Since October 2015, he has been working as a lecturer at Kırklareli University, Department of International Relations. His research interests include security studies, Turkish foreign policy, Turkey's national security policies and international relations theories. Assoc. Prof. Emre OZAN is fluent in English.