Turkey’s maritime deal with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) that largely ignores legal Greek and Cypriot claims is destabilizing the eastern Mediterranean, as are Greek actions like militarizing Aegean islands close to Turkish shores. The Turkish Navy’s aggressive maneuvering has led to numerous naval incidents with Greece, Cyprus, and Israel and an arms race with Greece—a fellow NATO member.
Russia and China perceive the eastern Mediterranean as a node for great power competition. Russia seeks to undermine U.S., EU, and NATO objectives in this theater. Russia’s soft power initiatives aim to peel away U.S. allies such as Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey—countries susceptible to Russian offers of investment, energy, and tourism dollars. These Russian efforts hinge on exploiting fissures between eastern Mediterranean states and between them and the United States.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative is expanding into the region. As Nader Habibi, the Henry J. Leir Professor of the Economics of the Middle East at the Crown Center, noted, “China has become the largest source of imports for Egypt, Israel, and Lebanon, and the second largest for Turkey, Syria, and Jordan… As undesirable as this sustained trade deficit is for the Levant countries, China, for its part, is using its trade surplus to invest in the region.” Aside from the political and military leverage these investments will provide China down the road, one worry is that technologies developed with or by China could provide backdoor access to U.S. state secrets and give China the ability to hack into U.S. cyber-systems. Another concern relates to eastern Mediterranean states using Chinese payment systems instead of the U.S. dollar.
Russia’s 2022 maritime doctrine places the Mediterranean as a top priority, allowing for the use of military force to achieve national security objectives. The document also states that Russian law supplants international law in the region. A sizable contingent of Russian warships operating out of Russia’s naval base in Tartus, Syria, poses a threat to NATO’s southern flank—to NATO members Greece, Turkey, Italy, and Europe at large. Russian president Vladimir Putin is expanding the capabilities of the Tartus base as the United States is receding from the region. In June 2022, Putin sent a message to the United States in Syria when his fighter jets attacked the al-Tanf garrison, where hundreds of U.S. troops are stationed. Russian aircraft have also been “menacing“ their U.S. counterparts recently in Syria. Finally, Russia just dispatched a nuclear submarine to the Mediterranean to deter NATO forces and provide an outer defense to its Black Sea operations. These escalations could lead to offshore conflict.
America hasn’t been inactive or invisible in the eastern Mediterranean. The United States recently inked an amended bilateral defense agreement with Greece. The United States also has a naval presence in Souda Bay in Crete and in Greece, and the Sixth Fleet is stationed in Italy. America has also created soft power arrangements that foster cooperation and collaboration. One such arrangement is the regional energy forum called the East Mediterranean Gas Forum. Forum members include Israel, Greece, Italy, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Cyprus. The United States and the EU maintain observer status, as does the World Bank Group. A second grouping is a regional defense network called the 3+1 initiative. This initiative includes Greece, Israel, and Cyprus, with the United States as the +1.
Notably, the Biden administration is now mediating a maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon—countries like Turkey and Cyprus do not have diplomatic relations and need externally-led arbitration. Despite the efforts of malign actors such as the terrorist entity Hezbollah, the U.S.-led mediation seems likely to succeed.
The United States has various tools to bring order to the eastern Mediterranean and steel it against Russian and Chinese efforts to supplant the United States as the primary power broker in the region. The proper combination of diplomacy, military assistance, and economic investments will reaffirm America’s leadership position in this geostrategic space. Here are four recommendations for the United States.
First, the United States must mediate the maritime disputes between Turkey-Greece and Turkey-Cyprus. Direct bilateral negotiations between Greece and Turkey have stalled indefinitely, weakening NATO and the West, as troops and resources are being diverted to fend off each other rather than deter adversaries like Russia. The chaos wrought by this offshore conflict renders it the most pressing issue in the eastern Mediterranean, and thus its resolution is of paramount importance. U.S.-sponsored talks would strengthen regional ties and prevent opportunities for Russia and China.
Second, increase America’s military posture in the eastern Mediterranean. A more visible U.S. military presence would re-instill confidence in allies justifiably shaken up by the war in Ukraine and reestablish red lines and deterrence to a cornered Putin. America’s current force posture is insufficient to address the threat matrix and provide strategic clarity to our friends and foes. Deterrence can be restored in a low-cost, high-impact way by introducing permanent U.S. naval assets in Greece and more rotational vessels, exploring security cooperation with Cyprus more vigorously, and patrolling the eastern Mediterranean and escorting ally convoys through these waters in a more routine fashion.
The 3+1 format could be expanded to create new 2 or 3+1s that would be a first step in integrating Turkey into a joint defense framework. For instance, the United States could hold Turkish president Recep Erdogan’s feet to the fire regarding his ostensible restoration of ties with Israel and Egypt by proposing a 3+1 initiative that includes Israel, Egypt, and Turkey.
Third, increase political pressure to limit China’s influence, and bolster trade and investment in the eastern Mediterranean. China is heavily invested in the eastern Mediterranean, especially in energy infrastructure, transportation, manufacturing and export, and communications and technology development. To challenge China’s growing influence, the United States should apply diplomatic pressure to regional allies but also incentivize them to work with the United States instead of China. The United States should find areas of opportunity for trade and targeted investment that would be mutually beneficial, limiting China’s ability to make economic inroads that could develop into more profound political and military ties with traditional American allies.
Fourth, find new areas of potential cooperation between regional partners regarding food, climate change, and water scarcity. There is precedent for establishing a consortium along these lines. The I2U2 Group is a forum comprising India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. The group’s first joint statement, released on July 14, 2022, states that the countries aim to cooperate on “joint investments and new initiatives in water, energy, transportation, space, health, and food security.” Creating an eastern Mediterranean version of the 12U2 Group would forestall China and Russia and provide the United States with another manifestation of soft power in the region.
America’s diplomatic and military posture in the eastern Mediterranean must realign with new realities. The right balance of proactive statecraft and application of a more muscular deterrence strategy would restore calm to the eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, it would ensure that most littoral states of the eastern Mediterranean are well within the West’s orbit for the foreseeable future.
Nicholas Saidel, JD, MA, is the Associate Director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis & Response (ISTAR) at the University of Pennsylvania.