Biden Faces Troubled Eastern Mediterranean Waters

Greeks and Greek Cypriots are hoping for stronger U.S. support in their disputes with Turkey. But that may not be the president-elect’s greatest priority.

Supporters of Ersin Tatar celebrate his win in the presidential election in the northern part of Nicosia, the capital of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Supporters of Ersin Tatar celebrate his win in the presidential election in the northern part of Nicosia, the capital of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Birol Bebek/AFP via Getty Images

As U.S. President-elect Joe Biden may well be discovering as he prepares to take office, the Eastern Mediterranean is far from a tranquil place. In the Aegean, Turkish and Greek warships eye each other nervously, while on Cyprus, a decadeslong peace process seeking to reunite Turkish and Greek Cypriots is in danger of collapse after Turkey advocated a formal division of the island into two states in October. Adding fuel to that fire is a long and unresolved wrangle over maritime and hydrocarbon rights between Cyprus and Turkey, which has pulled in international oil companies such as Exxon Mobil and Total, and Cyprus’s Eastern Mediterranean neighbors Israel and Egypt.

As tensions have grown over the past year, the United States has largely taken a pass on its traditional regional role as referee, arbiter, and occasional carrier of a big stick. Yet that may be about to change. The election of “Joe Bidenopoulos”—as he once introduced himself to a group of Greek Americans—has come as music to the ears of Greeks and Greek Cypriots looking for stronger U.S. support in their disputes with Turkey. But despite Biden’s tough rhetoric on Turkey, it remains a key nation in this strategically vital region. Come January, when he is set to take office, the president-elect will have to weigh a range of interests in navigating the Eastern Mediterranean’s sea of troubles—and reining in Ankara may not be his greatest priority.

The last time Turkey and Greece nearly came to blows, in a 1996 dispute over Imia, a pair of uninhabited islets in the North Aegean, U.S. President Bill Clinton sent American warships to separate the warring neighbors. Under outgoing President Donald Trump, though, the country “has not been constructive in defusing the immediate crisis situation” over maritime boundaries, said Ekavi Athanassopoulou, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Athens. Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, echoed those sentiments, saying that “the U.S. role has been low key.”

Biden has made no secret of his hostility toward the current Turkish government.Biden, on the other hand, knows the region and its leaders well from his time as vice president and his official visits to Ankara, Athens, and Nicosia. And unlike Trump, he doesn’t share a close relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Quite the opposite: In the past, Biden has made no secret of his hostility toward the current Turkish government—and, conversely, of his support for Greece and Cyprus. While Trump played up his friendship with Erdogan, Biden has dubbed him an “autocrat” who, as he told the New York Times in an interview last December, has “to pay a price.”

Biden isn’t alone in his sentiments. Concern in Washington over Turkey has been growing in recent times across the political divide. Even so, “Biden the president may not be quite the same as Biden the candidate,” Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in November. “Turkey borders Syria, Iran, Iraq, and, across the Black Sea, Russia. Whatever U.S. policy is in these places, it will be a lot easier and less costly with Turkey onboard.”

The region’s troubles consist of a number of interconnected disputes, all of which have Turkey as a common denominator, as Ankara seeks to challenge what it sees as an unfair regional status quo. “Turkey feels it is being ‘boxed in’ in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Cagaptay said.

This feeling is expressed most fully at sea, where Turkey has long complained of an unfair distribution of maritime territories, arguing that the status quo leaves it with a largely coastal territory, while its neighbors enjoy extensive sea zones. Ankara thus refuses to recognize Greek sea-boundary claims in the Aegean, where dozens of Greek islands lie close to the Turkish coast. It also doesn’t recognize Athens’s claim to seas south and east of the Greek island of Crete—regions that a 2019 deal between Turkey and the United Nations-recognized Libyan government in Tripoli count as Turkish, but which international maritime law still considers Greek.

