To help stabilize the Eastern Mediterranean and challenge Russia, President Biden is expected to mediate the maritime dispute between Turkey and Greece-Cyprus. Direct negotiations between Greece and Turkey have stalled indefinitely, weakening NATO and the West, as troops and resources are diverted to push back, rather than deter adversaries such as Russia.
In May, Greece went so far as to ban Turkey from a NATO exercise after Turkey violated Greek airspace 125 times in 24 hours. In late July, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with his Greek counterpart, Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos, to reaffirm US support for Greece’s security in the face of rising Turkish threats and an arms race that could potentially lead to conflict. open.
Biden has the authorization of Congress to arbitrate this dispute. The Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019 states: “The President is authorized to appoint a special envoy at the ambassadorial level who will be responsible for representing the United States in direct negotiations with parties to the Cyprus dispute. … As agreed by Greece and Turkey, the special envoy will also represent the United States in promoting mutual discussions between these countries regarding their differences on Aegean issues.
All Biden needs to do is act, and now is the time for American leadership and statecraft.
The Eastern Mediterranean is a geostrategic location that is home to an array of coastal states working to secure their interests in the resource-rich environment beneath the sea. In its quest for natural gas, Turkey has carved out a vast exclusive economic zone ( EEZ) for the exploration of natural gas which violates the maritime rights of Greece – another NATO member – and Cyprus, a European Union state. Turkey’s maritime deal with the Libyan government, which largely ignores Greek and Cypriot legal claims, is destabilizing the eastern Mediterranean, as are Greek actions such as the militarization of Aegean islands near Turkey’s coast. The aggressive maneuvers of the Turkish Navy have led to numerous naval incidents with Greece, Cyprus and Israel.
Russia and China perceive the Eastern Mediterranean as a node of competition between great powers. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is expanding in the region, while Russia seeks to undermine US, EU and NATO goals in this theatre. Russia’s soft power initiatives aim to eliminate US allies such as Greece, Cyprus and Turkey – countries that are susceptible to Russian offers of investment, energy and tourism dollars. These Russian efforts rely on exploiting the fissures between Eastern Mediterranean states, and between them and the United States, especially fissures that could be repaired by Russian energy or political capital.
Robust American diplomacy in the form of mediating maritime disputes would help bring order and cohesion to NATO allies and have the downstream effect of sealing off areas of opportunity for Russia – and China, to start. Moreover, successfully brokered US-sponsored talks would strengthen US ties to the region and help contain a recalcitrant Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Engaging Erdoğan will require vigilance. Some analysts rightly point out that Turkey is unreliable, deceptive and cooperative with our adversaries, including Russia. The United States should take advantage of the falling Turkish lira, the upcoming Turkish elections, and Erdoğan’s pursuit of an F-16 deal, to attach concessions to any deal that benefits Turkey. Turkish compromises are to be expected in the Greek-Cypriot context, but also with regard to other American objectives such as Turkey’s commitment never to buy Russian weapons systems again, which present risks to NATO’s security and interoperability. That said, Erdoğan’s recent pivot to the Gulf and Israel – and apparently away from the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran – prompts cautious optimism.
Notably, the Biden administration is currently negotiating a maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon — countries that, like Turkey and Cyprus, have no diplomatic relations and need outside-led arbitration. The current US effort in Lebanon, which appears to be working, should serve as a precedent for a broader mediation strategy aimed at stabilizing the entire eastern Mediterranean, despite malign local actors such as Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the Lebanese terrorist militia, Hezbollah.
Given the strong congressional mandate to host the talks and escalating tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, the United States is expected to mediate the Turkey-Greece-Cyprus dispute. Compartmentalizing and resolving the EEZ issue could lead to the resolution of other Greek-Turkish-Cypriot disagreements and a more integrated Western-leaning regional architecture. Negotiating a maritime agreement would help build trust between aggrieved parties and could lead to cooperation on important issues such as renewable energy, water scarcity, climate change and regional security.
Additionally, this low-cost, high-impact strategy would help create a more united front against enemies and rivals in the region.
Nicholas Saidel is Associate Director of Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Response at the University of Pennsylvania. He was previously a Fellow of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at Penn Law School; a partner at the law firm Wolf, Block LLP; a legislative aide to Rep. Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.); and Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.