U.S. Lawmakers Talk Turkey to Ankara

New legislation is aimed at forcing the recalcitrant NATO ally back into the fold.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with leaders from Israel, Greece, and Cyprus to discuss plans for a gas pipeline from the Mediterranean to Europe in Jerusalem on March 20. (Jim Young/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with leaders from Israel, Greece, and Cyprus to discuss plans for a gas pipeline from the Mediterranean to Europe in Jerusalem on March 20. (Jim Young/AFP/Getty Images)

Tired of the constant crises emanating from Turkey, top U.S. lawmakers from both parties are pushing a potentially pivotal change to Washington’s approach to the world’s newest hot spot, the Eastern Mediterranean, aiming to parry Russian influence there and threatening to jettison a decades-old security relationship with Ankara.

A new Senate bill, introduced Tuesday by Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Robert Menendez, aims to reshape U.S. policy toward a corner of the world that, thanks to big energy discoveries, Russian military adventures, and Turkish ambivalence, has become a potential big-power flash point. The bill is a grab bag of some old U.S. ideas—such as helping speed the development of newly abundant offshore natural gas resources in the region—leavened with a much tougher line toward Turkey, a longtime ally.

Michael Leigh, an expert on the Eastern Mediterranean at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said the legislation is best understood as a symbolic move to convince Turkey to come back in from the cold, specifically its dalliance with Moscow.

“I think you can see the U.S. as one of those proverbial oil tankers that take a very long time to change direction. But it’s beginning to shift away from Turkey, and that by definition means shifting toward the other actors in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Leigh said.

Specifically, the bill would end the three-decade U.S. arms embargo on Cyprus meant to make the divided island’s reunification easier, a way to both tweak Turkey and offer an alternative to Russian military hardware, and it specifically warns Turkey not to interfere with energy exploration in its neighborhood, as it has in the past with Cyprus. The bill would also boost military cooperation with Cyprus and Greece; accelerate the exploitation and export of big energy finds in the region; cement the nascent U.S. alignment with Greece, Israel, and Cyprus; and try to force Turkey out of Russia’s embrace—or out of America’s.

Turkey, a key member of NATO since 1952, has in recent years crept closer to Russia, signing huge contracts in the energy sector and deepening defense cooperation. Most recently, Turkey has moved ahead with plans to buy a Russian-made air defense system, a decision that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence last week called “reckless” and which U.S. officials say could jeopardize American defense capabilities and the broader relationship. The new Senate bill includes a measure to ban the transfer to Turkey of advanced U.S. F-35 fighter jets if the country goes ahead with the purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system. (On Wednesday, Turkey said it would accelerate the delivery of the controversial weapons.)

Taken together, the disparate elements of the bill put meat on the bones of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent regional summit in Israel and could represent a reappraisal of U.S. policy in the Eastern Mediterranean with potentially historic consequences.

“There is a growing awareness in the U.S. government that these crises with Turkey are becoming a permanent feature, and the perception is that Turkey is gradually tailing away from the U.S.,” said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “For the first time since the 1950s, U.S. policymakers are wondering whether Greece or Turkey will be the linchpin of U.S. policy in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

And while the legislation is partly a warning shot at Ankara, he said it reflected an underlying reality: “The strategic realization that Turkey may not be the keystone of U.S. policy in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

The bill ties together several different strands of U.S. policy toward the Eastern Mediterranean. On one hand, it aims to boost the development of large natural gas discoveries off the coasts of Israel, Egypt, and Cyprus that U.S. officials hope can become an alternative source of energy for Europe, which relies heavily on imports of Russian natural gas.

The legislation also seeks to push back against Russia’s influence in the region, which has steadily grown over the last decade as it has cemented deeper financial and defense ties with countries like Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and even Israel. Additionally, since Russia jumped into the Syrian civil war in 2015, Moscow’s growing military footprint in the Eastern Mediterranean has been a worry for U.S. planners. (Just last month, it dispatched more surface ships and additional submarines from the Black Sea fleet to its base in Syria.) The bill calls for reports to Congress on Russia’s efforts to interfere with countries in the region.

Finally, the bill seeks to send Turkey—which in addition to feuding with the United States has fallen out with nearly all its neighbors—a clear message to get back onside.

If the United States has a renewed interest in that part of the world, a big reason is the energy discoveries made in recent years. Oil companies have found large deposits of natural gas off the coasts of Israel, Egypt, and Cyprus—and they just keep coming. This year, ExxonMobil made one of the biggest finds in the world off Cyprus.

America, flush with its own oil and natural gas bonanza, doesn’t need those discoveries. But, Washington figures, Europe might. Europe relies on Russia for more than one-third of its natural gas, and despite a decade of efforts to wean off Russian energy, that reliance is only growing. The new Senate bill, like numerous U.S. efforts before it, seeks to turn the Eastern Mediterranean energy boom into a cudgel to use against Russia’s energy stranglehold, suggesting that the new finds can “support European efforts to diversify” away from Russian gas.

There are just two problems. First, all that new gas actually has a destination—the countries nearby. Early finds in Israel and Egypt that developers hoped to somehow ship to far-off markets ended up being consumed locally, pushing out dirtier sources of fuel and reducing the region’s need for imported gas.

“One thing I am frustrated by is the continued effort to view the Eastern Mediterranean within the context of Russia and EU diversity of supply,” said Nikos Tsafos of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “What we have learned is that every single discovery that has moved to development is all for the regional market.”

And even if there are more giant fields like the one that Exxon just found, opening the door to future exports, there is the thorny question of how to get the gas to market. Freezing the gas and shipping it on tankers might just be cost-effective but would require larger volumes of gas and a lot of upfront investment. As an alternative, Israel, Cyprus, and Greece have long dreamed of an Eastern Mediterranean pipeline that would package all the new discoveries and pump them to southeastern Europe. But any such pipeline would be terrifically uneconomical—the Mediterranean seabed is very deep, making pipeline construction tough and expensive—and there’s little in the U.S. legislation that could reverse mathematics.

“In terms of an Eastern Mediterranean pipeline, there’s nothing in this bill or U.S. policy that will increase its likelihood,” Tsafos said. “The obstacles are far greater than anything proposed in the bill.”

In fact, given the progress made in recent years on regional energy cooperation—Israel and Egypt, like Israel and Jordan, have overcome political animosity to sign gas export deals—the United States cannonballing into the Eastern Mediterranean could upset everything.

“You have this sense that right when things are starting to flow, you really raise the temperature” with aggressive legislation and a potential realignment across the region, Tsafos said. “The U.S. government effort should be to defuse conflicts, rather than rile things up.”

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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