“Turkey feels it is being ‘boxed in’ in the Eastern Mediterranean.”Tensions rose this fall when Turkey dispatched a hydrocarbon exploration vessel, the Oruc Reis, into these waters near Crete, sending Greek and Turkish warships to battle stations, while also prompting France to dispatch naval vessels in support of European Union ally Greece.

At the same time, since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 split the island into a Turkish Cypriot north and a Greek Cypriot south, there has been no agreement between Ankara and Nicosia over where their respective maritime and airspace frontiers lie. This became a far more divisive issue after 2012, when natural gas was discovered in waters claimed by Cyprus, but which Turkey now also claims.

Disagreements over how to handle the region’s unexpected hydrocarbon bonanza have also plagued U.N.-sponsored talks aimed at reunifying Cyprus. These talks collapsed in 2017, after which Turkey began to send seismic research vessels and drill ships into the waters it contests with Cyprus. Those vessels are still there today, and Cyprus, with the backing of Greece and France, has continued to protest their presence, calling for the EU to punish Turkey with economic sanctions—a call that has so far gone unheeded but will be reconsidered by EU leaders in December.

Although there is a widespread expectation in the region that a Biden administration will bring new activism and engagement to the stalemate, tackling these interconnected issues will be no easy task. The October elections in Northern Cyprus, which are only recognized internationally by Turkey, only complicate the matter. The new prime minister, Ersin Tatar, an Erdogan ally, supports the new Turkish position of a two-state solution for Cyprus. This would split the island permanently between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots, who have been separated by a U.N.-patrolled buffer zone since 1974.

Turkey’s position runs contrary to the last five decades of U.N.-sponsored negotiations, which have always aimed—unsuccessfully—at a comprehensive settlement to reunify the island. This aim is still supported by the Greek Cypriot leadership, Greece, the EU, the United States, and the wider international community. But Turkey argues that after five decades of failed negotiations, reunification is a waste of time and the de facto division of the island should be made de jure.

While this position has few supporters beyond Turkey and Northern Cyprus, it raises the possibility of a permanent breakdown in the U.N. negotiations. Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides also voiced his fears in November that Ankara’s position could also lead to an eventual annexation of the Turkish Cypriot north by Turkey.

Faced with the potential failure of any new reunification effort, then, “Biden may have to decide if he should still try to get a comprehensive settlement to the Cyprus problem, or if he should tackle the hydrocarbons issue separately and immediately,” said Erol Kaymak, an international relations professor at Eastern Mediterranean University in Turkish Northern Cyprus.

“Biden will want de-escalation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one of his first calls wasn’t to Erdogan to ask him to help with that.”On the Aegean, meanwhile, where Greece and Turkey have yet more disputed territorial claims, “Biden will want de-escalation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one of his first calls wasn’t to Erdogan to ask him to help with that,” Cagaptay said. Unlike Trump, Biden will not be able to rely on any personal relationship with Erdogan in doing that. Instead, he is more likely to work with multilateral organizations to leverage change. “Biden will give much greater weight than Trump to alliances and institutions,” said Ian Lesser, a vice president of the German Marshall Fund.

Specifically, we can expect him to look to the EU, given that Cyprus and Greece are both EU member states. “Starting under President [Barack] Obama,” said Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, “the U.S. has been expecting Europe to take a bigger role, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean, where the dispute is, after all, between Turkey and two EU member states.”

Meanwhile, “Turkey will also recalibrate its foreign policy to take account of the change in the White House,” Ulgen said. “This will also mean there will need to be a difficult, but more open dialogue between the U.S. and Turkey about a range of grievances.” Those run from the Syrian civil war to Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles—and threats of U.S. sanctions in response to those missiles’ recent testing, meaning that “there could well be some turbulence ahead in Turkish-U.S. relations,” Ulgen said.

That turbulence, in turn, may mean that instead of solving the region’s problems, Biden may only contribute to the troubled waters to come in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Jonathan Gorvett is a journalist specializing in European and Middle Eastern affairs, currently based in Cyprus.

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